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: 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.”

Is This The Religious Liberty We Need?


President Donald J. Trump displaying Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Last Thursday, May 4, two significant government actions dominated the news. One was the narrow passage in the House of Representatives of the AHCA, legislation designed to roll back a number of provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The other was the signing by the President of an Executive Order on Religious Liberty, surrounded by religious people of various faiths.

As a religious person, I do care about religious liberty and think the First Amendment protections in our constitution important to uphold, and indeed strengthen, because of the long and global history of religious persecution. We do not do it perfectly but we have a system that allows an incredible diversity of religious expression in our country and works hard not to privilege any one over the others. This is a relatively singular occurrence in human history that is a mark of American greatness.

One thing that is important to note about the executive order, available to be read on the White House website is that it is a directive to federal agencies that does not repeal laws but only addresses the approach taken to enforce them. Only a new law can repeal a law. Only court decisions can overturn laws. What is significant, from what I can read in the executive order, is it suggests a disposition on the part of government to defend religious liberty rather than undermine it. Section One on policy says:

“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.  The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government.  For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom.  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.  The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.”

These are broad statements that amount to saying that the executive branch will uphold the Constitution, which is in fact what the President says he will do in taking the oath of office. But to go on record in this regard is heartening.

Much has been made of Section Two. Contrary to popular belief, it does not repeal the Johnson Amendment banning the endorsement or opposition to political candidates by churches or other 501 (c)(3) organizations. David French (a lawyer I had the chance to work with on a religious liberty issue), writes in The National Review:

In fact, a lawyer will commit malpractice if he tells a pastor or director of a nonprofit that this order allows a church or nonprofit to use its resources to support or oppose a candidate. Even if the Trump administration chooses not to enforce the law, a later administration can tear up Trump’s order and begin vigorous enforcement based on actions undertaken during the Trump administration.”

What may be the case is that this will presumably make some feel bolder in talking about political issues or even endorsing candidates because they need not fear enforcement. French’s warning is, “for now.” I certainly wouldn’t use this as a warrant to endorse candidates not supported by the current administration!

Section Three concerns conscience exemptions to the preventive care (read contraceptive) mandate. It says that several government agencies “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” In fact, this has already been mandated by the Supreme Court during the Obama administration.

French makes an important point in his article–executive orders are no substitute for law-making. At best they are only a start. John Inazu, in his book Confident Pluralism, articulates three areas where substantive law-making is needed to protect religious and speech freedoms in the public square (summary is quoted from my review of his book):

The Voluntary Groups Requirement:

“Government officials should not interfere with the membership, leadership, or internal practices of a voluntary group absent a clearly articulated and precisely defined compelling interest” (p. 48).

The Public Forum Requirement:

“Government should honor its commitment to ensure public forums for the voicing of dissent and discontent. Expressive restrictions in these forums should only be justified by compelling government interests. Private public forums that effectively supplant these government-sponsored forums should in some cases be held to similar standards” (p. 64-65).

The Public Funding Requirement:

“When the government offers generally available resources (financial and otherwise) to facilitate a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, it should not limit those resources based on its own orthodoxy” (p. 79).

French notes in his article the attacks on religious groups in universities that infringe on the first and third of these requirements and the attacks on dissenting views that would infringe on the second.

I would argue that the protections Inazu talks about include but are broader than just religious liberty. They protect the freedom of conscience and associative and speech freedoms of all citizens, not just religious citizens. I would argue that these are the liberties for which we need robust protections, not simply in executive orders but in law.

There is one other religious liberty I long for. I have written often about the way the American church has offered itself as a voluntary captive to the political process. Actually, one of the concerns I have about the relaxation of enforcement around political speech in pulpits is that in so doing, I think the government is helping the church dig its own grave. Perhaps it is anecdotal, but I am watching not only younger, but also older evangelicals angered by this political captivity, leaving evangelical churches, even churches not overtly engaged in this kind of behavior.

I long for the day when churches cast off the chains of partisan politics and repent for how they have alienated people from the gospel of Christ that unites people across all the divides of our contemporary politics. I long for a church that speaks prophetically to both left and right (currently it seems only late night television is doing that). This is the kind of speech for which you actually need religious liberty protection.

I have to admit to being troubled by the setting in which this order took place. Religious leaders are gathered around in the Rose Garden celebrating the protection of their own liberties while down the street the party of the President is passing legislation to make the protection of one’s health increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable in our society to obtain (“the Unaffordable Health Care Act”?). I’m torn. I’ve had to advocate against real attempts to undermine religious liberty. Yet I was telling a friend recently that religious liberty concerns me less than the attack on the liberties of the poor, children, the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society. Perhaps the only way to reconcile this is the idea that all liberties are important and that the attack upon the liberty of any of us is in fact an attack on the liberty of all of us. Might we agree upon that?


Review: Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe

Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe
Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe by James E. Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems from the time of Constantine on that the life of the church has been inextricably bound up with politics. The unique slant of this collection of scholarly essays is that the authors explore how various religious reform movements in different national settings in 18th century Europe were tied into the political structures, and indeed political reforms, of their day.

After an introductory survey by Dale Van Kley, one of the editors of this collection, authors explore successively reform movements in France, Italy, and the Netherlands, in Bourbon Spain, and Habsburg controlled lands (all three of these are heavily concerned with the Jansenists and their struggle against the Jesuit-dominated Roman Curia). The remaining essays explore the religious origins of the radical politics of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the Deventer reforms in the Dutch republics, Pietism in Germany, and efforts to secularize the Orthodox church and diminish the control of monastics in Russia.

One major theme is the alliances formed between religious and political reformers, such as those between Jansenists and revolutionaries in France. Sadly alliances, while sometimes beneficial to the religious reformers, often end up disappointing when political power asserts its own controls, or when religious reformers form alliances with the losing side. From this a second theme emerges, that of power. Reformers, both political and religious are seeking to overthrow or diminish the power of others in religious or governmental circles and using their alliances with one another to help in that effort. A third theme is religious liberty, whether for dissenters in the English, Scottish and Irish context, or pietists in Germany or even minority Catholics in the Dutch context. Most often here, as in the American context which is noted at several points, those seeking greater liberties often turn to the political powers-that-be for relief from established church power.

Given the academic character of the book, I would think it is of primary interest to those interested in the Enlightenment period of European church history. It should also be of interest to anyone interested in the question of church-state relations and the intertwined nature of these. Lastly, particular chapters of this work may be of interest to those coming from one of the represented religious traditions, whether that be French Catholic, Pietist, Reformed, or Russian orthodox. I’m part of a Pietist church tradition and so I particularly appreciated this material. I also find church-state relations fascinating, particularly because of the follies and dangers I see of churches getting themselves entangled in political processes. Lastly, I picked up the book because one of its editors teaches at the institution where I am engaged in collegiate ministry and when I saw the book at a bargain price, I just couldn’t pass it up!

View all my reviews