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Why Should Christians Defend Religious Liberty? Dr. Andrew Walker

Home » Why Should Christians Defend Religious Liberty? Dr. Andrew Walker

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Walker about religious liberty.

Topics of conversation include:

  • A definition of religious liberty
  • Where we find support for religious liberty in Scripture
  • The original intent behind the phrase “separation of church and state”
  • What’s at stake for Christians in protecting religious rights for all

Dr. Andrew Walker is associate professor of Christian Ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He serves as director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement and is the author of several books, including Marriage Is: How Marriage Transforms Society and Cultivates Human Flourishing (B & H Books, 2015), God and the Transgender Debate (The Good Book Company, 2017), and Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age (Brazos Press, 2021).

 


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:16):

The Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States, and they guarantee fundamental rights for American citizens. The first amendment in particular gives five rights at the core of American Liberty—including religious freedom. Here’s what it states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. All citizens are afforded religious liberty to worship as they see fit, or not to worship at all. Much of the founding principles were put in place to protect and preserve religious freedom from governmental interference, and not the other way around. Sadly, today many Christians do not understand the premise of religious freedom, either. They do not believe others should have the same freedom to worship as they do, or they think that faith must be kept out of the halls of power.

 

Brian Arnold (01:10):

Neither of these approaches is helpful, and neither will preserve religious freedom for evangelicals in the 21st century. Well, to talk about the importance of religious liberty today, we have with us, Dr. Andrew Walker. Dr. Walker is associate professor of Christian Ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and serves as the executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. He writes prolifically on the topics related to Christian ethics, and has published several books, including God and the Transgender Debate, Marriage Is: How Marriage Transforms Society and Cultivates Human Flourishing, and on the topic for our discussion today, Liberty For All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age. Dr. Walker, welcome to the podcast.

 

Andrew Walker (01:53):

Hey, Dr. Arnold. It’s good to be on, and thanks for the invitation.

 

Brian Arnold (01:57):

So we ask our guests one big question, today that question is this—why should Christians defend religious liberty? And I thought before you kind of jump in to answer that, I’d love to hear how this topic became so important to you.

 

Andrew Walker (02:09):

Thanks for that question. I came to the issue of religious liberty as a social conservative, but it wasn’t my social conservatism that led me immediately to religious liberty. It was because of these disputes around life and marriage in particular, and then as we’re seeing now, these issues of gender identity that I saw—in order for Christians to have a place in society to make our arguments around what we think God’s definition of marriage is, and about the truth of what an unborn child is, and practical things of how do we A) make those arguments in the public square, but then B) what protections are individuals in the private sphere afforded? So you think of medical doctors who don’t want to perform abortions. Well, those are conscience protection issues. So when you get into the realm of public argumentation, when you get into the realm of why does someone have the ability to make the arguments that they do, and to not do certain things that their conscience would tell them not to do, those immediately bring you to these issues of religious liberty.

 

Andrew Walker (03:22):

And so I came to this, again, because of my social conservatism, and admittedly I didn’t immediately come to my fervent love for religious liberty from the Bible, which sounds somewhat controversial given that I’ve written a theological defense of religious liberty. But it was understanding what religious liberty is, and then how that ties into our broader understanding of the Christian faith that led me to understand—oh my goodness, that religious liberty is actually tied into the logic of our faith. Even if there isn’t a verse in Scripture that says “thou shall have religious liberty.” And so when we think about the relationship between the Bible and religious liberty, because it’s not there in a verse, we then kind of have to ask the question—how is, or is Scripture speaking in these categories that tie into the concepts of religious liberty? And obviously I think they do, which is why that led me to write the book that I ultimately ended up writing.

 

Brian Arnold (04:26):

I think that’s a helpful entry point into this, because there’s a lot of naivete on the parts of Christians as they read the Bible, that think—if I can’t find the verse that specifically addresses this point, then maybe it’s not there at all.

