Religious freedom is often described as the “First Freedom,” as it is the first freedom listed in the First Amendment to our nation’s constitution. Christians have had to defend our religious liberty more and more over the past decade, but we must also advocate for religious freedom for all faiths in our nation.
So argues Dr. Andrew Walker in his new book Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age. Dr. Walker is an associate professor of Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. He joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to unpack why religious liberty for all is so critical.
As Christians, we know ours is the one true faith, and Christ will judge all false belief when he returns. But in our society, argues Dr. Walker, if we want the rights and privileges afforded to us by the Constitution, we have to be willing to extend those rights and liberties to others as well. “What we do in America is not to deny that religions really do disagree with each other,” Dr. Walker continues, “but we take away the power to decide from the government. […] Religious liberty is at the very foundation of figuring out what type of society we’re going to have when societies are debating really, really intense matters.”
In order for religious liberty to flourish, people of faith have to engage in public policy in order to elect legislators who will defend this right. “That’s kind of the irony of this,” says Dr. Walker. “We’re looking for the type of legislator who, when they get into office, are understanding that they’re going to voluntarily remove themselves from certain forms of power, power over religion for example.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Andrew Walker discuss the importance of defending everyone’s religious liberty.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Christians are often accused of only being interested in defending our own religious beliefs and freedoms at the expense of others, especially in the public square. Southern Baptist theologian Dr. Andrew Walker argues for a more robust Christian ethic of religious liberty that helps the church defend religious freedom for everyone.
Dr. Walker is an associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. We’re grateful to have him on with us today to explore some highlights of his newest book, Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age.
Dr. Andrew Walker, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
DR. ANDREW WALKER: Thank you so much. It’s good to be with you all.
TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s just start off: is religious liberty a constitutional right in our country?
DR. ANDREW WALKER: Oh, certainly, it should come as no surprise to your audience. It’s in the First Amendment. It’s historically considered the very first freedom itself. And I think that’s an important component to how I think about this as a Christian. But even constitutionally speaking, when we think about what the first freedom is there for, it’s there to remind us that we do not owe our ultimate allegiance to the state. We owe allegiance to the state, but not an ultimate type of allegiance. Rather, the First Amendment is there to guarantee that individuals derive their ultimate meaning, their ultimate sense of truth, not from the state, but from God. And because our understanding and our relationship with God becomes primary, that is the seedbed for how we understand all other rights. In fact, a lot of historians would make the argument that when you ground rights in God, that more firmly secures our understanding of rights.
TRACI GRIGGS: I’ve heard Christians in the past say that our country is a Christian nation, and they use this to defend this idea of defending Christian religious liberties, perhaps at the expense of some of the other faiths. So why is it important for Christians to embrace religious freedom for all faiths?
DR. ANDREW WALKER: Well, I think we would want to talk about this notion of legal equality—and legal equality is merely the idea that in a nation-state like our own with a rule of law, for the rule of law to be consistent and to be applied fairly, it has to treat everyone equally. And in a constitutional framework like our own, all of our rights are bound up with one another. The phrase I would use is there’s a type of reciprocal relationship. If I want particular rights and privileges that the law affords me, I have to be willing to extend those rights and liberties as well. And so, when we talk about religious liberty as a legal right, as legal equality, that is not to say that all religions teach the same things. It’s not to relativize the truth claims of various religions. It merely means that because as a Christian—and I think as a constitutional matter—the state is not designed to play the role of a theological referee. It then takes religious authority outside of its authority and allows individuals to determine what is religious truth in their personal capacity, not as a capacity handed down by the state.
TRACI GRIGGS: Very important distinction. Would you outline for us, then, this broader vision of religious liberty that extends beyond the political to the heart of Christian understanding and living?
DR. ANDREW WALKER: Yeah, certainly. So the whole overarching thesis of my book is that religious liberty is not merely something that we should care about because of the First Amendment. Religious liberty is at the heart of the Christian story, of the storyline of scripture. When you look at themes like “the kingdom of God,” “the image of God ,” and “the mission of God,” ideas internal to the logic of religious liberty are present in all three of those categories. I’ll just mention them briefly very quickly.
When you think about the kingdom of God, we’re talking about Christ as King, that he has ultimate kingship and authority over the conscience. And because he does that means the state does not. When you get to something like being made in the image of God, it means that individuals possess reason and conscience and rationality, and they desire to use their moral agency to live authentic lives. And when we have language like the image of God, that’s how we understand that we’re not simply material beings. We are in-fleshed beings with souls, and that’s a really strong foundation to anchor a doctrine of human rights. And then we get to this notion of the mission of God. When you think about the ability to both proclaim the gospel and receive the gospel and to organize your life in response to the gospel, that’s integral to both how we understand the need for religious liberty to provide us with the freedoms to not be coerced, and not to be penalized for what we believe. But then also to share our faith freely. And then also to organize how we want to live our lives out in public. All of those realities have some type of political, legal ramification. And so all of a sudden we have the kingdom of God, the image of God, and the mission of God implicated in this category of religious liberty that I’ve written this book about.
TRACI GRIGGS: This idea of freedom of religious conscience. This is good for our nation, right? This is essential to the public good.
