Review of ‘The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom’ by Steven D. Smith

RiseAndDeclineofAmericanReligiousFreedom Steven D. Smith, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hardback / Kindle

In America, religious freedom is often named “the first freedom.” One reason reason for this name is religious freedom’s pride of place in the First Amendment. Only after stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” does that amendment go on to prohibit congressional laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The order of the First Amendment points to a second, more important reason for the name, however: the primacy of conscience that religious freedom protects.

One would think that religious freedom would unite Americans of all persuasions, religious and political. Unfortunately, however, religious freedom itself has become a controversial topic within our increasingly secular and egalitarian political culture. Flashpoints are numerous, but certain clashes are especially prominent at the present moment: the rights of religious groups at public schools, the constitutionality of the so-called ministerial exception, the burden ObamaCare’s sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate places on religious business owners; and the increasingly tense battle between gay rights groups and religious believers on the topic of same-sex marriage.

Underlying these conflicts are two very different narratives regarding the meaning of American religious freedom, whose differences Steven D. Smith outlines in The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.

The “standard story” traces the intellectual roots of religious freedom to the Enlightenment; interprets the First Amendment as a radical innovation in public affairs; contends that its meaning was imperfectly realized in the 19th century, when evangelical Protestant Christianity was America’s established religion de facto, though not de jure; and lauds Supreme Court decisions from the mid-20th century onward for their deconstruction of this de facto establishment and construction, in its place, of secularism and neutrality toward religion. A fifth element of this narrative, increasingly evident among legal elites, though not necessarily in the courts, is the belief that religious freedom is outmoded and therefore should be discarded because it is antithetical to the egalitarian outcomes government exists to secure. If, for example, religious freedom is simply the last refuge of homophobic bigots—as same-sex marriage proponents loudly complain—why should it be preserved?

In sharp contrast to the standard story, Smith proposes a “revised version,” a point-by-point refutation of the former, or at least a counter-narrative to it. This version traces the intellectual roots of religious freedom farther back than the Enlightenment—indeed, to predominantly Christian emphases on the freedom of the church and the liberty of conscience. Far from being a radical innovation, the First Amendment was a non-controversial, ho-hum affirmation of the American status quo, affirming jurisdictional limitations on the federal government’s involvement with religion, which left state governments free to establish or disestablish religions as they pleased. The resulting “American settlement” allowed for “open contestation” between advocates of “providentialism” and “secularism,” even as it enforced jurisdictional boundaries between the federal government and the nation’s churches. Among other things, this settlement allowed presidents to declare national days of prayer and thanksgiving, politicians to offer theological motives for laws with secular effects, and public schoolchildren to pray and hear the Bible read by the teacher in the classroom. Rather than maintain this settlement, the mid-20th-century Supreme Court ended the policy of open contestation and declared that government must be both secular and neutral with regard to religion. This secular neutrality is out of step with American legal and political traditions and is not neutral with regard to religion. Rather, it deprivileges religion in favor of secular accounts of reality. As noted above, some legal theorists want to dispense with religious freedom altogether, arguing that religious believers’ rights of speech, press, freedom of association, and redress of grievances would be more than adequately protected in its absence.

But Smith wonders whether this would actually be so, closing his book with these words:

In childlike fashion, perhaps, let us indulge the assumption that unlike so many rulers throughout history, our contemporary governors are true men (and women) and good, genuinely motivated by a desire to govern justly. Even so, we might recall Justice Louis Brandeis’s observation that “[e]xperience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent… The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

So it is just possible that the forgetting or forgoing of the logic of jurisdiction that animated the commitment to freedom of church and conscience, and thereby set and underscored bounds to the jurisdiction of the state, might turn out to be a loss sorely lamented…

In other words, should the first freedom fall, can the second, third, and fourth freedoms continue to withstand the encroachment of state power? That’s a good question, and Steven D. Smith should be thanked for raising it in his timely and illuminating study of American religious freedom’s rise and decline.