 

Andrew Walker (04:36):

Right.

 

Brian Arnold (04:36):

Even if the entire witness of Scripture leads to that kind of a conclusion. So maybe if you could define religious liberty for us, that’d be really helpful here as we get started.

 

Andrew Walker (04:45):

Yeah. So I mean, the easiest way I kind of carve this up is to think of religious liberty in both a negative and a positive dimension. The positive dimension is the ability of the person to live out the convictions of their faith in all aspects of their life. And this ties into, I think, a theological understanding of religious liberty, because if someone has had what they believe is a profound interaction and alignment with the God of the Bible, that necessarily transforms all aspects of their life. It doesn’t just transform their heart. It transforms their minds. It transforms their ethics. Which means a person is necessarily going to want to live authentically in response to their understanding of who God is, what Christ has done for them. So that’s the positive dimension. Outward facing. I want to live my faith out, as my faith dictates. The negative dimension of religious liberty is it acts as a barrier to government intermingling in those domains, or those jurisdictions where it doesn’t have proper authority or proper competence to intermingle within.

 

Andrew Walker (06:03):

And so you think about something like the first amendment, which you know, you read the Bill of Rights and the first amendment to kick off this program. The first amendment is actually communicating a negative understanding of religious liberty, negative rights. Which is basically that government’s reach is limited. And so the presumption is you have the ability to exercise your religious liberty as far as government can reasonably allow you to take your religious liberty. It doesn’t mean that you have an unchecked right to religious liberty at all costs. It means, rather, that the government says—we’re giving you the presumption of liberty, and for us to violate your liberty, we actually have to prove…the burden is on us why we’re going to step in and burden you. And if we can’t prove why we must burden you, we’re going to default and give you the liberty to act on those convictions.

 

Andrew Walker (07:04):

And I would say here, just additionally, when you’re thinking about the theological components, one of the reasons I would argue that this is the case, is that I think from Scripture we deduce a principle of limited government. And when I say limited government, I don’t mean that in like a GOP talking point type of way. I mean when we look at God’s design for government, it’s not totalizing, it’s not omnicompetent, it doesn’t have dictatorial say over all aspects of our life. That government is pertaining only to temporal matters necessary for functioning and flourishing civil societies. That government isn’t designed, and it’s not actually been ordained in Scripture, to adjudicate the role of religion in people’s lives, or to play the role of a theological referee.

 

Brian Arnold (07:54):

So I would be interested to hear how you kind of flush that out across the Testaments, even. Because I can imagine somebody listening, thinking—I don’t see that necessarily in Old Testament Israel, where you kind of have a bit more of a theocratic approach and, you know, a king who’s ruling over the people. So how do you see that across even the biblical canon?

 

Andrew Walker (08:11):

Sure. That’s a wonderful question, because I mean, as Christians, we want to do our ethics in light of covenants and in light of the drama of redemption. And so, you know, one initial response I have to that is if someone derives opposition to religious liberty from Old Testament Israel, I would say—okay, well, you’re coming into the story a little bit later into the story. And so we need to go back to creation. We need to go to the fall. And then we need to go to redemption, and then ultimately restoration.

 

Andrew Walker (08:46):

But where I would root religious liberty as a function of a creation ordinance—and this isn’t my own work, necessarily, I’m borrowing from the work of Jonathan Leeman and David VanDrunen here, which I think they’re right—they would argue that prior to Israel, you have the reconstitution of the creation order with the Noahic Covenant. And when God reestablishes the creation order in light of the Noahic Covenant, what you see is a creation order where participation in that creation order is not premised on someone having proper theological belief. So what that means is, hypothetically speaking, if someone is a male or a female, and they’re operating on a good conscience, regardless of what their religious confession is, insofar as they’re acting reasonably in society, they have equal say, an equal participation in society around us. That God, in the Noahic Covenant, didn’t task government with adjudicating theological right and wrongs. Rather, in the Noahic Covenant, God is establishing government to adjudicate wrongs between intrahuman disputes, not theological disputes.

