Liberty for All
Defending Everyone's Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age
- ISBN: 9781587434495
- Published By: Brazos Press
- Published: May 2021
Theologian Andrew Walker has contributed a profound and compelling voice to the conversation about religious freedom in a complex American society. Walker’s methodology is unique from other scholars because he primarily and critically offers what he argues is the only systematic theology of religious liberty to date. While I am not familiar with a lot of the historiography, his present thesis certainly provides that via a narrative of religious liberty as a Christian principle. By looking to the Bible and early church fathers (primarily Augustine) as sources that supersede the U.S. Constitution in defining and defending religious liberty, Walker explicitly shifts the discourse of religious liberty from a legal or political context to a religious one. This at once addresses his biases as a Baptist theologian as well as advances an innovative mode of interpretation through which to analyze this highly debated principle.
Walker introduces the doctrine of religious liberty by referencing David Foster Wallace, whose commencement address at Kenyon College asserted that as human beings, we each get to decide what has meaning and what does not. If we are not consciously and critically aware of the ideas and traditions that influence what and how we think, then we are blindly devoting our core essence to forces outside our control. Wallace continues by saying that there is no such thing as atheism because we all worship something. Even if we are aware and consciously act on what we give meaning to, it is that driving force of our lives that is the core of what it means to be human. Walker further provides evidence for the necessity of religious freedom for all by arguing that religion is universal, and therefore, the freedom to believe and practice it is essential.
What is most compelling about Walker’s argument is how he is able to persuade the reader that Christian theology provides the structure, mission, and ideology best-suited for liberal democracy, which is itself the governing system and philosophy most conducive to religious liberty. To counter popular accusations that Christians are only concerned for their own religious freedom, Walker, writing to a Christian audience, shows believers in Christ how to critically use their scriptural ideologies to advance and promote religious liberty for all, including those with no faith. Additionally, Walker turns the charge of denominationalism on its head by explaining in the appendix that rather than being committed to religious liberty because of his Christian faith, his passion for religious liberty led him to more solidly confirm the truth of the Baptist doctrine he espouses.
Walker’s thesis is structured around concepts of Christian theology that emphasize the centrality of individual agency in relation to the common good. For example, Part 1 focuses on eschatology to describe the necessity of religious freedom in the penultimate political order in anticipation of the final age of Jesus’s reign, wherein all of humanity will come to believe in and practice Christian worship.
Part 2 explains the Imago Dei (image of God) in each human being that rightly establishes religious liberty as an inalienable right. In other words, since religious liberty originates from God, in whose image we are created, government is literally incapable of either granting or suppressing it. This central importance of the conscience in Christian teaching leaves open the possibility that some people will accept as true that which is false, thus precluding a political doctrine of Christian establishment.
Missiology rounds out his theoretical framework in Part 3 by demonstrating the responsibility of Christians to advocate for religious liberty, not only for themselves, but for all. Walker draws on substantial secondary scholarship to assert that it was Christianity that gave birth to religious freedom both as a theological idea and a social reality.
A large portion of his argument rests on defining religious liberty, which he regularly adds to throughout the book, and its relationship to modern secularism. In his first chapter, Walker defines religious liberty as
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, individually and communally, that is owed to God in all areas of life without threat of government penalty or social harassment (10).
This definition highlights the individuality of religious experience as well as the relational functions religious practice exerts on various communities. Walker constrains the parameters of religious freedom in the conceptual sphere in order to broaden its application to the real world by showing how society at large has unconsciously adapted many of the structures, story lines, and appearances of Christianity for seemingly nonreligious ends. He shows that secularism, as a cultural worldview, appropriates Christian eschatological views and separates it from its theological meaning. In other words, secularism takes on the role of a godless religion with parallel institutions, concepts, activities, and objects that ultimately fall short of redeeming humanity.
While the book is promoted and critically acclaimed by like-minded conservative Protestant Christians, this does not diminish Walker’s clear and concrete writing or the ingenuity of his argument. Rather, those who praise the book for its timely importance themselves understand the stakes of religious liberty not merely to be of political and cultural significance, but a doctrine with soteriological implications. Walker’s book is best thought of as a justification for religious liberty that focuses on its innately religious nature to counteract the narrative that focuses only on individual autonomy at the expense of the common good that legal and political scholars have established and built on in the past.
Mitch Nelson is a graduate student at Claremont Graduate UniversityMitch NelsonDate Of Review:February 22, 2022