P.S. If you found my book review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Review of ‘An Officer an a Spy’ by Robert Harris

Unknown-2 Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). Hardback / Kindle

In 1894, the French Army arrested, indicted, court martialed, convicted, and sent into penal exile Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew, for selling military secrets to the Germans. Due to problems with the evidence against him, Dreyfus was retried in 1899 but once again found guilty. Only in 1906, before the Supreme Court of Appeals, was Dreyfus exonerated, restored to the Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel, and declared a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He had proclaimed his innocence through his 12 years of suffering.

The Dreyfus Affair rocked French society and politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It exposed the French Army’s incompetence (in arresting the wrong man), corruption (for fabricating evidence against him), and incorrigibility (for taking 12 years to rectify the wrong it had done). The affair pitted traditional Catholic France (the Right) against socialist secular France (the Left) and resulted in changes of government and law, including the drastic 1905 law separating Church and State. (The official French policy of laicité stems from that law.) The virulent anti-Semitism of the affair also prompted Theodore Herzl, a Jewish journalist covering the 1894 court martial for Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, to reject the strategy of Jewish assimilation into European society and to propose the establishment of a Jewish state instead.

In An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris traces, in fictional form, the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Colonel Georges Picquart, who as head of the Army’s Statistical Section (a branch of military intelligence) revealed that the Army had convicted the wrong man and then fabricated evidence to cover its mistake. Picquart was the youngest colonel in the Army at that time and had a bright career ahead of him. However, his insistence that the Army right the wrong against Dreyfus pushed him out of favor with the General Staff, who moved him from the Statistical Section to a command of indigenous troops in Tunisia, then court martialed him, drumming him out of the army entirely. (He was rehabilitated, along with Dreyfus, and served as Minister of War from 1906–1909 under Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.)

Harris is a lucid writer. An Officer and a Spy held my interest throughout, though I must admit that the book took its time building to the climax. In my opinion, the book is not as good a work as Fatherland, a counterfactual historical novel, in part because most readers already know the ending of the (real) story. Then again, if you don’t know the story, this is an excellent novelistic account of it.

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Review of ‘Man and Woman, One in Christ’ by Philip B. Payne

man-and-woman-one-in-chirst Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009). Paperback

In feminist criticism of Christianity, the apostle Paul often emerges as chief among sexists. He subordinated wives to husbands in the home and women to men in the church, enjoining females to be “submissive” to and “quiet” before males. Sometimes, it is conceded, Paul made noises in an egalitarian direction, e.g., Galatians 3:28. On the whole, however, he advocated patriarchy, or as contemporary advocates call it, complementarianism.

In Man and Woman, One in Christ, Philip B. Payne argues that Paul has been misread. Far from being an advocate of patriarchy—in home or church—Paul is an egalitarian. Or rather, to state the matter positively: “Paul repeatedly affirms the equal standing and privileges of women and men in the church and in marriage.”

Payne reaches this conclusion through

  • an examination of the Hellenistic, rabbinic, Old Testament, and early Christian backgrounds to Paul’s teaching (chapter 1);
  • a survey of women Paul names as ministry leaders (chapter 2);
  • an outline of Pauline theological axioms that imply sexual equality (chapter 3);
  • and a painstaking exegesis of the relevant Pauline texts: Galatians 3:28 (chapter 4); 1 Corinthians 7 (chapter 5); 11:2–16 (chapters 6–13); 14:34–35 (chapter 14); Ephesians 5:21–33 and Colossians 3:18–19 (chapter 15); 1 Timothy 2:8–15 (chapters 16–23); and 1 Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9).

Some of the arguments Payne makes will be familiar to anyone who has kept up with the literary debate between egalitarians and complementarians, which has been ongoing among evangelicals for several decades. Indeed, Payne’s own scholarly output on the topic has made a signal contribution to these debates. He states that Man and Woman, One in Christ has been 36 years in the making. (It was published in 2009.)