 

Andrew Walker (10:05):

And so obviously that means we do have to get to Israel eventually here in the storyline. And so how I answer kind of religious liberty in relationship to the Israel monarchy is to ask the question—was Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, was that the exception or the norm? And I actually think that was the exception. That’s not normative, as far as how all earthly governments and political orders are designed to relate to Yahweh. And so what we would say here is ultimately Israel has a unique covenantal experience with Yahweh. That, yes, on the surface of it, Old Testament Israel isn’t protecting religious liberty. In fact, you know, they’re told to kind of blot out regimes that have false conceptions of God. But that’s the Old Testament, and with Israel, and a kind of a theocratic civil arrangement. We then get to the New Testament, and you see a theocracy and a civil arrangement carry over into the church. Which the church is not, in the New Testament, seen as this civil polity. It’s a people group drawn from the nations. So that means that the nations and governments are still normative, but they don’t exist in the same way that Old Testament Israel existed in relationship to Yahweh.

 

Brian Arnold (11:33):

I think this is a lot of really helpful context for understanding how we derive a view of religious liberty from Scripture. I do want to say to our listeners, who maybe don’t have that kind of context of the covenantal kinds of framework that Dr. Walker’s talking about, we did an earlier podcast with Dr. Steve Wellum on how the Bible fits together, thinking through the covenants. And Steve Wellum and Peter Gentry wrote a book called Kingdom Through Covenant, which kind of lays out some of these covenantal features that will help bring some foundation, I think, to what you are talking about here, and how important that is for the storyline of Scripture. I want to go back to something you said a little bit earlier. And you were mentioning the negative aspect of the first amendment to the Bill of Rights.

 

Brian Arnold (12:20):

And I think the historical setting there is really important, because as we discuss these things today, it’s helpful for people who use some of the popular slogans of that era, and then fast forward to today, and use them—kind of weaponize them, I think even—against the church on these issues. And the thing I’m thinking about here in particular is Thomas Jefferson’s comment about the “high wall of separation,” right? So I read it again last night, this actually…a lot of people think it comes from a founding document—it doesn’t. It comes in a letter of response to the Danbury Baptists on January 1st of 1802. And Jefferson is writing to ensure that the Baptists have protection for their religious liberty. And so he actually quotes from the first amendment, and then, you know, says “thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” Which really was meant to say that the church is going to be protected from the state. Not that the state’s going to be necessarily—if I can say it this way—protected from the church. Which is to say, especially, I think of today with all of the issues that…some of them you mentioned with transgenderism, and abortion, and same-sex marriage, and Christians saying, well we have a view on this that we want protected, because of religious liberty. And people will say—I’m sorry, there’s a wall of separation here, and you can’t bring that in. So how do you help people think through that issue?

 

Andrew Walker (13:34):

Yeah. So there’s a lot to say there. First off, you’re right. These types of phrases, like “the separation of church and state,” they’re invoked thoughtlessly. When anyone doesn’t want to hear a religious argument, or says a religious argument doesn’t bear on the issue at hand, you just raise that, and that’s kind of the trump card, you know. You can’t bring religion into that. That raises a question about what our religiously-based ethical truth claims, which is a whole separate discussion we could have. But I’ll grant this—I think Jefferson was absolutely correct in saying that the institutions proper, of church and state, ought to be institutionally distinct. Meaning that you shouldn’t have the Baptists be the official, or the national church of the United States of America. Separating church and state is altogether different than the issue of separating religion from politics.

