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).

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

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

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Review of ‘Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’ by Johan Norberg


Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (London, OneWorld, 2016).

“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days,” wrote Franklin Pierce Adams, “than a bad memory.” The good old days, in other words, weren’t so good. Indeed, if Johan Norberg is to be believed, the good old days are right now.

Drawing on a variety of social science data, Norberg points to ten ways the world has progressed over the last three centuries:

  • Food is plentiful and cheap.
  • Clean water and good sanitation are increasingly available.
  • Life expectancy is longer.
  • Poverty has fallen dramatically.
  • War and violence blight fewer lives.
  • Increasing wealth has benefited the environment.
  • Literacy is widespread.
  • People are increasingly free of arbitrary authority.
  • Equality is increasingly experienced and demanded.

None of this denies specific counterexamples, of course. Hunger, pollution, terrorism, and poverty are facts of life for many throughout the world. Still, in historical perspective as well as in absolute terms, these ills are on the decline.

Take extreme poverty, for example. Norberg writes:

…In 1981, fifty-four per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. This already marks an historic achievement. According to an ambitious attempt to measure poverty over the long run, with a $2 a day threshold for extreme poverty, adjusted for purchasing power in 1985, ninety-four per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme population in 1820, eighty-two per cent in 1910 and seventy-two percent in 1950.

But in the last few decades things have really begun to change. Between 1981 and 2015 the proportion of low- and middle-income countries suffering from extreme poverty was reduced from fifty-four percent to twelve per cent….

…By all our best estimates, global poverty has been reduced by more than one percentage point annually for three decades.

The next time you and your friends debate income inequality, keep that statistic in mind. Yes, there is income inequality in the world, but the floor of that inequality is no longer extreme poverty for the vast majority of the world’s population.

That’s good news, right? Of course it is! And it’s a reason—along with other improvements in the material conditions of humanity—to give thanks at this time of year.

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