Does God Want Religious Liberty?

Religious liberty is under assault. There was probably never a time when that statement was not true. But these days there is a new front in the war over religious liberty coming from unexpected quarters. The rise of what we can call the neointegralists has been rapid.

To take the most well-known example, look at Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed, the title of which tips off the agenda. The Liberalism that failed is not the policies of the modern Democratic Party, but the entire Enlightenment project, including the protection of religious liberty. As Brian Smith has detailed, arguments like Deneen’s lead easily to arguments in favor of a more explicitly Christian State. It isn’t just the Roman Catholics making this argument, however. Greg Forster has found the same themes in evangelical Christian nationalism. Faced with these trends, it is useful to think anew about the argument in favor of religious liberty. Andrew Walker’s recent Liberty For All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age is a useful contribution to this endeavor.

How Not to Argue with Integralists

The most commonly used argument is what we can call the Uncertainty Principle. In the face of uncertainty about the truth, limiting the ability for people to dispute common beliefs means that we may never discover the truth. As John Stuart Mill notes in On Liberty:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

That argument has a lot of resonance for a wide swath of ideas. Scientific progress hinges on being open to new ideas. Economic policy can only be developed as people present new ideas in changing circumstances.

However, it is not immediately obvious that the Uncertainty Principle applies to religious thought. It is easy to see how scientific or political beliefs need to be held with some skeptical reserve. Is the same true of belief in God? What if I have total and complete faith in the correctness of my ideas about God? As the writer of Hebrews notes, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” If I have faith, if I have conviction that my beliefs are correct, then why would I favor religious liberty?

Along comes the second defense of religious liberty, which we can call the Quid Pro Quo Argument. You may know with absolute metaphysical certainty that your religious beliefs are correct, but not everyone in your community agrees with you. What happens if the others in your community restrict your liberty to proclaim or practice your religious beliefs? To prevent that from happening, we all make a grand bargain: I will not restrict your religious liberty if you do not restrict my religious liberty.

The attack on religious liberty from those who profess no religious beliefs is longstanding. If religion is the opiate of the people, if religion is just a form of totalitarian power politics, then those without religious beliefs feel perfectly free to oppose any expression of religious belief happening in any public space. Conservatives have become accustomed to waging this battle which crops up anew in every generation; the Uncertainty Principle and the Quid Pro Quo Agreement come easily to the lips.

Neither of these arguments, however, have much traction with the neointegralists. It is not hard to see why. Imagine you know with absolute certainty not only that your religious beliefs are correct but that people who do not share your religious beliefs are headed for eternal damnation. Imagine your religious beliefs include a mandate from God that believers should do everything they can not only to reduce the number of people who are damned but to limit the influence of the forces of evil in this world. If I have a God-given mission to reduce the amount of false belief in this world, why should I be tolerant of those who are advocating false beliefs? Why should we allow people to increase the amount of evil in the world? If the cost of religious liberty is eternal damnation for many, what possible temporal benefits of religious liberty would outweigh that cost?

The Religious Argument for Liberty

Enter Walker, an associate professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Liberty For All makes the case the title suggests. The most striking feature of Walker’s argument is how it gives up what one might consider the firmer ground on which to build a case for religious liberty. If one thinks about Western Civilization as the combination of thought originating in Athens and Jerusalem, it seems obvious that the case for religious liberty is grounded in the realm of Athens. Walker, however, turns to Jerusalem for his argument. It is written exclusively for those who share Walker’s religious beliefs. There is nothing in this book that would be the least bit persuasive to an atheist or an agnostic or a Muslim or a Hindu. Walker is trying to convince his fellow Christians that religious liberty is desirable even if there is no doubt that Christianity is true. Why? Because God wants religious liberty.

According to Walker, a government that does not recognize religious liberty is not merely violating the first amendment, but also the first commandment.

There are three strands to Walker’s argument. First, and most persuasive, is the eschatological argument that the kingdom of God is not something meant to be realized on Earth. There is a sharp line between the roles of state and church. “The state orders temporal affairs for the fulfillment of the common good, while the church orders spiritual affairs pertaining to the fulfillment of the eternal good.” When the state starts infringing on the realm of spiritual affairs, it is interfering in the Kingdom of God, over which it has no authority. As Eric Voegelin memorably put it, we should not try to immanentize the eschaton.

