Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom, Brandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.
Summary: Looks at the history of the struggle for religious freedom in America through a study of the efforts of Reverend Isaac Backus to secure a religious freedom that negotiated a third way between established religion and secularism.
One of the messages of this book is that in order to understand the present time and how to move forward, we do well to look back. Brandon J. O’Brien believes that our present discussions about religious liberty and how we sustain that freedom do well to be informed by understanding the history of religious freedom before and during the nation’s founding years. To do that, O’Brien focuses in on the life and advocacy of Baptist minister Isaac Backus. Backus gives the lie to the idea that America was established in the quest for religious freedom. He writes:
“If Isaac Backus were alive today, he would feel the need to correct the misperception that there was ever a “long-standing American tradition of accommodating religious practice and expression” in the years before or even after the Constitution was ratified. He might tell us about the time his mother was arrested for refusing to pay religious taxes. He might tell us about the time a congregation of New England Baptists had their property seized and their orchards destroyed for holding unauthorized worship services. He would almost certainly tell us about the time he debated with John and Samuel Adams about how claiming to defend religious liberty was not enough. The laws had to be enforced if they were to matter at all.”
The book begins by describing the religious history of New England prior to the War of Independence. Even with the Great Awakening, only 17 percent regularly attended worship. One of these was Isaac Backus, who was converted through an awareness of his own sin and a sermon of George Whitfield. He joined a Congregational Church but due to their “Half way covenant” that allowed people to commune and have their children baptized without a clear account of their conversion, soon became a “Separate.” During this time, he experienced a call of the Holy Spirit to preach and began itinerating to other “Separate” churches. Eventually, he concluded that infant baptism was inconsistent with his understanding of conversion and joined the Baptists.
All these moves brought legal problems. Congregational churches enjoyed government support through taxes levied on the citizenry. Exemptions for others could be granted but were often ignored resulting in fines and seizures of property. Ministers needed not only a call from God but ministerial training in seminaries and approval of other [Congregational] ministers. To preach without this approval could also result in fines and sanctions. All of this was supported by colonial government. Pilgrims may have come seeking religious freedom but Puritans controlled the narrative, establishing “freedom” that enforced with government support their own religious beliefs to the exclusion of others.
O’Brien chronicles how all this transformed O’Brien into a lifelong advocate for religious freedom. He documented wrongs and even made an eloquent case to the Continental Congress, albeit framing it in religious rather than public square terms. He argued for a system that upheld neither a theocracy nor advocated an utterly secular state, but one where religious freedom for all was protected and valued, and where government privileged no belief. In 1779 he formulated a Bill of Rights that anticipated that eventually incorporated into the Constitution. He lived to see the First Amendment ratified.
Throughout the book, O’Brien moves back and forth between past and present, drawing parallels about divisions over religious freedom, when a majority becomes a minority, different perceptions of what it means to be marginalized, the importance for creating space for principled disagreement and the paradox of influence in the halls of power while losing influence in the wider culture. The book explores both what is at stake in our efforts to uphold religious liberties both for ourselves and others and raises intriguing questions about the parallel quest for civil liberties, which often have lagged far behind. Should not the two go together? And yet often religious believers resist those pressing for greater civil liberties and rights.
This is a timely work on an important current discussion that has always been at the heart of what it means to be a country committed to “liberty and justice for all.”