Review: Sacred Liberty

sacred liberty

Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious FreedomStephen Waldman. New York: Harper Collins, 2019.

Summary: Rather than a given of American religious history, religious liberty has often been honored more in the breach, and fought for by religious minorities excluded from this liberty.

One of the mythologies of American history was the commitment from the beginnings of the American experiment to religious liberty, beginning with the earliest Pilgrim and Puritan settlers. The reality was actually quite different. Stephen Waldman traces the struggle for religious liberty beginning with the case of Mary Dyer, branded a Puritan heretic for participating in Anne Hutchinson’s Bible studies and eventually becoming a Quaker. On June 1, 1660, she was hung on the Boston Common for her faith. In America.

As the colonies developed, a religious patchwork also developed with particular bodies sanctioned by the state, and others struggling for existence, often restricted by while funding the state-supported churches, Anglicans in one colony, Congregationalists in another. The Baptists seemed to have to fight for their rights everywhere. These religious divisions were submerged during the Revolution, with even Catholics receiving a measure of toleration. Real steps forward were taken with the advocacy of Thomas Jefferson, after his correspondence with the Danbury Baptists, and the genius insight of Madison that the best way to foster religious vitality was to take government out of the business of establishing religion or in any way prohibiting its free exercise. Enshrined in the First Amendment, it was a first major step toward religious freedom–at the federal level. No one had yet applied this to individual states.

The states would follow later, unleashing a fervor of religious activity, confirming Madison’s wisdom. But this at first only applied to Protestants. The arriving Catholic immigrants faced prejudice at different periods, including at one point, opposition from the Klan who expanded their white exclusivism to “100 percent Americans,” excluding Catholics from eastern and southern Europe. Likewise, the tribal religions of slaves were exterminated for a Christianity that liberated the soul but held the body captive. Mormons would pose another challenge, with their strange beliefs and polygamy. They would be murdered and driven out of state after state until finding refuge in Utah. Eventually their liberties were recognized with the concession to monogamous marriage.  Native peoples also had their own religions, but as they were subjugated, they were forced into residential schools. The aim was to “Kill the Indian, Christianize the Man.” Only in 1978 did Congress pass legislation protecting their religious rights. Then it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their refusal to salute the American flag, which led to the application of First Amendment freedoms at the state and local level.

In more recent years, following World War 2, Waldman traces the Judeo-Christian alliance in public life, He traces the increasing presence of the Supreme Court in religious liberty cases, the influx of people representing the other major world religions–Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and modern developments that have led to Evangelical and Catholic alliances, attacks on Islam, the conversion of a religious majority into a “persecuted” religious minority whose religious liberty needs protection.

One question Waldman leaves us with is how religious liberty extends to practices that may have impact on the public good, for example, the case of polygamy, or medical treatment when a child’s life is at risk. Must pharmacists dispense medications that violate their conscience or bakers or photographers accept clients whose views of marriage they disagree with? In these latter cases, Waldman seems to encourage common sense accommodations rather than laws or court rulings. Of course, this assumes a pluralistic marketplace, a condition that does not exist in all communities.

One question Waldman did not address, other than in school prayer discussions, is the protection of the belief and liberty those who believe there is no God. Atheists have also been subject to persecution and discrimination and a chapter addressing the protection of their freedom of conscience, something not explicitly included in the First Amendment, unless one defines atheism as a religion, would have been worth discussing.

A recurring theme is that religious liberty often has been the preserve of the religion in power and minorities had to fight for the extension of those rights to them. Waldman demonstrates the genius of Madison and the First Amendment in fostering a vibrant religious landscape. Part of the key was that he realized that political power would sooner or later have a corrupting influence on the religion. The best test of a religion’s veracity was its ability to convince prospective followers without compulsion. The best way to protect a nation from religious conflict was to determinedly protect the freedom of conscience for all.

This is an important book that underscores the wisdom of applying the First Amendment consistently. To protect the religious freedom of any of us is to protect that of all of us. The real test of religious freedom is, will we defend the liberties of those with whom we disagree or even consider heretical by our own standards? Sadly, our story is too often one of attacking rather than defending the rights of those with whom we differ. For all that, Madison’s wisdom has proven itself over time. Will we reflect upon that and continue to preserve this distinctive “first freedom?”

Review: A History of the Amish

a history of the Amish

A History of the Amish: Third EditionSteven M. Nolt. New York: Good Books, 2016

Summary: A history of the Amish from their European Anabaptist beginnings to the present, tracing the different groups and their continued growth in the United States and Canada.

Ever since a childhood visit to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I’ve had a secret fascination with the Amish. Living in Ohio, one of our favorite getaways has been to Holmes County, home to the largest Amish population in Ohio. One quickly adjusts to sharing the road with horse-drawn vehicles and children walking to and from school. We’ve visited stores selling appliances that do not require electricity, and enjoyed the craftsmanship of Amish-built furniture, including two custom-built pieces in our home. For nearly half of my life, I have been a member of a Brethren Church, part of the same Anabaptist stream as the Amish, albeit far more liberal in its embrace of modern culture.