Payne presents these familiar arguments for egalitarianism with precision and care. They include, among others, the egalitarian implications of Galatians 3:28, the meaning of kephale as “source” rather than “authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, the mutuality of submission between husband and wife in Ephesians 5:21–33, the contextually limited (rather than universal) prohibition of women assuming authority to teach in 1 Timothy 2:18–15, and the openness of the offices of overseer and deacon to women in 1 Timothy 3:11–13 and Titus 1:5–9. (English translations do not always make this openness clear.)

He also makes several fresh arguments, however. Commentators often note the sexism that underlies some rabbinic teaching, famously epitomized in the daily prayer, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me…a woman.” They presume that Paul shared this attitude, at least prior to his conversion and call. Payne notes that the “surviving sayings of Rabban Gamaliel I,” Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3), “indicate a favorable attitude toward women in sharp contrast to the rabbinic tradition as a whole.” Could it be that Gamaliel shaped Paul’s more positive assessment of women?

With Gordon D. Fee, Payne makes the argument that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is an interpolation into the text that was not written by Paul. The early Western textual tradition places verses 34–35 after verse 40, whereas the majority textual tradition places it after verse 33. Fee (and Payne) argues that the best explanation for this is that the verses are an early interpolation. What Payne brings to the table now is a fresh examination of distigme in Codex Vaticanus, scribal markings around verses 34–35 that indicate an interpolation, as well as several other early manuscripts that do not have the verses in them. Payne’s argument is impressive, though I must note the countervailing argument: Whether placed after verse 33 or verse 44, verses 34–35 are present in nearly all extant manuscripts.

One final example of a fresh argument (there are other examples, of course): Payne argues that the word authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 means “to assume authority,” not “to exercise authority,” and that the Greek word oude in that verse conjoins “to teach” and “to assume authority” as two aspects of a single action, namely, “to assume authority to teach,” rather than to be granted authority to teach by an appropriate body. To my mind, Payne’s lexicographical and grammatical arguments in this regard are probative and definitive.

As noted above, Man and Woman, One in Christ was four decades in the making. Payne, who has a Ph.D. in New Testament from Cambridge, started out with complementarian assumptions regarding marriage, but changed those through close investigation of the relevant Pauline texts. Far from explaining away Scripture, Payne’s arguments assume its inerrancy and authority. This is important, because it demonstrates the possibility that egalitarianism is not an ideology imposed upon the New Testament text, but a social practice that arises organically from the text, which has the status of God’s infallible Word to humanity.

Some time ago, my neighbor and I fell into a discussion about Christianity. One of her misgivings about the faith had its source in the practice of patriarchy in the Bible and among contemporary evangelicals. As a well-educated, intelligent woman—a writer, in fact—she seemed offended by the notion that men/husbands should possess authority over women/wives simply by virtue of their sex.

I wonder how many women and men share my neighbor’s misgivings about Christianity. Increasingly, women are advancing into leadership at all levels of society—except, it seems, in the church, where leadership is reserved (whether by explicit biblical interpretation or by implicit cultural custom) to men. Is it any wonder that some find the church sexist and hence the faith untenable?

Those of us who minister and teach the Word of God need to exercise due diligence when it comes to controversial passages in the apostle Paul (or anywhere else in Scripture). We need to make sure that our conclusions are thoroughly rooted in the Greek text, not in English translations, let alone contemporary prejudices of one sort or another. What is impressive about Man and Woman, One in Christ is the thoroughness, depth, clarity, and charity of Payne’s scholarship. If I were to recommend just one book to pastors and Bible teachers regarding Paul’s theology and practice of male-female relationships, this book would undoubtedly be it. At times, it is a tough slog to read because it is so thick in its discussions of textual criticism, grammar, lexicography, and syntax. Nonetheless, the intellectual reward is worth the slog. More important, however, is biblical foundation it lays for the equality of women and men in Christ.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

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