DR. ANDREW WALKER: I mean, we would say that freedom of conscience ultimately is good, but every right is a right up to a particular point. Every society has a notion of the common good and where rights become in conflict with a true notion of the common good. There’s a longstanding kind of jurisprudential approach to limiting rights because rights aren’t absolute. But an important concept when we think about religious liberty is that we have the presumption of liberty in this nation that we don’t have to prove to the government what it is we want to do, or how we believe what we’re going to believe. That is something that comes intrinsically to us, and the government doesn’t have an authority over that. When the government does want to step in and override our liberty, it’s their burden to prove when they have restrict our religious liberty. And so, again, religious freedom, conscious freedom, it’s not protecting all viewpoints as equal; it’s simply giving space for views that at least consider themselves to be oriented to the common good, to have a space to compete for followers and believers of any given faith.
TRACI GRIGGS: Our public discourse is so contentious and has been for years now. Can defending religious liberty for our neighbors of other faiths help us find civility and commonality, do you think, in the midst of all this disagreement?
DR. ANDREW WALKER: Certainly. I mean, that’s one of the kind of common grace components of religious freedom, because ultimate matters of faith have been taken out of the government’s hands. It leaves it in the hands of the citizens, and the citizens are left to find peaceable, tranquil ways to solve disputes. I mean, when you think about world history, the notion of religious liberty is actually the exception to the norm. The norm is religious oppression and making people second class citizens or banishing them for some type of religious belief. And we don’t do that in America. What we do in America is not to deny that religions really do disagree with each other, but we take that away from the power of the government to decide. And we put issues of, for example, when to restrict religious freedom, into the hands of deliberative bodies like Congress or our state legislatures, which are supposed to represent us. And so to me, that’s an example of how we can achieve a more peaceful, tranquil society, because we’re not resorting to figuring out, or settling religious disputes according to coercion or banishment or any type of penalty, or without resorting to violence. So religious liberty is at the very foundation of figuring out what type of society we’re going to have when societies are debating really, really intense matters.
TRACI GRIGGS: Why do you think it’s difficult, or can be difficult, for Christians in particular in our country to be able to grant this legal equality to everyone, and yet not suggest that all religions are the same? How do we walk that line, do you think?
DR. ANDREW WALKER: I mean, I think that’s just where we have to be careful thinkers and to understand the difference between what we would call a “legal right” versus a “theological right.” No one has a theological right to rebel against God, and God, to be clear, is going to bring all erring belief to an end. And in the book, I write about how religious liberty is an interim ethic; it’s an ethic for this particular age, but someday Christ will come back and he’s going to judge all false belief.
TRACI GRIGGS: What role can this broad approach to religious liberty have in helping the church engage in the public square more effectively?
DR. ANDREW WALKER: It stands as kind of one of the great presuppositions or pillars to our engagement in the public square. What I said a few minutes ago about this notion of the mission of God, for us to engage in society at any measure—from sharing the gospel, to organizing our resources for a pregnancy care center, for example—all of that assumes the ability to exercise one’s faith. And so I would say this is a call to the public square because we want to advocate for the truth about what we believe to be the case, as far as who we believe Christ is. But then also we want to advocate for legal and political contexts that are prioritizing liberty and taking power away from the state over these types of matters.
So I think that means it’s an individual call to care about the culture, but it’s also a political call that we need to vote for legislators who have this robust understanding of religious liberty. And that’s kind of the irony of this is we’re looking for the type of legislator who when they get into office, are understanding that they’re going to voluntarily remove themselves from certain forms of power, and that power over religion for example. Because what we understand in America is that government doesn’t tell us every last detail of the common good. It doesn’t give us every last measure of what is true and good and beautiful. The government has to have a commitment to some issues; it can’t be agnostic about everything. But we understand that government is there to secure rights, not tell us what is true and good and beautiful about every last measure of our lives.
You know, you have legislation like the Equality Act—the Equality Act is a direct threat to religious liberty because Christians believe certain substantive truths about what it means to be made male and female in God’s image. And we believe that that truth is a cornerstone to society. And we now have a progressive coalition that not only disagrees with what Christians believe about these core, foundational, and civilizational truths, but are seeking to banish them from the public square. When you look at a bill like the Equality Act, it has in its language that religious individuals cannot appeal to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act if there is ever a conflict over LGBT rights and religious liberty. And that’s an example of the government putting itself in the place of determining every last measure of what orthodoxy is on matters of sexuality and gender. I think it’s a mistake to say that what Christians believe around these issues is harmful or irrational; that’s completely not the case. What we believe around marriage and family and sexuality and gender are integral to human flourishing, and we need the space to make those truths as widely shared and proclaimed as possible because we want everyone to flourish in our society.
Religious liberty is only as useful in so far as you’re using it to say truthful things. And so I want to use these procedural rights and constitutional mechanisms that we have in order to make good, compelling arguments. If we are defaulting to religious liberty only, as our only safe harbor, that’s basically retreating into our little enclave and saying we don’t have good arguments. Well, I think we do have good arguments, and I want to use my religious liberty to advance a good, not simply to be left alone.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Dr. Andrew Walker, where can our listeners go to follow your work?
DR. ANDREW WALKER: The place I’m most visible is on Twitter. I’m simply @AndrewTWalk. That’s AndrewTWalk.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay. Dr. Andrew Walker, associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and author of a new book Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
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