The American notion of religious liberty was once considered a shared unassailable value, even if its application at times prompted vigorous disagreement. But today it is no longer so universally understood or embraced. To those of a progressive bent, “religious liberty” seems a euphemism for political power that aims to impede individual sexual freedom, especially the right to abortion and non-discrimination against sexual minorities. To Christians—particularly those of a traditional disposition—religious liberty seems like a final bulwark against the destruction of Judeo-Christian assumptions about morality and family life by a countervailing secular agenda imposed by fiat. The reality, culturally and judicially, is more nuanced than this stark dichotomy, a case First Amendment lawyer and litigator Luke Goodrich undertakes to explore in Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America.
Although pitched to a broad American audience, Goodrich’s highly readable volume is in fact directed more toward conservative Christians and their allies, those who are insecure about the 21st century’s post-Christian (or at least post-Christendom) landscape. Goodrich aims to educate these readers about what religious liberty is and is not, how religious liberty can in fact coexist with cultural and legal freedoms for others who do not share their religious views, and why it is important for Christians to support and advocate for religious liberty, not only for themselves but for all people of faiths—including those they may think profoundly wrong.
One senses that Goodrich has been frustrated by some of his Christian allies as he has litigated numerous religious liberty cases—particularly when those cases have been on behalf of non-Christians. One likewise senses that Goodrich is disappointed that some Christians have approaches to religious liberty matters that are facile (though he is too amiable to put it that way). He addresses this at the book’s beginning, noting the errors of those who believe that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation where Christians were to be privileged over others—and why this is not only historically incorrect but also not something that Christians should desire, given the dangers of conflating church and state. He likewise pushes back against Christians who take on a martyr role, thinking that inviting persecution is noble, so passively fail to defend religious freedom when they ought. And he rejects those who may think religious liberty seems a fine idea but who lack the industry or interest to think about what it means and prudently act upon it.
In appealing to his Christian readers, Goodrich does turn to the Old and New Testaments, with examples to make his case (part of what makes his book less relevant, perhaps, to secular readers). But he also is quite plain that making religious liberty arguments from the Christian scriptures or theology is nonsensical to those who do not share that faith, and that the case for religious liberty can be made potently and politely on entirely areligious grounds. He asserts persuasively, for example, that religious liberty protects dissent, promotes good works, and limits government, even as it promotes diversity, protect human rights, and diminishes conflict. It also paves the way for protection of other rights while preserving conscience. This aspect of his book deserves more exposure than a book directed mainly to Christians is likely to have.
Goodrich offers the model of conscientious objection to armed combat as the best model for how religious liberty interests can be protected legally while the law also reflects important secular societal values. This at-times uncomfortable coexistence has seemed to work, even in the emotion and fervor of war—though it rarely pleases everyone. It does not remove offense that might be taken, but it does provide stability of expectations and recognizes the importance of conscience.
The best litigators (and writers) excel at conveying often complex concepts in understandable fashion to their listeners and readers. Goodrich does this, as he aims his book at the non-lawyer who is not well-versed in religious liberty law or in its philosophical underpinnings. He refers to illustrative cases as he explains the religious liberty landscape, but thankfully avoids the lawyer’s reflex to insert case citations within his text. Instead, via comprehensive end notes, he provides references for those who which to explore further.
Failing to stay current is an occupational hazard for anyone writing about the state of the law, since within the American system of law appellate cases can change everything before one’s book goes to print. Indeed, in the last US Supreme Court term (after this book was written) were two cases with profound consequences for religious liberty. One, Bostock v. Clayton County, greatly expanded statutory employment protections for LGBT persons, while containing also strong language about ensuring religious liberty as those protections are put in force. The other, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, greatly expanded the “ministerial exception,” in essence enabling religious institutions to define for themselves employee religious expectations and thereby the reach of discrimination laws. What is noteworthy is that the way the author wrote his book these two 2020 cases did not date his book at all—indeed, they made his book seem all the more timely. Both implicitly support his thesis that the “conscientious objection” model for religious liberty provides a healthy middle ground for those wanting the law to reflect societal change while at the same time providing protection for those who have genuine religious liberty interests.
Free to Believe is a balanced and worthwhile introduction to religious liberty issues, especially for American Christians who (reasonably or unreasonably) fear their way of life is under assault by courts or culture. But it is also a valuable book for those who do not come from that perspective who wish to understand better how common ground might be found on religious liberty issues with Christians (and those of other faiths). Toward that end, Luke Goodrich has outlined a way forward that may well also be an emerging consensus on the Supreme Court, if not yet one within the American body politic.