Published June 1, 2021
[Editor’s Note: EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker joined the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2019. He is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Apologetics, as well as the Associate Dean of the School of Theology. He is the co-author of the First Freedom religious liberty small group curriculum. He authored the award-winning book God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say About Gender Identity? He spoke to Charles Camosy about his new book, Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age.]
Camosy: Perhaps it is a product of the current intra-Catholic debates going on at the moment, but I have to note critiques of religious liberty from those who claim it sells out the truth to a mushy proceduralism or liberalism which tries to welcome contradictory visions of the good. What do you make of that general critique?
A lot of these issues pertaining to religious liberty inviting conflict into the public square and debates about the good are products of religious liberty itself. When you raise the idea that religions should be treated equally in society, it means you’re giving people the opportunity to make bad arguments contrary to the common good.
I still think the response to those arguments ought to be making better arguments in favor of a true conception of the common good, despite the accusations of mushy proceduralism. Mushy proceduralism for proceduralism’s sake is not the purpose of liberal democracy. I think we would say mushy proceduralism is a simple fact of reality of living in a constitutional democracy. But those procedural norms allow us to make substantive truth claims. So, insofar as liberal democracy is construed as proceduralism, I think that critique is valid. However, if proceduralism is meant to be a vehicle to communicate substantive truths about the common good, I think that criticism falls by the wayside, and the critique just does not register.
When we think about the very essence of liberty itself, as a social conservative and someone who approaches this from the classical natural law tradition, liberty is simply an instrumental good and not a basic good. Liberty is valuable insofar as it is being used in allowing us to live out what is true and benefits the common good. That is how we ought to understand liberty. Any errors that result from the mispractice of liberty are simply byproducts of creating environments that allow true conceptions of the common good to surface to the top.
A very different critique – and one that is actually far more widespread in our culture –argues that religious liberty is basically mere license for a kind of bigotry, especially against people who identity as gay or lesbian or against women seeking abortions. How do you respond to this critique?
There is a common misperception that religious liberty is simply used as a tool for individuals to discriminate. I think that is a misunderstanding of religious liberty. When we understand religious liberty to be the ability to engage in and promote ideological, religious, and moral discourse, it’s the ability to create systems that recognize fluctuation, provisionalism, and which in turn, invites reformation. Any type of belief system that would have, at the end of its day, a refusal to hear opposing sides is a viewpoint that is going to be hostile to reformation.
What we understand as the purpose of liberty’s existence is that liberty exists so that there may be an opportunity for reformation. When we have systems that close themselves off from critique, we’re closing ourselves off from the opportunity for better constructs and realizations of justice. When I hear this accusation that Christianity is guilty of bigotry and discrimination, I think, “Well, the rebuttal to that accusation is to have the liberty to discuss what exactly is discrimination and what are true conceptions of human nature and morality.”
So, I understand why those who identify as secular progressives don’t want to give space to religious viewpoints. Those viewpoints are critiquing their idols, but I would say as a recourse to protect everyone’s liberties, we need to create the conditions that allow opposing viewpoints to make their arguments in hopes that individuals will come to grasp better conceptions of what is true.
At first blush, especially for those who are only marginally familiar with Biblical scholarship, it isn’t super clear that the Bible is a good source for religious liberty. How do you ground your vision Biblically?
At the risk of making this too long of an answer since it essentially the substance of my entire book, let me just answer this briefly with one major overarching understanding of religious liberty in how we can ground it biblically. When we understand that Christ is king, we understand that Christ is ruling over domains and jurisdictions that have been assigned to him. We would all say as Christians that Christ is king over everything.
The question we have to ask right now is “how is that rule being manifested? How is that kingship being manifested in the existing age within the existing jurisdictions that God has established in this present age?” So, when we look at something like religion and religious claims, we have to ask the question, “Who has the ability to exercise rule and judgement over someone making religious claims?”
When we look at scripture in passages such as Matthew 22, we don’t see the idea that the government or Caesar is supreme over all aspects of existence. Rather, Caesar is supreme over limited jurisdictions. An entailment of that is that the government is supreme only over issues and jurisdictions that pertain to temporal common life and not to eternal, sacred life.
I would simply say that religious liberty is grounded in the belief that Christ is an ascendant king right now. The conscience belongs to Christ and it is his domain to judge as far as how people come to understand religion. That domain does not belong to the government. That domain belongs to Christ, alone. Therefore, calls for the government to be agnostic in its declarations of uniting itself to one religion in particular means that as a matter of formality there should be no union between church and state because Christ as King has not authorized the government to make adjudicating judgements on what is true religion from the vantage point of the state.
This disposition does not mean that society is to be secular or that religion and politics have nothing to do with each other. However, it does mean that government must not procure God’s wrath on itself for acting in a manner that extends beyond the jurisdiction that God has given it.
I couldn’t help but notice that Robert George wrote the forward to the book – which adds some interesting context for the next question. Do you detect an important difference between Protestant and Catholic social ethics that plays out in our understandings of religious liberty?
I don’t necessarily see myself operating in contradistinction from Catholic understandings of religious liberty, except for those Catholic understandings that I think are problematic on religious liberty that you might equate with medieval Christendom. I would root mine simply in a more explicit scriptural foundation. Then, I would also say, since I am a Protestant, that I would also root this in an understanding of justification by faith alone, which would mean that how someone comes to understand and comprehend the faith is not a matter of an intermediary source other than Christ himself.
Though accessible to the general reader, this book, as I understand it, is a rewrite of your learned dissertation on these matters. But I’m always interested in hearing about the personal stories which draw academics to work on certain topics. What about your personal story led you to write a book like this?
I spent six years working at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and it was during my time there that I was completing my doctoral work at Southern Seminary. It is an adaptation of my dissertation. My dissertation came about because I was writing a seminar paper on how I understood Protestants to be constructing understandings of religious liberty.
What I broadly noticed was that there were not biblical or systematic arguments for religious liberty coming from Protestants. It was more piecemeal. There might be biblical passages appealed to for grounding the doctrine of religious liberty, but it was not really tied to the overarching metanarrative of scripture. You might find Protestants employing broad constitutional arguments, or what I simply call broad theistic arguments, which is the idea that someone ought to be free to come to conclusions on their own about what they believe to be true on matters of religion. That is a claim effectively any religion could formulate.
My question was “Are there unique Protestant formulations that come to bear on this discussion?” That’s why I came up with the categories of eschatology, anthropology, and missiology in formulating a Protestant and evangelical ethic of religious liberty.
I would say this book arose out of a personal interest born from personal study, which is also grounded in the fact that Baptists in America have a long history of promoting religious freedom. So, my whole project was to say, “What does it mean to retrieve a Baptist understanding of religious freedom in the 21st century?” and perhaps to do that in a way that grounds religious liberty in broader systematic theological categories.