Steven M. Nolt’s book traces the history of this group from its origins within the Anabaptist reform movement of Germany and Switzerland and the split between Hans Reist and Jakob Amman. We learn about the first groups that came to the United States and settled between Philadelphia and Lancaster, drawn to the religious openness of the Quaker State.  Nolt tells a story of persecution in Europe and a gradual dwindling of the faithful, coupled with waves of migration to North America, with settlements spreading to Ohio, Indiana and other Midwest states as well as Ontario, Canada.

Like so many things, growth leads to division, particularly over the issue of shunning, with first the Amish-Mennonites and then the Beachy Amish, and some smaller groups breaking off from what became known as the Old Order, who continued to take the most conservative approach to technology, generally worshiped in homes, and shunning.

The confrontation with America’s cultural life perhaps was most dramatically underscored by the challenges the Amish, as a peace church, faced when America went to war in 1917 and 1941, and gradually winning acceptance of its conscientious objectors from the government. Then there was the matter of education. Would they be permitted to educate their own children, and let them go to work after eighth grade? Could they opt out of the social welfare net that developed in the U.S. from the Depression onward, continuing to care for their own?

Nolt’s account includes a liberal amount of images, maps, and sidebar features. Some of the sidebars seemed to duplicate material in the text rather than supplement it, but many were features on key figures, ways of life, or historical moments.

A few more recent develops were among the most surprising to me. One was the Amish-Mennonite mission and evangelism movements. I had thought these communities more insular (and some are). The other were the measures they used and the success they enjoyed to retain a high percentage of their youth, 85 to 90 percent in many groups. Most churches in America suffer far greater losses. It was also surprising to me to learn that the percent of Amish engaged in farming has declined, though not as steeply as the rest of the country, even as they enter an increasingly diverse set of occupations and businesses, including an uneasy but explosively growing involvement in tourism.

What perhaps was most striking to me is that Nolt’s account was not one of a dying way, but a thriving one, economically, culturally, spiritually, and numerically. For example, I learned that the number of Old Amish church districts in the U.S. grew from 444 in 1974 to 2,119 in 2014.  As of 2014, there were Old Order Amish settlements in 29 states and in Ontario with Ohio narrowly beating out Pennsylvania for the most Amish with Indiana a distant third. And this is just the Old Order groups.

Nolt offers an even-handed account of this people–their sharp divisions, their stricter groups, as well as portraying a life of enough, of salvation worked out over the course of a life in all of one’s work, of community solidarity, and a remarkable witness of refraining from violence and granting forgiveness. And for all the portrayal of a group locked in tradition, we see a movement continuing to evolve as it wrestles with faithfulness to principle and past, and to the changing world around them.

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left

rise and fall

The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and BeyondL. Benjamin Rolsky. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

Summary: A study of the ecumenical movement among the liberal religious catalyzed by television producer Norman Lear and the causes, particularly stemming from the rise of the religious right, both for its rise and waning influence in American society.

Much attention has been given over the last forty years to the rise of the religious right, and the culture war between secular liberalism and the religious right. Left out of much of this analysis are the efforts of religiously and spiritually liberal individuals. This work seeks to correct that oversight through a focus on the spiritual vision of Norman Lear and the movement he catalyzed among liberal Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. It also focuses on why this move did not succeed in its objective of fostering a religiously plural, civil, and tolerant public square.

The work begins with a historical and sociological survey of the liberal religious tradition in American life, and the kind of civil engagement it sought in political life–an engagement that advocated tolerance, civil engagement, a Rawlsian commitment to invoking public rather than religious reasons for political positions, and the separation of church and state to protect diverse religious perspective.

We are then introduced to Norman Lear, and the catalytic role he played in upsetting the status quo first of all through the sitcoms he produced, like All in the Family and secondly through his advocacy organization, People for the American Way. The book traces the controversy that surrounded Lear’s programming, which explored contemporary issues around race, sexuality, the nature of the American family, and more. Lears own biography is traced, and particularly the secular Jewish tradition from which he arose, and his early resistance to the anti-Semitic intolerance of Father Charles Coughlin’s broadcasts in the 1930’s.

Lear’s situation comedies created a forum where different viewpoints were stated and forthrightly argued, challenging accepted views of the time. Perhaps most controversial was the episode of Maude as she wrestles with and decides to pursue an abortion. These shows reflected the vision of a civil society that did not suppress difference and dissent but protected a public square where different views and ways of life could be aired and lived side by side.

In consequence, resistance to Lear’s programming arose from movements arising from the religious right, including an “electronic church” growing in sophistication. This consisted of protests against programming, efforts to either restrict or provide counter views through the FCC and the Fairness Doctrine. The exploration of alternative moral choices violating traditional values gave rise to efforts like the Moral Majority, a movement that moved being mere religious programming to political advocacy to enforce its morals and beliefs upon wider American society.

Rolsky chronicles Lear’s transition from sitcom production to forming an advocacy organization of his own, People for the American Way, to use television, coalitions with liberal religious groups, and public meetings to advocate for Lear’s version of liberal spiritual politics. All this culminated in his I Love Liberty program, which simultaneously advocated a plural and civil public square, and excluded those on the religious right who did not share his premises.

