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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age

Published Monday, November 1, 2021 By Timon Cline

Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age
Andrew T. Walker

Brazos Press, 2021
267 pages (paperback), $19.99

The past decade has been marked by seismic shifts in American political opinion. Remarkably, however, most Americans, despite many recent high-profile court battles, still support religious liberty—at least insofar as they do not want their sincerely held beliefs impinged. What exactly religious liberty does or should entail is likely less clear to the average voter. Lately, religious expression has come into conflict with questions of birth control, same-sex weddings, and transgenderism. Is religious liberty a sword or a shield? Is it shorthand for bigotry? Is it a public good or merely a private preference? 

In his new book, Liberty for All, Andrew Walker, a professor of ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, aims to convince believers and unbelievers alike that religious liberty is a common good, indispensable in our pluralistic age. It is the most tightly argued case for religious liberty made by any evangelical in recent memory.

Liberty for All proceeds by a tripartite framework: eschatology, anthropology, and missiology. In treating the kingdom, image, and mission of God, astute readers will quickly identify Walker’s evangelical and Baptist leanings. The crux of Walker’s eschatological argument is somewhat predictable, which is not to say boring or unoriginal. The familiar already/not yet reality of Christ’s kingdom informs Walker’s “age of contestability” in which we now live (30, 73). This age is marked by competing truth-claims. With the assurance of Christ’s final triumph, Christians are to live patiently in this context with a posture of “humility toward religious diversity” (44). Religious liberty is a temporary temporal doctrine that aids Christians in this parenthetical endeavor. This requires commitment to pluralism because coercion, advises Walker, “will not produce the kingdom of God” (187).

What is more, Christian coercion—whether in service of over-realized eschatology or not—runs afoul of Walker’s second argument: the dignity of man. The “interim social ethic” permits individuals, as moral agents, to freely seek after God without molestation of their consciences or persons (155). Humans are “truth-seeking creatures” who will worship something: whatever they think is true, commands authority, deserves adoration, and instills authenticity (19, 104). This requires freedom to pursue truth and “space to be wrong in hopes that individuals will come to the knowledge of the truth” (20).

This is not relativism or licentiousness here, but rather the belief that “we do not seek to criminalize, persecute, or marginalize people whose beliefs are sincere and are animating them toward lives of purpose, meaning, and goodwill” (19). Within limits, Walker advocates for giving space to people to “act in accordance with what they believe is choice-worthy and will produce flourishing” (20). Because “no human is a perfect arbiter of truth,” we are not to “impose truth on others; truth must be discovered after thorough, rigorous examination.” The same ethic is also evangelistically instrumental in that it “foster[s] the ideal conditions for the mission of Christ to continue [through the church]” (161). This is the missional argument. 

The impassioned case for religious liberty in Liberty for All alone is worth the read. It is refreshing to witness Christians zealously developing public theology, refusing to let the nakedness of the public square deter them. Walker’s prose is lively and readable, his arguments winsome, cogent, and concise. The Christian patience and confidence imbedded throughout Walker’s appeal is inspiring, especially in a political environment where utopian proposals abound. But Liberty for All, like any polemic, is not without problems.

No Neutrality

Walker rightly wants readers to reckon with their own fallibility. At the same time, he is confident in objective truth and “rigorous examination” as means of grasping it. These confidences justify a wide berth for inquiry. All of this is predicated on a liberal neutrality wherein people are free to maintain their sincerely held beliefs and insert them into the public conversation, because no one opinion has been declared orthodox from on high.

In this world, persuasion works because it is undergirded by dueling assumptions of the attainability of objective truth and the limited capacity of fallen humans to do so. This is a basically Christian worldview, the maintenance of which at the public level—that is, the preconditions for religious liberty—requires the cultural presence of Christianity. In short, Walker’s religious liberty is not only a Christian value; it also requires the Christian worldview to be publicly favored for it to flourish, for persuasion to yield consensus. This is the paradox of a position that assumes a kind of neutrality—which is not to imply that Walker is disingenuous.

