By Don Hutchinson
“Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty we are free at last.”
On this the 50th anniversary of the speech containing these words having been delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, there are several ceremonies of reflection planned. I remember watching a grainy black and white film of the 47 minute “I have a dream” speech when I was in high school. It was inspirational to watch what has been described as the greatest speech of the 20th century, to hear the intonation in the voice of the speaker and experience the rise and fall of the emotional response of the 250,000 gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.
It was also inspirational in the sense that the there was an evident divine influence – The Holy Spirit – on the words spoken by the preacher and civil rights leader. I was not a Christian at the time I first saw the grainy film, but I was inspired by the man of God – the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister who earned his Ph. D. at Boston University, a campus I had the pleasure of visiting a few short weeks ago. While the National Mall in Washington now bears a memorial opened in August 2011 – King is the first non-president so honoured – Boston University also has a memorial, the Free At Last sculpture standing outside the Marsh Chapel at the geographic centre of the BU campus, the school of theology where King studied.
Free at last. These words were among many that introduced King’s comments on the dream of equality for every man, woman and child; a dream rooted deep in his faith and his love of people and country.
A few years earlier and a little farther North another Baptist, Canadian Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, spoke words of freedom similarly inspiring a key step in Canada’s journey of human rights. "The Chief," as he was known, spoke the words on July 1, 1960 in the House of Commons when introducing The Canadian Bill of Rights (a copy of which he gave to my father and now hangs in my office):
I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.
Today, in 21st century North America we are privileged to experience freedoms that are the envy of the world. But, are we free?
A few years ago in Quebec, legislation was introduced requiring religion be described in the same category as mythology when taught – even in religious schools – and now there is a government proposal to prohibit civil servants from wearing religious symbols or clothing. In several provinces across the country civil servants who perform wedding ceremonies are prohibited from being so employed if their religious convictions allow them only to serve the 97% of couples marrying who are engaging in a one man one woman marriage. In Ontario, the government has passed legislation mandating that Roman Catholic schools provide gay-straight alliance clubs, even though they already offered clubs to seek support for diversity in the student population; and, atheists argue that religious texts should not be available for free distribution in the schools (with parental consent).
A friend of mine uses the illustration of a group of people trying to decide what to do. Let’s consider that in the context of an evening together. One might suggest going for dinner and another to a movie, while a third that perhaps just a walk in the cool of the day would be nice. The fourth friend rejects all proposals and suggests they do nothing. But is doing nothing a neutral solution? Not if it is the preferred option of one of the four. The neutral solution would be a fifth activity that all agree on. Another alternative would be for each do what they prefer – not necessarily a neutral solution for an evening together but that would be freedom!
Freedom encourages people to wear their religious symbols and clothing as part of the mosaic in a free and democratic society. Freedom permits the religious to serve alongside the non-religious in the civil service, making accommodation for the needs of each and ensuring provision of service for the public. Freedom recognizes that teaching in a religious school will be from a religious perspective, but the concepts of reading, writing, arithmetic and participating in the civil life of society may all be taught and reinforced without the opinion of one being forced on another.
Freedom would even permit a person to speak openly about his motivation for civil rights activism or seeking public office to be from inspiration, i.e. rooted in his faith. How welcoming would a contemporary public square crowd be of a Baptist minister – like Dr. King – or an openly Baptist Prime Minister – like Mr. Diefenbaker?
When we exclude one for fear of offending another we encourage neither tolerance nor freedom but enforce a new bigotry. Like the old bigotry it is directed at those who look different, speak different or believe different than those who hold the reins of power.
I have a dream that one day we will be free at last; free to speak without fear, each free to worship God in our own way – sharing together in what our constitution guarantees as a "free and democratic society."