First Freedom: A review

Duesing, Jason G, Thomas White, and Malcolm B Yarnell, eds. First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty. Second Edition. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2016.

Reviewed by Don Johnson

I laboured through this volume, I have to say that right up front. It is not that the subject isn’t important, it is very important. The subject attracted me to the book right up front. It is not that the writers are ignorant of their subject, they demonstrate (on the whole) a commendable grasp of the many-faceted topic that is religious freedom.

The difficulty, I think, is two-fold. One is that the book is a collection of essays rather than a cohesive discussion of the subject written by a single author. Collections of essays tend to suffer some discontinuity as a matter of course. They also suffer from uneven quality as some writers are simply better than others. This is true of this book, to be sure. The second difficulty is that the subject matter itself is of such a nature that riveting prose is doubtless a constant challenge for any writer. Thus, though informative in many ways, the volume is not easy reading.

The book is a second edition, the first being published in 2007. I am not sure how much material is repeated from the first edition and how much is brand new. My impression is that it is mostly new material.

The first section of the book is called “Religious Liberty in History.” It is most likely the portion that is of most interest to general readers, although there is some overlap here with volumes on Baptist History. Paige Patterson offers the most readable chapter, though perhaps not the most in depth. He asks the question, “Is it possible for one to hold an exclusive view of salvation … and still be a proponent of religious liberty?” (p. 11) This is a fundamental question. Patterson shows that liberty is implied by the Lord’s teaching itself and notes that the gospel is non-coercive in nature, dependent on the faith-decision of its adherents, not by force, but by faith. Thomas White addresses the history of the Anabaptists and early Baptists (especially the English Baptists) to trace out the beginnings of the notion of religious liberty while Malcolm Yarnell discusses the American scene. It is interesting that while Baptists generally championed religious liberty, they were not all for universal religious liberty. Some weakness in support for liberty is a consequence of the black mark of slavery in the thinking of some early Baptists.

The second section of the book is “Religious Liberty 101,” an attempt at an apologia for religious liberty, based both on the Bible and sound reasoning. The thesis of Barrett Duke’s “The Christian Doctrine of Religious Liberty” is that “One can argue that religious liberty is a universal right for all people from a number of perspectives.” (p. 87) Looking back over my notes, it appears that this chapter moved my pen the most and it may be the most important chapter of the book. Duke notes threats to religious liberty, which include “religious fundamentalism” among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, “Christ-confessing groups” in some countries [who only want freedom for their religion, not for others], totalitarian states, something else that he calls “fundamentalist secularism” and, a matter of great challenge, post-modernism. There are a number of significant arguments for religious liberty in this chapter that are worth pondering and further study. A chapter called “Religious Liberty and the Gospel” makes a few good points, but in my notes I assessed it as “a fairly weak chapter.” I thought it repeated material already found in other chapters and perhaps didn’t develop its points well enough. “Religious Liberty and the Public Square,” by Andrew Walker has as its purpose “to explore the future of religious liberty as it relates to the public square.” (p. 128) The chapter touches on several points of contact with present thought, analyzing where the conflict occurs. The current climate sees religion as stifling to liberty, consequently as discriminatory and thus something evil. It might surprise Christians, but our world does not look at religion in general as a “net good” for society. A few key quotes here:

    • “Changing demographics are breeding a new class of citizens for whom religion is foreign. The future of religious liberty is unsettled and precarious.” (p. 142)
    • “The struggle for religious liberty lies at the heart of the struggle to maintain a free society.” (p. 143)
    • “If we don’t value religious liberty for others, it must be because we’ve not experienced for ourselves how deep religious conviction runs.” (p. 146)

The third section is called “Contemporary Challenges to Religious Liberty.” Two of the best known writers from the Southern Baptist Convention participate here, Russell Moore and Al Mohler. Moore’s chapter was somewhat disappointing – he seemed to be repetitive and I wasn’t clear what he was arguing for in “Conservative Christians in an Era of Christian Conservatives.” Mohler addressed “The Gathering Storm: Religious Liberty in the Wake of the Sexual Revolution,” but he likewise disappointed with lofty sounding rhetoric but not much substance that I could see. Thomas White’s offering was “Religious Liberty and the Christian University.” The author is the president of Cedarville University and shows a good grasp of the challenges universities and colleges face in the current American environment. Interestingly, he touches on how the health-care debate affects religious liberty: “An increasingly nationalized system of health-care forces the government to entangle itself in medical decisions with ethical and religious implications.” (p. 203) The chapter is one of the strongest in the book. The last chapter, by Travis Wussow, deals with religious liberty issues and International Law. The author is well versed in one of the driest and most difficult to read aspects of this subject. The challenges to religious liberty are world-wide, but as liberty erodes in America, it is hard to see how it will be maintained elsewhere, no matter what well-meaning people try to do at the United Nations level (or any other international institutions).

I’ll conclude by quoting from Jason Duesing’s “Conclusion: The End of Religious Liberty.” (He also wrote the “Introduction: The Beginning of Religious Liberty.”):

“In this revised edition of First Freedom, the authors have endeavored, first, to show how Christians have defended religious liberty throughout history. Christians have sought — though not perfectly or consistently —to ensure freedom of all religions in order to adorn the public marketplace of ideas and not coerce or establish one religion over another. Second, this volume has sought to present the biblical and rational defense for the practice and protection of religious liberty in the United States and abroad. Third, this volume has reviewed the present and future threats to religious liberty as its advocates seek to weather ‘a movement to drive religious belief, and especially orthodox Christian religious and moral convictions, out of public life.’” (p. 249).

This paragraph summarizes what the book is about. I think that it achieved its objectives in general but due to the nature of its construction, it does not really address the subject as thoroughly as one could wish. The book has value as an introduction and a resource (it has copious footnotes but no bibliography). If one would like a biblical worldview of religious liberty, this book can contribute to shaping your thinking, but it is not easy reading.

One final note, I was disappointed to see positive citations of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Apparently the document does address religious liberty concerns, but the theological compromise it represents are so damaging that it is disappointing for Baptists to fail to at least acknowledge that fact. Surely we don’t need such documents to bolster a biblical worldview of religious liberty.

I also need to note that I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of this review.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.