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 InfluenceMagazine.com.

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Video of ‘Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination’ at The Heritage Foundation


American public discourse, especially about controversial issues, is often conducted at a very low level. More heat than light, one might say. In this video from The Heritage Foundation, John Corvino, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson show how to have an informative, civil, and pointed debate about the legal conflict between religious liberty protections and LGBT nondiscrimination laws.

Video: ‘Religious Liberty at the Present Time with Mark Bauerlein and Mark Movsesian


Over at First Things, Mark Bauerlein interviews Mark Movsesian about “Religious Liberty at the Present Time.” The website has a transcript if you want to read the conversation. Here’s the video if you want to watch or listen to it.

Review of ‘Faith in the Voting Booth’ by Leith Anderson and Galen Carey


Voting_Booth_350Leith Anderson and Galen Carey, Faith in the Voting Booth: Practical Wisdom for Voting Well (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).

Today (March 15), voters from Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio cast ballots in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. Since I am a Missourian, I performed my civic duty and cast a ballot along with them. Voting is so routine in American life that we Americans often take it for granted. We shouldn’t, however. It is a great privilege and an awesome responsibility.

It also can be hard work. Choosing a candidate or supporting a referendum requires informed decision-making. What principles should guide us? What should our priorities be? Thoughtful citizens try to answer these questions as they enter the voting booth.

Faith in the Voting Booth is a primer on biblical principles and priorities for the thoughtful evangelical voter. Leith Anderson and Galen Carey are, respectively, president and vice president of governmental relations for the National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE is the largest organization of evangelicals in America, whose mission is “to honor God by connecting and representing evangelical Christians.”

Evangelical is “often portrayed as a political identity by the national press,” which Anderson and Carey note is fundamentally wrong. Evangelicalism is first and foremost a spiritual identity. The authors cite with approval historian David Bebbington’s list of “four convictions that identify evangelicals”: (1) conversion—having a “born again experience, (2) action—consisting of evangelism and social action, (3) Bible—Scripture is the top authority, and (4) cross—Jesus died to save people from sin. These four convictions unite evangelicals spiritually across partisan political lines.

Of course, it would be next to impossible for a person’s spiritual identity not to affect their political identity in some way. “The ultimate political statement is ‘Jesus is Lord,” Anderson and Carey point out. But American evangelicals do not always let their core convictions shape their political principles and priorities. For example, Lifeway Research conducted a survey of evangelical opinions on immigration. That study found, in part, that evangelicals were as likely to be influenced on that issue by “The media” as by “The Bible” and “Your local church” combined (slide 16). For people whose core convictions include the Bible’s supreme authority, that’s an alarming statistic.

The core of Faith in the Voting Booth is an examination of hot button issues from a biblically informed perspective. Anderson and Carey cite four broad areas “where most evangelicals agree most of the time.” These are biblical authority, life, religious freedom, and marriage. They then examine eight issues in more depth: poverty, racial and ethnic minorities, marriage and family, immigration, taxes, justice and jails, foreign policy, and environmentalism. The goal is to bring biblical principles and priorities to bear on public policies.

Faith in the Voting Booth is difficult to peg, ideologically. For those looking for a lawyer’s brief for their side of the political aisle, this is not your book. But it’s important to remember that the Bible is not captive to modern ideologies or political parties. It stands outside of them, critiquing them for what they get wrong and affirming what they get right. If we follow the Bible, then, our political principles and priorities won’t be easy to peg as merely partisan ideology. Personally, I found the book refreshing. In a few places, it caused me to reexamine whether my political convictions are as biblically rooted as I think they are. In a few places, I disagreed with it. That kind of critical self-examination is a good habit to develop, it seems to me.

Anderson and Carey close the book by making a case for civility in the public square. Given the taunting, name-calling, and isolated acts of violence that have marred this election cycle, the authors’ plea for civility is especially appropriate. I’ll close with this quotation from the book:

The practice of Christian civility brings the fruit of the Spirit into the public square: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). We please God, display the love of Jesus, and bless our nation all at the same time.

Amen to that!

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P.S. This review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with Leith Anderson about the book.

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

Review of ‘Free to Serve’ by Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies


Free_to_Serve_350Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, Free to Serve: Protection the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

[Author’s Note: This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.]

James 1:27 offers this memorable definition: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” For James, then, religion consists of a humanitarian and an integrity mandate. “Do good,” we might say, “ and be good!”

For Christians across the ages, the humanitarian mandate has produced charitable organizations of an enormous variety, from orphanages and schools to hospitals and relief agencies. These organizations express the heart of God the Father for those in crisis, those in in need. The integrity mandate has governed how Christians carried out the humanitarian mandate. Christian theology and Christian ethics provided guidelines for what good should be done, to whom, and how.

These two mandates need never come into conflict with one another. In an era characterized by the increased government licensing, regulation, and funding of all manner of activities, they can and do, however. This conflict is the subject of Free to Serve by evangelical Christian activists Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies.