 

Andrew Walker (14:40):

And it’s very important to keep those two categories distinct. We want to argue for the separation of church and state. We cannot argue for the separation of religion and politics. And that’s because religion informs our ethics. Our ethics informs our political mores, in terms of how we then act on our religious convictions that inform our ethics. And moreover, we also see this in Jefferson’s own life. The same person who can write the Danbury letter on the separation of church and state, is the same Thomas Jefferson who is arguing for the necessity of paying for chaplains and having Bible studies in Congress. And so I think that captures the reality that there’s far more nuance going on at the founding. The founders understood that you had to have a very religiously-rich civil society for the sake of civil government, and democracy, and for the rule of law.

 

Andrew Walker (15:43):

What they were trying to do is to keep hard denominational bodies from having dictatorial control over religious matters. Let me just add this, just because it’s important—whenever the separation of church and state is invoked, it’s often meant to say, “well, your religious claim has no bearing on the issue at hand.” And I think we want to attack the presupposition right there, and to say, “well, no—you may not like the conviction that I’m sharing, but the conviction I’m sharing is either true or false, irrespective of whether it’s religiously grounded or not.” And so, in some sense, we want to dispute that a religious argument is therefore a sectarian argument. That’s not how religious arguments function in Scripture. In Scripture, religious arguments are grounded, obviously, in our doctrine of God. But if God is the God of order and reason, the ethics that we argue from as Christians necessarily bear relevance to the broader world around us. Which means, I think, we have an obligation to bring those ethics into the public square, because we actually think those are for human and cultural flourishing.

 

Brian Arnold (17:00):

Absolutely. We believe that the Christian worldview is actually best for society and best for people. And I think that’s really important for people to hear today, where they just think it’s all about power grabs and things. It’s actually about loving our neighbor. You said a couple things that I think are impactful, and that is religion leads to our ethic, and ethics really shape our politics. I think that’s really important for people to hear. And the second piece is how even something like separation of church and state was lived out in Jefferson’s own thinking, and in his life, and how he could say that on one hand, and still have congressional Bible studies on the other hand. Well, now let’s fast forward, you know, a couple hundred years. And here we are in a more pluralistic society than the founders probably ever could have even dreamt of.

 

Brian Arnold (17:43):

And now we have questions about religious liberty that we’re faced with. About, you know, things like Islam, or Hinduism, or atheism, that are more pervasive in our culture. I just think about, even on September 11th, there was a mosque not far from my house, and it was under protection for months by police—I think rightfully so—saying that this does not need to be burned down in light of what happened in New York City. So what’s at stake in protecting religious freedom? Because I think there’s a lot of evangelicals today who don’t feel the desire to protect religious liberty for other people, even though they want it protected for themselves. So kind of walk us through that. Because that’s a lot of what you do in your book.

 

Andrew Walker (18:28):

Yeah. So, I mean, the easiest phrase to invoke here is…you know, Benjamin Franklin has this famous phrase, after the Declaration was signed he was asked, you know—what are the stakes of this that you’ve just done? And he says, “well, we’ll all hang separately, or we’ll all hang together.” And I think that’s about right when it comes to something like religious liberty, is the reason that I have an interest in protecting the religious liberty rights of others is that in a society like our own, which is operating according to equal protection under the law, means my rights are reciprocally bound up in the rights of others. And so you’ll often have Christians kind of piously say—well, Christians shouldn’t be contending for their rights. If that means we shouldn’t be seeking self-seeking privilege and domination at the expense of others, I understand that.

 

Andrew Walker (19:27):

But my rights are bound up with a Jewish person’s rights. My rights are bound up with a Muslim person’s rights. And so I have a principial need to defend their religious liberty in the hopes that they would defend my religious liberty as well. Because again, we either hang separately or we hang together. And that’s why the religious…the first amendment is the important principle that it is. It’s not saying that religious liberty is premised on popularity. It’s not premised on size. It’s premised on that principle of basic equality under the law. And so that means we have to, you know, defend the rights of others. And listen, I get it. It’s not fun to defend the religious rights of other religions. And I should say here, we would not be defending the theological merits of other viewpoints. Not at all. We’re not relativists as Christians, or pluralists as Christians. What we’re doing is defending the political right to religious liberty. We’re not defending the equal merits of all religious viewpoints. It’s very important to separate that.