Obviously, the cultural preconditions for Walker’s model are eroding, fast, and not simply because of Christianity’s diminished dominance, but for reasons akin to Stanley Fish’s provocative criticism of “free speech.”[1] Values like religious liberty and free speech cannot persist as content neutral. The utopia wherein no one’s sincerely held beliefs are marginalized or slighted is no more possible than one wherein fairness and equity exist detached from a particular, content-laden standard of justice. As David Foster Wallace (whom Walker quotes) realized, our object of worship dictates our thought patterns, desires, and virtues. For Walker,

Religious liberty is the principle of social practice wherein every individual, regardless of their religious confession, is equally free to believe, or not to believe, and to live out their understanding of the conscience’s duty . . . without threat of government penalty or social harassment. (24)

Further, it lets people “respond to their understanding of divine truth and to manifest the obligations of that divine truth in every dimension of life” (25).

This level of equal equality is simply not possible unless governments are morally neutral, wherein no moral compass is required to guide law and policy. This is impossible in theory and fact. No regime is morally neutral. Some ethic dictates decisions. Implicit in Walker’s argument is that for religious liberty to flourish, a Christian ethic must inform policy and constitutional limits. Is this not a violation of religious liberty unto “every dimension of life”? Is this not favoring one belief system and marginalizing others?

Secular scholars like Khyati Joshi think so. In White Christian Privilege, she writes: “The Protestant norm has shaped laws and court decisions on religious freedom. . . . Christian privilege is built into the edifice of American law.” This is evident, Joshi argues, in everything from the “action/belief divide” in Reynolds v. U.S. (1879) to the designation of marginal religious practices as public health hazards in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah (1993).[2] Joshi argues, then, that if laws controlling religious practices are going to be called “facially neutral,” then “we must recognize Christianity as the ‘face’ against which other traditions are being compared.” To Joshi, religious liberty, as popularly conceived, is a lie. She is partially right; it could not flourish outside of a context conditioned by Christianity, and without that ethic acting as the sinews to its bones.

And as Justice John Paul Stevens once pointed out, the original understanding of the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses in the First Amendment—upon which Walker’s Baptist forbears like John Leland exerted much influence—was far more limited than contemporary readers like Walker would guess.[3] To the founding generation, in general, toleration did not entail equal preference for all religions. Rather, as the Reverend Jasper Adams later argued, an ecumenical Christian ethic, though not a state-sanctioned establishment, was an indispensable foundation for society and the liberties intricate thereto.[4] Indeed, as the U.S. Constitution’s preamble makes clear, it is not liberty itself but the “blessings of liberty” that is the object of cultivation and preservation.

If the state insists on denying—Joshi would say disingenuously so—any such past influence of Christian morality, and refuses to perpetuate those constituting principles, then the basis for religious liberty will be severely diminished. Walker’s advocacy for “soul competency” is, after all, a decidedly Christian conception of spirituality, anthropology, and cosmology—an analogy that, for example, would convince no interlocutor who rejects the existence or immortality of the soul (238). Of course, Walker asserts religious liberty from an explicitly Christian perspective, backed by Christian confidence. However, like other sincerely held beliefs in Walker’s paradigm, this perspective has no claim to societal privilege over any other, even as a justification for affording competing beliefs a wide berth. 

The point is that some level of favoritism—which is not synonymous with coercion—for a basically Christian ethic is a prerequisite for the value of religious liberty, as Walker defines it, to be embraced in theory and practice, even in a pluralistic society. Religious liberty, traditionally understood, is predicated on at least a residual of Christian conceptions of truth, morality, and justice. Walker’s position, however, formally precludes any such favoritism and rather assumes the neutral, secular state as the best vehicle for securing liberty for all.

Death by Indifference

That the maximalist religious liberty Walker champions is built upon the edifice of neutrality runs into another self-defeating problem: namely, the Jefferson trap. For Thomas Jefferson, religion was merely an “additional incitement” to virtue—a decidedly instrumentalist view that nevertheless assumed some kind of blend of Christian and classical morality.[5] Its utility was in protecting liberties for their own sake; there was no higher end to which liberties were to be ordered. At the same time, Jefferson argued that religious conviction was exclusively private and that the state had no interest in promoting or demoting any religious beliefs in particular. Liberties had “no dependence on our religious opinions,”[6] and only unfettered inquiry could combat error. But the vantage point from which he defined “error” was circular and anemic.