Walker does not shirk from stating this line of argument forcefully. A government that does not recognize religious liberty is not merely violating the first amendment, but also the first commandment. Such a government is a “demonic undertaking of a false mantle of authority.” The only acceptable theological solution is a “Christian secularism,” in which the government sticks to its realm of managing merely earthly affairs, leaving heavenly concerns to the church.

Does this argument for religious liberty work? Certainly, if you accept the premise that government should stick solely to matters of taxation or traffic laws. But, if you consider the Ten Commandments, does the State have the authority to impose any of those as law? Why is it impermissible for the state to enforce the prohibition on having other gods, but permissible to prohibit murder and theft? There are ways to answer that question, but Walker’s eschatological argument is insufficient. The line between things that make “life livable in society” and eternal concerns is a lot blurrier than we might like.

The second argument is anthropological, asking about the implications of the fact that humans were created in the image of God. It is here that we can begin to see the wobbliness inherent in Walker’s larger argument. Walker begins by arguing that the image of God means that humans have been stamped with moral agency. “We have agency as humans because God has agency.” Humans can only act as moral agents, and thus can only act as beings created in the image of God if they have the freedom to fully use their reason and conscience to determine how to act. Limiting religious liberty is thus akin to depriving people of the ability to be fully human.

Does this mean all religions need to be permitted? If my reason and conscience have led me to believe that infant sacrifice is a necessary part of my worship, is the state compelled to allow me the freedom to do so? In trying to sort out matters like this, Walker ends up yielding his entire point: “The right to authentic living is not an absolute right at all costs. When governing bodies reach legitimate concerns that someone’s expression of authentic living is causing harm to themselves or to society, they have the right to intervene.” Expressions of religious belief can be curtailed if they harm society? It is, quite honestly, surprising that Walker does not seem to realize how that is exactly the argument being widely used these days to limit all sorts of expressions of Christian belief.

Finally, Walker turns to the missiological argument for religious liberty, that religious liberty is necessary for Christians to effectively spread the gospel. Christians should have confidence that the truth will win out in free religious debate. Christian arguments will be sharpened by encountering opposition. Christians will have more influence in a world with religious liberty. In essence, Walker is arguing that religious liberty is empirically better for Christianity in some dimension or other. If, however, you want to make an empirical case, you need data on the matter. Simply asserting that Christianity thrives more in a society with religious liberty does not make a compelling argument.

A Pluralist God?

What then to make of Walker’s argument? The whole is much better than the sum of the parts. Walker ably demonstrates that a case can be made that religious liberty is consistent with Christian theology. The book is a good response to those arguing, implicitly or explicitly, that Christian theology compels a Christian State. If Walker had restricted his arguments to that goal, it would have been a stronger work. But, he keeps wanting to do more, to show that religious liberty “originates with Christ’s authority over creation” and is thus “a crucial foundation for Christian social ethics and public theology.” In this he reaches too far. Showing that religious liberty is consistent with Scripture is not the same as arguing that religious liberty is a necessary conclusion from Christ’s authority over Creation.

If we flip the question around, the problem with the stronger claim becomes apparent. While Walker argues persuasively that God does not mandate a theocracy, does God disapprove of theocracy? We don’t have to speculate about this. The first commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” could be read the way Walker reads it as a command that the government not view itself as a god, but the more straightforward reading is as a law prohibiting the worship of other gods. In the early crafting of the nation of Israel, God could have mandated religious liberty, but instead demanded that the Israelites separate themselves from those with other religious beliefs. The Israelites are never condemned for restrictions on religious liberty, nor are they encouraged to allow worshippers of other gods to practice or preach their beliefs.

What can we conclude if God neither mandates nor prohibits religious liberty? Any theology of societal order must account for the fact that God seems perfectly willing to work in any form of government. To make the case that religious liberty is implicit in Christian theology would require explaining why it seems so easy to reach the opposite conclusion in looking at Scripture. This is not to say such arguments cannot be made. But, Walker would need to make those arguments before concluding that religious liberty is of “supreme relevance” to social ethics and public theology.

A tempered version of Walker’s argument, however, is enormously useful these days. By confining the arguments for religious liberty to the ideas originating from Mill and Locke, responses to Christian neointegralists have been missing a theological piece. Liberty for All has filled that void.


Confession 1

Breaking Faith

Religious liberty is not a trump card that wins every time, but interference with clergy-penitent privilege will do no good and may produce real harm.