Demanding Liberty | Book Review

When religious freedom makes the news these days, controversy follows hard on its heels. Many believe that such controversy is a recent thing, a deviation from the traditional American respect for the “sacred rights of conscience,” but even a passing acquaintance with American history exposes this belief as nostalgia. Religious freedom has always been controversial.

“Nothing teaches like experience,” wrote Isaac Backus in A History of New-England, “and what is true history but the experiences of those who have gone before us?”

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty tells the story of Backus’s decades-long fight for religious liberty in America in the mid- to late-18th century. It is, O’Brien notes, an “interesting” story, but it is also “useful”: “Backus’s experience in a generation of change may have something helpful to teach us.”

Backus was born in Connecticut in 1724, five decades before America declared independence from Great Britain. He experienced “new birth” in 1741 amidst the Great Awakening sweeping through the 13 colonies. Ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1748, he eventually became a thoroughgoing Baptist. From 1751 on, he pastored the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts, championing both evangelical religion and religious freedom.

Baptists in colonial America faced persecution. With a few exceptions, the colonies had established denominations — Congregationalism in New England, Anglicanism in the South. Ministers in these denominations were supported by public monies generated by taxation. Baptists opposed state imposition of religious doctrine and practice, and they refused to pay taxes to support the clergy of churches to which they did not belong.

The establishment — in Massachusetts, literally called the “Standing Order” — viewed Baptists as theological deviants, as well as a threat to public order, and punished them accordingly with fines, jail and confiscation of property. Backus used his voice to promote religious freedom throughout the colonies, but especially in Massachusetts, which did not disestablish Congregationalism until 1833, nearly five decades after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the passage of the Bill of Rights, both of which Backus had championed publicly.

What lessons can we learn from Backus’s story? O’Brien closes the book by noting that “Christians in America are facing serious issues we were able to avoid just a couple of decades ago,” such as “questions about sexuality and gender, liberty and equality, race and ethnicity.” Moving forward, he asserts, will depend on “how well we understand our history, how willing we are to confess our past sins, how able we are to learn from our mistakes.” Even more, it will depend on self-perception as either the “marginalized victim” or the “established elite.”

In other words, going forward, will Christians be more like “Baptists” or more like the “Standing Order”? Will we be a force for moral reform and political freedom, or will we use governmental power to enforce a unitary vision on a pluralistic society? The outcome of today’s religious freedom controversies depends in no small part on how we answer those questions.

Book Reviewed
Brandon J. O’Brien, Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

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P.P.S. This article is cross-posted with permission from


Review of ‘Flourishing Faith’ by Chad Brand

baptistprimer_1 Chad Brand, Flourishing Faith: A Baptist Primer on Work, Economics, and Civic Stewardship (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 2012). Paperback/ Kindle

Flourishing Faith by Chad Brand is a primer on political economy from a Baptist perspective. It was commissioned by the Acton Institute and was the first of four similar volumes to appear, the others being written from Pentecostal, Wesleyan, and Reformed perspectives. I have reviewed the Pentecostal primer and will review the Wesleyan one soon. The Reformed primer has not been published yet.

Brand’s book has several strengths. First, it is clearly and succinctly written, as should be expected in such an introductory work. Second, it does an admirable job of summarizing biblical teaching and historical developments as they relate to work, wealth,and the political economy. Third, it recognizes that a Baptist political economy teaches many things that are commonly held by Christians, especially Protestant Christians. Fourth, it highlights those areas in which Baptists—better, baptistic Christians—have a unique perspective on political economy.

Historically, baptistic strands of Christianity trace their roots to 16th-century Radical Reformers (e.g., the Anabaptists) or to 17th-century English separatists (e.g., Baptists). Both strands separated the institutions of church and state to a degree unprecedented before Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in A.D. 312. Post-Constantinian Christianity generally and the Magisterial Reformation specifically saw church rites (i.e., infant baptism, confirmation, communion) as the gateway to civic participation. They viewed the church as the state’s moral tutor and the state as the church’s legal protector (and occasional enforcer). Because everyone was a Christian, if only nominally, the church understood itself to be composed of both sinners (the visible church) and saints (the invisible church). By contrast, baptistic Christianity required professed faith as the condition of baptism, viewed the church as a community of visible saints, and took a dim view of state-supported faith as a violation of the individual’s religious freedom.

In the American experiment, Baptists often took an outsized role in pushing for independence and religious freedom. Although well-known 20th-century American Baptists—Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick among Social Gospellers, Ron Sider and Craig Blomberg among evangelicals—have been critical of capitalism, Brand draws a logical connection between religious freedom, political freedom, and free markets that is plausible, to my mind anyway.

But that connection raises my two reservations about the book. First, the Anabaptists—as opposed to the Baptists—typically have not concluded that their theological and ecclesiological commitments align with Brand’s conservative, GOP-friendly political economy. Not even Brand’s fellow Baptists have drawn these conclusions (see the four Baptists mentioned above). This suggests that Brand’s brand of Baptist political economy is a plausible, though not necessary, outcome of baptistic theological and ecclesiological commitments.

Second, while I’m sympathetic to Brand’s political economy, I’m concerned that some readers will dismiss his interpretation of the baptistic tradition because of several pointed critiques of the Obama administration. While I think that Brand’s critiques score several palpable hits, I’m unconvinced that he needed to make them in an introductory text such as this. Primers should draw a picture in broad strokes rather than in fine lines, sticking to the general rather than the particular, and the long-term rather than the right-now. As it is, Brand’s critiques seem unnecessarily partisan. One year after the book’s publication, they’re already losing their freshness, quickly approaching their sell-by date, if they have not already passed it.

In sum, Flourishing Well outlines a plausible Baptist political economy composed of a visible church, a limited state, and a free market; but it should’ve avoided critiquing the Obama administration.

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The World Wide (Religious) Web for Thursday, December 22, 2011

DECEMBER 22: Happy Winter Solstice Day!

POT, MEET KETTLE: “The Accidental Universe: Science’s crisis of faith.”

That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.

“We had a lot more confidence in our intuition before the discovery of dark energy and the multiverse idea,” says Guth. “There will still be a lot for us to understand, but we will miss out on the fun of figuring everything out from first principles.”

YEP: “Call It Christ’s Mass and Let Best Buy Keep the Holiday.”

AZUSA STREET, 100 YEARS LATER: “More Than 1 in 4 Christians Are Pentecostal, Charismatic.”

COME ON IN, THE WATER’S FINE! “Baptists, Pentecostals Seek Common Ground.”

OR PERHAPS EUROPE HAS MOVED AWAY FROM FOLLOWING? “Christianity is still the largest religion in the world but followers have moved away from Europe.”

BECAUSE VIRTUE ISN’T GOING AWAY: “Why We Need a ‘Stuck with Virtue’ Science.”

BECAUSE SOCIOLOGISTS HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO: “Sociological rules of Christmas gift giving.”

QUESTIONABLE RELIGIOUS STATISTIC: “Study: Atheists distrusted as much as rapists.”

GOOD FOR THEM! BUT DIDN’T SCROOGE CONVERT? “Atheists aim to change image of penny-pinching Scrooges.”

CRAP OR CONSCIENCE? “Manure Makers, Yes; Catholics, No.”


IVY LEAGUE PERVS: “The Postmodern Pedophile: Meet the academics who try to redefine pedophilia as ‘intergenerational intimacy.’”