The authors cite, for example, laws in Arizona and Alabama that prohibited people and organizations within those states—including religious organizations—from transporting or housing illegal immigrants. Many churches and religious organizations had been doing precisely that, so they challenged the law in court.

For another example, pursuant to a mandate in the Affordable Care Act (aka, “ObamaCare”), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a rule requiring employee health plans to cover 20 forms of contraception, four of which could have abortifacient effects. Catholic organizations have objections to contraceptives generally, and evangelical Protestant organizations have objections to abortifacients specifically, so they challenged this rule in court.

A final example: Many campus religious organizations require members and leaders to affirm the doctrinal and ethical standards of their specific faith. One cannot be an atheist and leader of a Christian student organization. Unfortunately, in an attempt to promote nondiscrimination, some public colleges and university systems have ruled that, actually, you can be. Every campus organization must be open to all…except fraternities, sororities, and sports team, of course. Campus religious organizations have challenged these rules in court.

The United States has a variety of legal protections for religious individuals and organizations. The First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act holds that a generally applicable law can infringe on a sincerely held religious belief only if doing so accomplishes a compelling governmental interest through the least restrictive means. There are other statutory protections as well, both at the federal and state levels.

Despite these, state and federal courts have not always protected the religious freedom of individuals and organizations.

  • Federal Courts have upheld the constitutionality of so-called “all comers” policies on college and university campuses, policies that prohibit campus religious organizations from requiring affirmation of a religion’s doctrine and ethics.
  • State courts have ruled that the government can require faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to place children in the homes of married homosexuals and cohabiting heterosexuals, despite those organization’s longstanding, sincere, doctrinal commitment to marriage as a monogamous heterosexual institution.
  • On the bright side, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby, a closely held, for-profit business owned by religious persons is exempt from the so-called “contraceptive mandate” issued by HHS. On the other hand, the same right of religious colleges and universities (Notre Dame, Wheaton, etc.) is still being litigated.

Monsma and Carlson-Thies argue that these conflicts have grown and become heated because of four interlocking assumptions on the part of government bureaucrats and secular ideologues:

  1. The equation of religious freedom with freedom to worship
  2. The unthinking application of nondiscrimination standards to faith-based organizations
  3. The belief that acceptance of government funds makes faith-based organizations government actors
  4. The assumption of Christianity’s dominant position in society

To this list, I would add the increasing governmental involvement in aspects of life it had left alone previously. In my opinion, the larger government grows, the larger its ability to interfere with the rights of the people—including their religious rights—grows. The authors do not delve into this topic, however.

Instead, they make a case for what they call “principled pluralism” or “civic pluralism.” This pluralism, which they argue should not be confused with relativism, begins with the undisputed fact that our society is characterized by a diversity or plurality of religious and non-religious points of view. In light of this fact, it advocates four tenets:

  1. All human beings are morally responsible, free individuals who possess human dignity and certain fundamental rights, the most basic of which is freedom of religion.
  2. Although human beings are individuals, with individual rights and responsibilities, human beings are also social beings.
  3. For a society to be truly free its government must not prevents its members from being able to create and sustain nongovernmental organizations that are based on and reflect their members’ deeply held beliefs.
  4. Just as government should not attempt to dominate or control society’s organizations and their members, neither should one organization seek to dominate or control other organizations or individuals.

Under principled pluralism, the government could partner with religious organizations to accomplish humanitarian ends without requiring those organizations to sacrifice their doctrinal or ethical integrity. Religious organizations would be able to tailor health-care plans to conform to longstanding doctrine. Campus religious organizations would be able to require doctrinal and ethical affirmations of its leaders.

Principled pluralism thus differs from Christian nationalism, which privileges the Christian faith socially and legally, and secularism, which seeks a public square devoid of religious language and ideas. Indeed, it challenges both. The challenge to secularism is obvious. A public college or university, for example, must provide public resources to campus religious organizations despite their allegedly “sectarian” character, as long as it does so on equal footing with other religious and nonreligious organizations. That second proviso highlights the challenge principled pluralism poses to Christian nationalism. But Monsma and Carlson-Thies argue that such an application of principled pluralism is “a straightforward application of the Golden Rule to our civic relationships: to do to others as we would have them do to us (Luke 6:31).”

That is what makes principled pluralism such an attractive option for some. America is a diverse country, and principled pluralism offers a way for diverse religious and nonreligious groups to access public resources on an equal footing.

Still, I have my doubts. Pluralism must give way to principle on some issues. Monsma and Carlson-Thies cite abortion as one of those exceptions. It is a long-settled principle of American jurisprudence that race is another. No wonder, then, that LGBT groups analogize sexual orientation to race, and Christians resist the analogy. Some principles admit of no exceptions. In those cases, one can be principled or pluralist, but not both.

Even with this criticism of the book, Free to Serve is an interesting, thought-provoking book about an important topic. You will learn from its diagnosis even if you disagree with its prescription in the end. I myself am not wholly convinced, though I wholly support the book’s ultimate goal of supporting an integral Christian humanitarianism.

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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.

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