Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age by Andrew T. Walker (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 272 pages, $19.99 (Paperback).
Children often learn according to the Law of Gray Areas: they find out where a line is by crossing it. Looking back over the last few decades, it is obvious to an increasing number of us that our culture has crossed several such remarkable lines. These transgressions have clarified an important transition from what Aaron Renn describes as the “Positive World,” in which being a Christian is viewed as a net good for one’s social status, to the “Neutral World,” and now to the “Negative World,” in which many traditional Christian beliefs are no longer tolerated by the Blue Checkmark gatekeepers of society. Many find it hard to square this descent into intolerance with our culture’s longstanding commitment to religious liberty. But it may in fact be that the very logic of this religious liberty has long aided and abetted our cultural transition.
Andrew Walker’s Liberty For All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age is the best recent explanation and defense of America’s prevailing logic of religious liberty. In Walker’s view, religious liberty means an individual’s right to act in accordance with almost any authentically held moral belief without threat of state coercion to the contrary. This essentially classical liberal understanding of religious liberty precludes the government from adopting any religious ethic that would inform its laws, since citizens who do not accept the legitimacy of that religion could interpret enforcement of such laws as intolerant religious coercion.
Walker portrays this understanding of religious liberty as synonymous with the traditional American conception of liberty in general (references to and quotations from the colonial and founding eras abound). Particularly adroit is Walker’s argument that the very logic of the Gospel likewise requires this view of religious liberty. Prudence and the Great Commission—in the light of eternity and in consideration of the world’s temporarily fallen state—dictate that man be able to stand before God completely uncoerced by human laws.
The book’s strongest element, though, is Walker’s tightly reasoned argument that religious liberty, thus construed, requires a Baptist theology of baptism. Just as infant baptism is the height of religious coercion in the Church, so too are public laws informed by religion the essence of unjust oppression in society. For anyone looking for the best articulation of such a view, look no further.
Indeed, for readers interested in the interplay between theology and politics, Walker’s book is most helpful for showing the connection between believer’s baptism and a view of society that shuns any form of “church-state union.” To Walker both are toxic to a “vibrant church” (234). Echoing a common criticism of infant baptism, Walker asserts that “no government can effect or impede actual true belief,” which statement, he claims, is a reflection of “a fundamentally theological reality” (98).
The book is divided into three sections: eschatology, anthropology, and missiology. Throughout, Walker propounds a perspective of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God in the midst of a “pluralistic age” that necessarily requires two conclusions: first, society must be neutral with regard to morality that is informed by religion, thus allowing individuals to consent freely to moral behaviors and personal conversion. Second, the Church must adopt the Baptist theology of believer’s baptism, which assumes that true conversion is only possible after an age of consent.
Although Walker acknowledges that a “militant, secular progressivism continues apace with a very clear intention of challenging and subjugating the moral claims of Christianity”, he denies that the view of religious liberty he endorses is at all responsible for the rise of this great threat to the moral dominance of Christianity in the culture (223). Rather, Walker concludes that this absolutist view of religious liberty is necessary for effective evangelism and authentic conversion.
Walker’s conclusions are, of course, just the conclusions one would (usually) expect a Baptist to make. Those otherwise persuaded about baptism will (usually) conclude differently. Can any criticisms be made of the book, though, which don’t devolve somehow into rehashing old arguments about who should be baptized? I think so.
One criticism can be illustrated with a historical example that plays out the logic of Walker’s political theology. This example helps reveal something of the nature of the question at stake in Walker’s book, viz., how Christians ought to live out their faith in the public square. We will come to this example shortly.
Despite laudable aims, it is hard to see how Walker’s conclusions do not ultimately overthrow God-given duties of both citizens and rulers to have an ethical concern for the common good. Furthermore, these conclusions, in the words of Richard Hooker, deny the legitimacy of the “law of public reason” and accept only the “law of private reason,” undermining the basis of civil law altogether and its role in shaping wholesome public customs. Moreover, they undermine the best means of fulfilling these obligations, viz., an informed and dutiful electorate choosing for themselves wise and virtuous rulers to make and enforce laws for the common good.
In his book, Walker recognizes that not all expressions of religious liberty are created equal. He rejects Justice Anthony Kennedy’s description of liberty, i.e., “the right to define one’s own concept of existence,” as “debased and vulgar,” asserting that “true liberty… is ordered to reason’s grasp of the truth” (96). So who or what is tasked with doing such ordering? Walker does not say. It certainly isn’t the political regime – in Walker’s view, it is only permitted to secure a “minimalist social order” that only restricts expressions of belief that “physically harm” others (54-55). All attempts to use political power for anything more must devolve, according to Walker, into totalizing forms of either seculocracy or theocracy.
Instead Walker hopes for conditions in which political aims are modest but stable, and conducive to private evangelism among fully consenting individuals. These conditions he calls “ordered liberty,” and he looks for this to arise organically from a marketplace of ideas – but apparently a marketplace in which Walker hopes no idea ever wins out and gains actual purchase in society. Instead, he hopes a constant state of contestation will prevail, a condition he calls contestulocracy (65-71) (C. S. Lewis once wrote: “let barbarous things have barbarous names”). In this condition, supposedly neither seculocracy nor theocracy can come to dominate, for everyone in society restricts their private opinions regarding morality to their own private lives.
Such a view of politics neuters all ambitions to use the power of law to bring about human flourishing in any way beyond a minimal social order. Despite acknowledging a regnant “militant, secular progressivism” wreaking havoc today, Walker still proposes a political theology which disarms citizens and statesmen who would direct pious duty and prudential judgment to use the force of law to push back the reigning seculocracy and establish a more robustly Christian commonwealth – and one that does not have to be a cartoonish Handmaid’s Tale theocracy.Walker’s view of religious liberty therefore discourages citizens from having a politically effective concern for the moral content of the public square.
