Duesing, Jason G., Thomas White, and Malcom B. Yarnell III. First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty. 2nd Ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016. 275 pp.
Southern Baptists are proving to be an ahistorical people with respect to religious liberty. In recent days, Dr. Russell Moore—president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)—has come under fire from Southern Baptists over the ERLC’s decision to sign an amicus brief supporting Muslims in their efforts to construct a mosque in New Jersey on religious liberty grounds. Some Baptists have argued that supporting religious liberty for Muslims is equivalent to idolatry. Another Baptist pastor implied that defending the rights of people such as Muslims to construct false places of worship was helping them on their way to hell, in which he wants no part even if in the name of religious freedom. Others are calling for Moore—and all who share his views on religious liberty—to be terminated from their positions in the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists are clearly divided on matters of religious liberty.
For many Baptists, a present fear of uncertainty shapes their reality. There is a present fear that Muslims will use their religious liberty to persecute Christians in America under the future imposition of Sharia law to the demise of the religious right’s theonomic vision for an American Christendom. There is a present fear that supporting religious liberty for non-Christians may be supporting false religions and idolatry. But part of the reason why so many fears and feelings of uncomfortableness arise when thinking about religious liberty for all people comes from the fact that Southern Baptists have become ahistorical. We’re not opposed to the past; we’ve just forgotten the past and all of those who have gone before us during the last half millennium speaking to this important issue. We’ve assumed the right of religious liberty for ourselves, but we’ve forgotten our religious-liberty-for-all heritage and its gospel-centered roots. And it’s at this intersection of religious liberty ahistoricity and cultural fear where First Freedom bursts onto the scene like a bright beacon of light helping Christians understand how to think rightly about religious liberty.
In First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty, Jason Duesing, Thomas White, Malcom Yarnell, and a host of Southern Baptist denominational statesmen take us Baptists back to our roots by providing “an introductory look at the biblical and historical beginnings of religious liberty, and then also at several instances of its contemporary expression and defense” (7). The first part of the book traces a history of religious liberty from the New Testament through the Anabaptist and English Baptist traditions concluding with southern American political theology. The second part of the book delves into religious liberty basics by tackling subjects such as religious liberty and Christian doctrine, religious liberty and the gospel, and religious liberty in the public square. The book concludes by drawing attention to current obstacles facing religious liberty, cultural Christianity and the sexual revolution being two chief concerns.
The doctrine of religious liberty is a lot like the doctrine of the Trinity in that there is no explicit decree of God to be found in the Bible regarding either of these truths. However, through a careful reading of the Scriptures, one can clearly deduce that the Bible does affirm religious liberty. The most helpful aspect of First Freedom is the fact that it sets forth a biblical-theological and gospel-centered defense for the doctrine of religious liberty for all people.
Anthropologically, through texts like Genesis 1-3, Scripture teaches that humans beings—as God’s image bearers—possess a God-given liberty to freely choose to obey or disobey God (93-99). Christologically, through the teachings of Jesus in texts like Matthew 13:24-43 and Luke 13:34, Jesus instructs that believers and unbelievers are to exist together in this age, uncoerced in their belief and unbelief, until the Lord returns to execute his judgment on unbelief (15-17, 100). Soteriologically and evangelistically in texts like 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Acts 19:8-9, the Scriptures clearly articulate that the truth of the gospel advances through persuasion rather than through coercion and that a failure to persuade with the gospel led Paul simply to leave unbelievers to continue freely in unbelief (20-21). Ecclesiologically, via texts like 1 Timothy 2:1-10, Christians and churches are called to pray for rulers and leaders so that we may live a peaceful and quiet life—free to practice Christianity—since the church’s peace and prayers have implications for the glory of God in our evangelistic efforts for the salvation of all peoples (159-165). First Freedom contributors, time and again, demonstrate that religious freedom for all people—believers and unbelievers, all created in the image of God—is an inalienable right that Christians must defend on the grounds of the Bible lest religious liberty only for some end with religious liberty for none.
A second helpful aspect of First Freedom is the careful analysis of Dr. Albert Mohler and Andrew T. Walker on the challenges to religious liberty in the public square due to the sexual revolution. One of the key ideas propounded by those in favor of the sexual revolution is that sexual liberty must triumph over religious liberty when necessary because sexual identity is equal to other personal traits, such as race or sex (129-135, 171-174). However, quoting Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, Walker reminds the reader that sexual orientation and gender identity are not equivalent to involuntary traits such as race or sex.
“One’s character is comprised of one’s voluntary actions, and it is reasonable to make judgments about actions. While race implies nothing about one’s actions, sexual orientation and gender identity are frequently descriptions for one’s actions: “gay” denotes men who engage in voluntary sex acts with other men, “lesbian” denotes women who engage in voluntary sex acts with other women, and “transgender” denotes a biological male who voluntarily presents himself to the world as female or a biological female who voluntarily presents herself to the world as if male. “Race” and “sex,” by contrast, clearly refer to traits, and in the vast majority of cases denote no voluntary actions” (134).
Consequently, it is those advocating in favor of the sexual revolution who undermine religious liberty by wanting the government to coerce a sexual moral ethic on the people of the United States when the idea of sexual identity is a voluntary moral action worthy to be freely judged as good or evil by the people of the United States. “When secular liberalism works to undermine religious liberty, it invites the imposition of state-enforced morality. Secular liberalism requires obedience and punishes dissent. It insists that all citizens must, against their will, act only in a matter that liberalism judges to be accommodating and politic” (150). And through this coercion, those in favor of the sexual revolution undermine liberty as a whole.
Dr. Moore’s chapter is helpful in that it calls Christians to be conservative Christians rather than Christian conservatives. He emphasizes that our identity ought to be found first and foremost in the lordship of Jesus Christ rather than in an American political ideology called conservatism. Moore writes, “If we see religion—or even religious liberty—as principally a cultural or political concern, we will lose not only the resources to protect the “first freedom,” but we will also lose the distinctiveness of our Christian witness” (160). And here, it seems, is where the present debate in the Southern Baptist Convention arises. There seems to be an ignorance of religious liberty as a gospel issue in our current context such that Baptists affirm religious liberty as a political right but fail to understand and defend it as a gospel issue as if the political reality is distinct from a biblical foundation. Baptists must be conservative Christians who preach the gospel and its implications for religious liberty rather than pair religious liberty with the realms of mere politics and/or the support of idolatry.
One critique of first freedom is that Malcom Yarnell’s chapter on early American political theology focused primarily focused on the southern tradition represented by William Screven, Oliver Hart, and Richard Furman. The history Yarnell presented was very helpful; however, the critique is that very little emphasis was given to the northern influence of famous Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland with respect to religious liberty. Furthermore, very little focus was given to the Baptist influence on religious liberty among the Founding Fathers resulting in the first amendment to the United States Constitution. The book would be stronger had Yarnell better tied American Baptist political theology to its effect on American political policy.
While many resources exist on the subject of religious liberty, First Freedom is one book that any Baptist, Christian, or person who cares about freedom must have in the library. As religious liberty and as freedom-at-large erodes away, First Freedom provides biblical guidance to help Christians defend liberty from a gospel perspective. May the presence of this book be a means to the preservation of our “first freedom.”
Note: A review copy was provided by B&H Academic to the Prince on Preaching blog in exchange for an honest review.