Per Thomas Pangle (whom Walker cites to different ends in chapter 1), Jefferson doubted that there was “discoverable any core of religious truth.” Rather, there was “nothing but irresolvable diversity of opinion in religious matters . . . mere expression of native disposition, taste, and prejudice.”[7] (Walker rather feebly distinguishes religious conviction from choice in chapter 5.) Religion could be celebrated as an expression of diversity, not a proclamation of truth. Jefferson believed that submitting all religious opinions to the “tribunal” of free inquiry would finally disprove all such superstitions, as if faith and reason are mutually exclusive rather than complementary.[8] Pangle writes:

The real aim of toleration and free speech [for Jefferson] is not the encouragement of progress in theological or metaphysical science, but the trivialization of theology and metaphysics . . . not vigorous debate progressing toward agreed-on truth, but conformity based on indifference.

But as Pangle rightly discerns, “By manifesting indifference to theological controversy, government necessarily promotes indifference among the citizenry,” thereby undermining any appeals made by Jefferson’s contemporaries for the necessity of religion for a virtuous society. The Jeffersonian model does not coerce or suppress religion by force; rather, it chokes it out by the stifling indifference to religion inherent in a maximalist doctrine of religious liberty predicated on neutrality and expansive toleration.

We can see the fruit of this even now. Religious liberty has never been more legally protected in America, and religion has never had less purchase in public discourse. Religious liberty precedent has done little more than ensure that citizens can be privately bigoted, while more radical “orthodoxies” gain favor.

Yet Walker wants to justify religious liberty on basically Jeffersonian grounds: namely, the attainment of truth, authenticity, and fulfillment through free inquiry, while simultaneously maintaining that religious liberty is a common and substantive good that honors the imago Dei and restrains arbitrary government. Unfortunately for Walker, the Jeffersonian cake must either be had or eaten.

Walker does not want religion to atrophy, but the model he has adopted has proven to yield no other result. He thinks the pursuit of religion universally valuable, and that the government should provide the material conditions for this pursuit, without intervention, favoritism, or restraint—beyond what public safety requires, of course. But the neutral state that neither promotes nor discourages has no interest in religion at all, and religion is, accordingly, relegated to the private sphere, where things go to die from indifference. By adopting something of the Jeffersonian vision, Walker has unwittingly left us with a case for religious liberty that is, in the end, self-defeating.

Despite the above critique, Walker has made a real contribution to the renewed discussion of church and state in the liberal order. A Christian theocracy is, obviously, not a workable (or desirable) solution, but neither is a case for religious liberty that trades in the secularized notions of religion and liberty that have undermined the same.[9] Doubtless, religious liberty is good. The remaining question refers to its confines and justifications, a question that needs answering before the value can be asserted with fresh vigor. Walker’s book will prove a success if it moves others to consider the topic of religious liberty anew, even if that begins with critique of his own position.

Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, West­mins­ter Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. He has published in Areo Magazine, The American Spectator, and National Review, and he writes regularly on law, theo­logy, and politics at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

  • Timon Cline

1. Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
2. Khyati Joshi, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America (New York: NYU Press, 2020), 32–42.
3. Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, 726–28 (2005).
4. Daniel L. Dreisbach, ed., Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).
5. “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr” (August 10, 1787), https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0021.
6. Notes, 236 (“An Act for establishing Religious Freedom”).
7. Thomas Pangle, “Religion in the Thought of Some of the Leading American Founders,” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 4, no. 37(1990): 44–45.
8. See, e.g., “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thomson” (January 29, 1817), https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-11-02-0024.
9. Consider, perhaps, the middle road between the establishment of Massachusetts Bay and the free-for-all of Rhode Island, offered by the Puritan Separatists of Plymouth Colony. J. M. Bumsted, “A Well-Bounded Toleration: Church and State in the Plymouth Colony,” Journal of Church and State 10.2 (1968): 265–79.
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