 

Brian Arnold (20:43):

That’s a critically important difference, is that you and I would both say—everyone needs to bow their knee to King Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the only access point to heaven. But I want to respect your ability to worship differently than me, because I know I can’t coerce your religious practice. I mean, this goes back a long ways. If people think this is a new phenomenon, it certainly isn’t. I think back to Charlemagne, and Alcuin of York. And Alcuin has to say to Charlemagne that you cannot convert people at the tip of a sword. You can seek to persuade them, but you cannot convert them through forceful means. Right? So this is definitely not something new in church history, of thinking through how we give people rights in terms of religious freedom.

 

Andrew Walker (21:27):

And I’ll just say real quick—I mean, that speaks to what I mentioned earlier, kind of the logic of the gospel and religious liberty. The logic of the gospel would say that you can’t fake it. You can’t make someone believe something that they don’t believe. Like, at the level of like actuality, you can’t coerce belief that someone doesn’t voluntarily ascent to themselves. And so this is an expression of our confidence in the gospel, and the power of the gospel to convert. Not the gospel plus the sword.

 

Brian Arnold (21:58):

Well, amen to that. I think that’s critically important, because when I see people, especially on social media, erupting over this issue, they’re not thinking through it in that way, I don’t feel like. But I want to press you on one piece, and maybe it’s a bit of a reductio ad absurdum here, but—something like satanic worship. And some cultic kind of means that could really be damaging to people. And so, how would you say that? How would you say—should satanic cults have religious freedom?

 

Andrew Walker (22:27):

Yeah. So this is where you have to test the limits of your religious liberty commitments. So let me back up by saying, no one would say—and I especially would not say—that religious liberty is a blank check. That insofar as you appeal to religion, therefore it’s okay. There are, of course, lines to draw in the sand. So issues of public safety and public health. I mean, you can’t commit child sacrifice in the name of religious liberty, and that, you know—

 

Brian Arnold (22:56):

Unless you’re a secular humanist, and it’s abortion.

 

Andrew Walker (22:59):

Unless you’re a secular humanist and it’s called abortion. Exactly. Right. So I think what we want to say here is—can the state demonstrate that the actions of the religion are so egregious that it definitely crosses a threshold for where their religious liberty needs to be restricted? And if that’s established, then okay. I want to add a caveat here, and say—I want that to be the job of legislatures, and not judges. It’s the job of legislatures to determine what policy is, and to determine what those lines are that can and cannot be crossed. I don’t want unelected judges to determine what those lines are, because they’re not accountable to the people. They’re not accountable to representation themselves. So I, again, the hypothetical—I don’t…so where my ignorance is being pled, is I don’t know enough about satanic worship to know what is happening as a result of that in the public square.

 

Andrew Walker (24:04):

So there’s some degree of ignorance here. But broader principle is—if religion is doing something that is obviously a demonstrable threat to public safety, public health, then yes, absolutely the state has grounds to restrict their religious liberty. But then to restrict their religious liberty using the least restrictive means. Which means, we’re going to restrict your liberty, but to restrict it only where we need to stop it, and no point further than that. And because, again, it’s operating from that belief in the presumption of liberty residing with the religious people themselves, not as a dispensation of the state.

 

Brian Arnold (24:45):

And thankfully in some recent cases, even, the Supreme Court has done just that, is really protecting religious liberty, it seems like, in a number of areas. Well, there’s a lot more I would want to talk about on this topic. It’s so important for our day today. But what’s important, I think, for our guests to hear is that religious liberty is something that matters for all of us. We need to defend it for others, so that it will be defended for ourselves. That we can worship in freedom and have the liberty to do so. Dr. Walker, thank you so much for joining us in this conversation today.

 

Outro (25:15):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

 

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