By Dr. Mitch Randall, BJC Board Chair

Growing up as a Native American in the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe of Eastern Oklahoma offers an interesting perspective on issues regarding religious liberty. While raised in the middle-class suburbs of Tulsa, the heritage and culture of the Creek people offered me roots for nourishment and valuable lessons for life. One such lesson came from hearing the heartbreaking story of my Creek relatives. Their story poured the foundation for my strong support for religious liberty and church-state separation.

Eloise Boudinot, my great-grandmother and full-blood Creek, felt the stinging bite of state-sponsored religion. As a young girl, she and her sister, Ruby, were residents at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School near Oklahoma’s border with Kansas. At the hands of Christian missionaries and under the oversight of government employees, these young girls were forced to practice a religion they did not know nor understand.

One cannot help but be influenced by such family experiences. The story of my great-grandmother and her sister teaches me the importance of religious liberty and keeping church and state separate. In their case, the egregious behavior by the United States government and Christian missionaries represents the importance of adhering to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The first violation of religious liberty came at the hands of the Chilocco Christian missionaries. They cut the young girls’ long black hair into a more appropriate “Christian” style. For many Native Americans, long hair remains a sacred symbol. Next, the girls were often whipped simply for speaking the Creek language. English was the only acceptable communication for good Christian children. Finally, they were forced to attend weekly church services. If they missed without pre-approval, they were whipped for their absence. All of this took place under the watchful eye of the federal government and at the hands of Christian missionaries.

The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …” When state-sponsored institutions enact religious boundaries upon innocent citizens, then the First Amendment has been breached. When citizens are forced to follow another religion against their own culture, even unknowingly as was the case with my great-grandmother and her sister, then the state stands in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

Abuses against the establishment and free exercise clauses have lasting repercussions. When the wall separating the church and state is breached, all involved parties suffer greatly from those infractions. When young children are involved, it becomes even more egregious. Because of the experiences she endured at the hands of Christian missionaries, my great-grandmother rejected the church.

Roger Williams, the great 17th century champion of religious liberty, often wrote about the wilderness of the world intruding upon the Edenic garden of the church. John Barry, writing about Williams in Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul, offered these thoughts:

Government was comprised of people in the world. He [Williams] recoiled at the idea of allowing this worldly wilderness to intrude upon the Edenic garden of the church, and he was convinced that any breach of the wall between them — any involvement either of a magistrate on churchly things or of the church in government — would bring the wilderness into the garden. (p. 330)

For my great-grandmother, the garden of the church was not only intruded upon by the wilderness of the world, it was infested with snakes. Each time I hear of situations when religion is used as tool for indoctrinating children with the help of government endorsements, I cannot help but think about the two young Native American girls in Oklahoma years ago. No matter how good the intentions are by those thinking they are doing the Lord’s work, violating one’s rights tramples the Constitution, deludes the meaning of the Gospel and causes harm to both the afflicted and the agitator.

Both the church and government are better off when left to their separate objectives. One has the objective of being the presence of Christ to the world, while the latter makes certain every citizen has the right to embrace or reject religion under the guidance of individual conscience. May we learn from the mistakes of our past in order that no child or citizen feels the stinging bites of snakes in the garden. Let our citizens and the church always remain free.

Dr. R. Mitch Randall is pastor of NorthHaven Church in Norman, Okla. He was elected chair of the BJC Board of Directors in October 2011. 

This article is from the March 2013 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next article.

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