Religious Freedom in a Secular Age | Book Review

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … .”

With these words, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines religious freedom as a hallmark of the American experiment. Government will neither impose religion on unwilling unbelievers nor oppose the religion of sincere believers. Adherents of any religion or none at all can thus meet as equals in the public square to decide matters of common concern.

(I have cited the language of the First Amendment because I am writing for American readers, but the logic underlying that amendment finds expression in other legal sources too, such as Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

Unfortunately, religious freedom has become controversial in contemporary society. This is largely, though not exclusively, because of conflicts between traditional religious beliefs and practices on the one hand and LGBT rights on the other. If one side wins, it is commonly thought, the other necessarily loses.

Michael F. Bird challenges this zero-sum thinking in Religious Freedom in a Secular Age. He is academic dean and lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College, an evangelical Anglican seminary in Melbourne, Australia. As a Christian, he affirms traditional, biblical teaching on marriage and sexual morality. As an Australian, he offers an international perspective on U.S. religious freedom conflicts.

Bird’s thesis is that Christians in increasingly post-Christian societies such as the U.S., Australia, and Canada should practice “confident pluralism.” This means that “people have the right to be different, to think differently, to live differently, to worship differently, without fear of reprisal.” The right to be different applies both to traditional religious communities and LGBT persons.

“Ultimately religious freedom will flourish in those places where religion is a primary cause of human flourishing.” – Michael F. Bird

Confident pluralism contrasts with what Bird calls “civil religion” on the Right and “civic totalism” on the Left. 

Civil religion or “Christian nationalism” is “a syncretistic fusion between Christianity and nationalism.” It roots religious freedom in “the electoral success of a particular political bodyguard who promises to protect and privilege one particular religious constituency in exchange for their support.” It reduces religious freedom from a broadly shared value to a narrowly partisan agenda. 

By contrast, confident pluralism “bases religious freedom on civic virtues of tolerance, the fair management of differences within equality, and the ability of diverse groups to contribute to the public good.”

Civic totalism, which Bird also calls “progressive authoritarianism,” means that “the state is a narrowly sectarian ideologue driven to enforce its dogmas on all persons and punish the blasphemies of dissenters.” It can express itself as a “militant secularization” that sees religion as an obstacle to sexual liberation which needs to be overcome. At worst, it puts governmental power behind “freedom from religion.” At best, it reduces “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship.”

By contrast, “confident pluralism does not advocate an expansive government in order to effect a top-down imposition of its values and to compel a convergence of public and private realms to manufacture an allegedly utopian society.”

In short, confident pluralism prioritizes the coexistence of different people and their collaboration on issues of common concern. This does not erase all tensions between religious freedom claims and LGBT rights claims, but it does require diverse citizens to think in win-win rather than zero-sum terms.

For Christians to support confident pluralism successfully, they must do three things: 

First, they must advocate “benign secularism.” Bird’s positive use of secularism may confuse American evangelical readers, for whom the word denotes atheism or naturalism. According to Bird, however, secularism properly understood is a political settlement that arose in the aftermath of Europe’s religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

“Secularism, in this benign sense, is not against religion, but about common spaces that are neutral, nonsectarian, and free of religious affiliation.” The First Amendment, which prohibits government from both imposing religion on unbelievers and opposing the religion of believers, is a premier example of benign secularism.

Second, they must defend religious freedom. “Religious freedom is vital because without it we cannot have a free, tolerant, inclusive, participatory, and multicultural democracy,” Bird writes. “Thus, the conflict over religious liberty is ultimately a battle of monocultural values versus multicultural ones.”

These two sentences illustrate how confident pluralism incorporates core political interests of both the Right and the Left. The Right prizes liberty and the Left diversity. Bird demonstrates that you cannot have one without the other.

Third, Christian advocates of confident pluralism must practice apologetics. “Classical apologetics” typically deals with arguments in favor of the rationality of Christian belief. What Bird has in mind is “cultural apologetics,” that is, “an account of how and why religion is good for the world.”

Militant secularists such as Christopher Hitchens have argued that “religion poisons everything.” Bird does not deny that religious people, including Christians, have done awful things in history. Think of Christendom’s medieval crusades, for example, or white Southern Christian defenses of slavery in the nineteenth century.

What Bird disputes is that such abuses exhaust the meaning of religion. Religion, he argues, “assigns significance and purpose to human life,” “provides a stable sense of identity” and “a basis for moral reasoning, that is, ethics.” It uses “rituals to invest divine meaning into the ordinary events of human life,” and it is “one of the best tools for community.” Finally, it provides “a bastion for hope,” not only in the life to come but also in this life. [Emphasis in the original throughout.]

A Christian cultural apologetic humbly acknowledges Christendom’s moral failings even as it makes a robust case for Christianity’s contributions to society. “Ultimately religious freedom will flourish in those places where religion is a primary cause of human flourishing,” Bird writes. Christians should do more than say that religion promotes wellbeing, in other words; they must show it.

As is typical in a book covering a topic as complex as religious freedom, readers will not agree with every point Bird makes. American evangelical Christians may dispute Bird’s critique of the Religious Right, for example. They may also get hung up on his positive use of words such as secularismpluralism, and diversity, which are flashpoints in America’s culture wars.

Nonetheless, I recommend Religious Freedom in a Secular Age to believers concerned about the state of religious freedom in the U.S. As an Australian evangelical, Bird offers American Christians a friendly critique of our blind spots. Whether or not we agree with his case for confident pluralism, it is worthy of consideration, especially in our increasingly post-Christian cultural environment.

Book Reviewed

Michael F. Bird, Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2022).

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