Stephen Douglas and “Popular Sovereignty”
We may take a historical example to illustrate how such a political theology works out in practice to the immense detriment of the common good. Stephen Douglas, a senator from Illinois in the years leading up to the Civil War, championed an idea called “popular sovereignty.” The effect of this idea on the public mind was the same as that which follows from Walker’s view of religious liberty.
Popular sovereignty was Douglas’s strategy for cooling national tensions on the slavery issue by allowing new states, as they entered the Union, to decide for themselves whether they would be a slave or a free state. We can draw a comparison between federal policy toward new states in Douglas’s theory, and citizens’ and statesmen’s concern for the moral content of the public square in Walker’s.
In his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln, Douglas framed “popular sovereignty” as “the great principle of self-government upon which our institutions were originally based.” Though slavery was not an institution he personally approved of, Douglas thought it none of his business whether other people in other states wanted it: slavery was, for him, a matter of self-government, an issue over which reasonable people might disagree, and who was he, after all, to force his view of the matter on others? It was in fact this “sacred” principle of self-government, Douglas preached, for which the Americans fought in the Revolution.
In 1858 Lincoln challenged Douglas for his Senate seat and the moral worth and historicity of Douglas’s description of “popular sovereignty” as the basis of the American founding. Douglas’s view of liberty was, Lincoln saw, terribly corrupting of both moral vision and right reason. Lincoln discerned that such a view also stripped the moral argument against slavery of all its teeth. Under “popular sovereignty,” a community’s decision to have slaves or not have slaves was merely a matter of taste.
Lincoln accused Douglas of “blowing out the moral lights around us.” Much worse than simply allowing a gross evil to be perpetuated, Douglas was “penetrating, so far as lies in his power, the human soul, and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty.” The cumulative effect, Lincoln worried, was that Douglas was “in every possible way preparing the public mind… for making the institution of slavery perpetual and national.” The “public mind” is the community’s judgment about the moral content of their laws and customs. In a republic, it is by the public mind that its rulers are chosen to enforce that judgment. Likewise, Lincoln understood that part of the role of statesmanship is to protect the public mind from corruption.
Douglas, however, was practicing false statesmanship by encouraging people to be indifferent about the federal policy regarding slavery, the federal public square, as it were. Lincoln demanded to know,
Where is the philosophy or the statesmanship based on the assumption that we are to quit talking about [slavery], and that the public mind is all at once to cease being agitated by it? Yet this is the policy here in the north that Douglas is advocating–that we are to care nothing about it! I ask you if it is not a false philosophy? Is it not a false statesmanship that undertakes to build up a system of policy upon the basis of caring nothing about the very thing that every body does care the most about?
By contrast, true statesmanship, according to Lincoln, protects and instructs the public mind. It “seeks to get rid of the fog which obscures the real question” and holds up before the public view “the eternal struggle between these two principles–right and wrong.”
The argument and very title of Walker’s book, Liberty For All, at best obscures and at worst denies the important theoretical distinction between liberty and license in the public mind. Contrary, then, to Walker’s hope for “ordered liberty” to arise out of “contestulocracy,” by confounding liberty with license, the logic of religious liberty argued for in his book actually encourages moral anarchy rather than liberty.
Such a benighted public mind might learn to accept and even celebrate evil, as Lincoln worried with regard to Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty and slavery. Richard Hooker similarly warned of such corruption of the public mind, noting that “perverted and wicked customs—perhaps beginning with a few and spreading to the multitude, and then continuing for a long time—may be so strong that they smother the light of our natural understanding, because men refuse to make an effort to consider whether their customs are good or evil.” When the “natural understanding” of the public mind becomes so darkened, Hooker wrote, “at times whole nations have been unable to recognize even gross iniquity as sin.”
In our day, we behold every media force in our public forum celebrating the foulest sexual deviancies, unimaginable only a few years ago. Likewise we witness the most prestigious institutions in society stoking racial divisions by insisting that racial oppression is the only lens through which one should view the past and present. Such social corrosion must be faced by courage that follows from clear moral vision, not assuming the position of a “provisional loser” because it makes possible a better evangelistic milieu (221).
Just as Douglas personally opposed slavery, I have no doubt that Walker personally opposes evil customs and laws and also hopes that they will find their way, somehow, to banishment from civil society. And yet it is hard to see how the proposal in Liberty For All has not been very effective to “blow out the moral lights” of the public mind of the American people. With such a public view of morality, Americans will only grow more accepting of evil being called good in the public square, and less likely to elect as rulers men who will have the pious wisdom to recognize, and the prudent virtue to pursue, a proper resolution of the tensions between the genuine scruples of individuals and the moral convictions of constitutional majorities.
Clifford Humphrey (Ph.D. Hillsdale College) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America and Assistant Professor of Humanities at Thales College.
Aaron Renn, “Welcome to the Negative World: Why We Need American Reformer,” American Reformer, accessed 1/15/2022, https://americanreformer.org/welcome-to-the-negative-world-why-we-need-american-reformer/. ↑
Richard Hooker, Divine Law and Human Nature, Or the first book of Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, edited and translated by W. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner (The Davenant Trust, 2017), 97. ↑
C. S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” God in the Dock in The Collected works of C. S. Lewis (New York, NY: Inspirational Press, 1996), 497. ↑
First Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Ottawa, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858 (New York, NY: The Library of America, 2008), 507-08. ↑
- Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858, 788. ↑
First Lincoln-Douglas Debate, 527 (emphasis added). ↑
Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate, 805-806 (original emphasis). ↑
Ibid., 810-811. ↑
Hooker, Divine Law and Human Nature, 43. ↑
Ibid., 75 (emphasis added). ↑