This paradox, an intolerant tolerance, helped energize a religious rights. In place of an arm’s length, though liberal engagement in politics came the growing alliance of political conservatives and the religious right. One has the sense in reading this account of a missed moment as well as a blind spot in the savvy media strategy of Lear. Somehow, Lear thought he could achieve his vision of a civil, tolerant public square while barring that public square from those whose approach he opposed. Sadly, what he did was awaken an ideologically energized movement that his own movement failed to rival, and helped create the hardened, divided discourse that we have inherited.

I don’t know what can be done at this juncture to escape our deeply divided public discourse. What we learn from Lear, and this account, is that an approach that excludes one’s adversaries from public discourse, and fails to extend the good will that one advocates for in a civil public square, will not succeed. I think today of those who might consider themselves “progressive evangelicals.” Secretly, I believe they often vilify conservatives as “deplorable” as did a recent presidential candidate. This work suggests that such efforts will fail as did Lear’s. Is it time for a different way of framing moving beyond left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and fundamentalist?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Theologies of the American Revivalists

theologies of the american revivalists

Theologies of the American Revivalists, Robert W. Caldwell III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study, not so much of the history, as the theologies underlying the different revival movements in America from 1740 to 1840.

There have been various studies of the histories of particular revival movements in American religious history. What Robert W. Caldwell offers in this work is a comparative study of the theologies of the different revivalists. Undergirding the preaching and methodologies of these revivalists lay considerable thought about the theology of the human will and the sovereignty of God, on how widely the salvation of Christ extended, on the length of the conversion process and a tension between systematic theology and plain reading of scripture.

In seven chapters, Caldwell outlines the theologies of various key figures representing different schools of thought, or religious bodies. These include:

  • Moderate evangelical revival theology. This stream of Puritan Calvinism included George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and notably, Jonathan Edwards. Preaching focused on the law, bringing people under conviction of sin, pursuing “means of grace” as one sought conversion, and finally the consolation of assurance. This process was often emotionally intense and protracted.
  • Free grace revival theology. Andrew Croswell and other radical evangelicals rejected the use of “means of grace” and lengthy conversion processes. They emphasized responses of faith to the Christ who loves, and whose salvation was for the world, by “right.” Conversions were intense, certain, leaving no room for doubt, and quick.
  • Edwardsean Calvinist revival theology. Successors of Jonathan Edwards focused on Edwards idea that people have a natural ability to embrace the gospel, even if morally disinclined to do so. This had ramifications for the understanding of original sin, atonement, and, justification. Conversions continued to be lengthy events, culminating in a “disinterested” spirituality that accepted and even could worship God for his just judgment of oneself as a sinner, leading to the apprehension of God’s grace.
  • Methodist Arminian theology emphasized the love of God, the offer of salvation to all, and the freedom of the will to believe. Conversions were both emotional events and quick, with teaching that encouraged progress to Christian perfection.
  • Early American Baptists. They did not have a single revival theology but different leaders adopted one of the above approaches.
  • Taylorism, or New Haven theology. Nathaniel William Taylor further emphasized both the sinners ability to repent, and the ways in which the means of grace might eradicate selfishness in the sinner even prior to regeneration.
  • Charles Finney’s revival theology. Finney built on Taylor, emphasizing the sinner’s ability to respond to the command to repent and elaborating the means of grace systematically in what became called the “new measures.” Finney asserted that three processes were at work in the conversion process: the work of the Spirit, the work of the minister, and the work of the convert.

Caldwell also discusses two critical responses to these revivalist theologies. The first was that of the Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who believed these revival theologies deviated from classic Calvinism in the direction of Pelagianism. They emphasized the quieter means of the influence of the Christian family. The second was the restoration movement led by Stone and Campbell that eschewed theological systems for the plain teaching of the Bible and the actions of belief, repentance, and baptism affirmed in scripture as resulting in regeneration.

I thought Caldwell’s exposition quite clear as to each of the theologies coupled the key figures, their ideas, and the theological implications of those ideas. Each chapter provides a summary of salient points that allows for good review of the chapter. I wondered about the focus on the conversion theologies associated with the revivalists. While this was a significant aspect of revivals, equally significant was the awakening of those who had already believed to spiritual vitality. Apart from the focus on Wesleyan perfection, this aspect was not addressed. Richard Lovelace’s classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life gives a much fuller account of the renewal of the church in revival.

I appreciated Caldwell’s closing comments on the importance of revival theology in the church today:

“A robust revival theology, one that intimately unites head and heart, Scripture, proclamation, and life, would certainly help galvanize preaching, capture the religious imagination of the lost, and aid in imparting a theological vision that draws sinners to life and raises up God-glorifying disciples” (p. 229).

Caldwell’s work offers a rich account of how those who have gone before us have conceived of these things, as well as pointing us to primary sources for further study. He helps us see that, beyond the emotion and the changed lives of the successive waves of revivals, there were prayerful and thoughtful human agents whose understanding of the ways of God in salvation shaped and energized their preaching and pastoral ministry.

Review: Demanding Liberty

demanding liberty

Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious FreedomBrandon 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.”