Author: Andrew T. Walker
Publisher: Brazos Press
Publishing Date: May 4, 2021
Pages: 272 (Paperback)
What are Christians to make of religious liberty? The free exercise of religion is one of the hallmarks of the American Constitution, enshrined alongside speech, assembly, petitioning the government, and freedom of the press, as a way of creating space for religion within American life—however checkered that history of equal protection might be. But the placement of “religion” alongside other forms of speech in the 1st Amendment does Christian discipleship a backhanded service by describing “religion” as a form of speech like assembly and journalism. This approach, which we find in John Locke’s treatise on religious toleration, is one in which religion is treated as a kind of opinion, a set of ideas held by freely assembled individuals, protected as a kind of idea about final things, but ultimately, no more dangerous than believing that unicorns exist.
This freedom, afforded by the Constitution, has never been entirely satisfactory, as “free exercise” is not just the holding of certain opinions about ultimate things but acting on them in a way consistent with the ideas: worshiping in this way, with these people, not beholding certain gods or offering certain sacrifices. But the history of religious liberty in America is largely one which has existed under this shadow: religion as ideas and practices, tolerated as opinions about things which have little effect on the ways in which the real world runs. And indeed, as America becomes increasingly post-Christian, this arrangement of religious liberty—as allowing for ideas, with a limited space for praxis—may be running its course.
It is here that Andrew Walker’s new book, Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age, enters in, offering an apology for religious freedom not as a political arrangement, but as a doctrinally-grounded act for Christians to undertake. This account, written for Christians to see the value of awarding all persons religious freedom, turns on three loci: eschatology, anthropology, and missiology. Because we live in the time between the times, God permits religious liberty as a form of divine patience, for no one can be compelled to hold to a particular faith. All have been created to worship and fulfill their vocation as those created in God’s image as they seek God freely, coming to faith not out of compulsion but free assent. This age, between the ascension and the Second Coming, is one characterized by a searching out of the truth, offering Christians various opportunities to engage with people of other faiths and no faith about the common good and about the nature of ultimate things.
Eschatologically, there will be judgment of the world, but in God’s patience, religious pluralism exists as an extension of God’s patience, “divinely orchestrated” as a post-diluvian ordinance of creation (55). Eschatology is built up in this way because it accords to the human nature; as Walker writes, religious liberty is doctrinally necessary because “Nothing less than personhood is at stake. Religious liberty is a juncture where one’s duty to God intersects with one’s obligation to live out duties and moral commitments for the sake of personal authenticity” (10). The eschatological foundation necessitates preserving “personal authenticity” by which a person exercises faith; the Noahic covenant, Walker writes, assumes this liberty, without which people “lack the culpability that renders them eligible for judgment” (88). Persons failing to find faith are thus responsible for their own failure, making Christian engagement in the marketplace of ideas all the more important. Christians contest alternatives on the grounds of ethics. The divinely permitted time of patience, he writes, “aids Christian mission in its ultimate task of seeing individuals reconciled and redeemed” (157). Christians make use of this time to offer the world its salvation.
By framing religious liberty in this way, Walker wants to shift the register of Christian thinking away from political prudence to doctrinal coherence—but questions emerge almost immediately. As intuitive as it may be to speak of religious liberty politically, it has to be conceded at the beginning that the modern presumption of “religious freedom” is absent from Scripture, particularly in the sense of plurality of religious practice being permitted by governing bodies. For even in cases outside of Israel, such in prophetic judgments on Assyria or Babylon or Egypt, there is not an assumption of religious tolerance (much less with infinite patience), or of religious practice beyond Israel that occurs with divine blessing. As such, Walker is already moving against the grain in establishing religious liberty as not just a prudential ethic, but as a theology.
Walker’s attempt to ground religious freedom as a doctrinal question comes ultimately to a paradoxical, and even contradictory, place: on the one hand, Christians are called to convert the world (a consequence of religious liberty grounded in a doctrine of mission), while on the other hand, they are called to cultivate religious pluralism as a matter of natural law (because it is also grounded in eschatology). If God does in fact not just tolerate religious diversity, but, as Walker contends multiple times, enshrines religious liberty as a natural law facet of creation, we are left with a divided mind as to what religious liberty is for, and more to the point, what God actually thinks about it.
If we begin with the premise, as Walker does, that religious liberty is not simply a prudential act for a pluralist society (something Christians make use of the historical situation in which they exist), but something which is mandated by the natural law order of creation, we are left with a contest between the mission of conversion and the mission of preservation. Christians are both doctrinally compelled to convert the world and to seek the conditions for pluralism to be preserved temporally, to both hope for conversion and support conditions in which conversion is work of an autonomous individual. While religious freedom may be—and has been—defended as a prudential act in a democratic polity in which reasons for belief can be given and argued about, defending religious liberty doctrinally in this way results in a divided conclusion about the goal of religious liberty. In the end, the reader is left with a seemingly irresolvable paradox: that we support a framework within which religious pluralism can flourish (because of eschatology), all the while hoping that religious pluralism will diminish through the conversion to Christianity (because of missions).
In a society where Christian influence is in decline politically, Walker’s treatise for a Christian audience—to help a beleaguered audience see why religious liberty for all people is a consistently Christian thing to advocate for—comes from an admirable place. Christian patience is easy to exercise when Christian influence is dominant, and so, encouraging Christians to defend it when influence is waning is an important exercise to undertake. And it is true that building an account for religious liberty on some other grounds than convenience or prudence matters: prudence is a more tenuous place to ground political arrangements than in doctrinal truths, not only because politics shift with the tides, but because Christians are bound by doctrine in ways that they are not by political prudence. But the doctrinal rootage of the book, asking an ethic to bear doctrinal weight, leads to an unclear conclusion as to what religious liberty should actually consist of.
Religious liberty is certainly in need of advocates, whether with respect to Uighur Muslims in China, Copts in Ethiopia, or Pentecostals in Nigeria. And, in Walker’s defense, such protection can be offered doctrinally. But rather than rooting it in an account of individual dignity, which leads to these contradictory impulses, it must be rooted in a doctrine of gift: that the world and all that inhabit it exist as a gift given by God, a gift which may be abused, for some will lay hold of it to preserve good, and some to safeguard themselves against the good. Such is the way of God’s gifts: Christ dies for us while we are yet sinners. Religious liberty is better doctrinally accounted for not as a loci, but as a parable: Christians advocate for religious liberty because it is a fitting gift to offer the world in light of what Christ has given to the church.
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I have always wondered about the questions brought up by Dr. Werntz. He and the book’s author, Walker, have at least attempted to broach this dilemma that has nagged me for quite some time. I know instinctively that freedom to believe is important and necessary in a pluralistic world and society that has traditionally been grounded in natural law. However, the doctrinal issue begs the question. When Rome ruled half of the world, there was pluralism, but believing in the God of Scripture was not allowed. It seems pluralism did not help Jews and Christians in thoroughly religiously pagan societies. Are we coming full circle to this kind of pluralism again? If so, in the paganistic pluralism of Roman ilk, there is no space for Christianity or Judaism or even Islam.