Brandon O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom is a very interesting, extremely well-crafted, important, and immensely enjoyable consideration of religious liberty. It uses the 18th century Baptist pastor and religious-liberty advocate Isaac Backus as a case study for calling the reader to consider and reconsider the issue of religious liberty and the assumptions that have for too long undergirded the ensconced positions of the evangelical right. I hasten to add, however, that O’Brien’s telling of Backus’ story has neither the detachment nor the merely utilitarian air of a pure case-study. Backus’ amazing life certainly is not reduced to a simple means to an end in this work. This is indeed good history and a fascinating biography! But it is clearly intended to be a foundation off of which O’Brien assesses the current ecclesio-cultural landscape and the wider arguments surrounding the question of religious liberty.
After experiencing a powerful conversion, Backus and his mother join the Congregationalist church, essentially the established church, but soon become discontented with the low expectations of the church as symbolized most clearly in the “half-way covenant” and what they perceived to be the dullness and spirit of compromise in the church. Through a series of events, after first becoming a separatist pastor and after a long struggle over the question of infant baptism marked by consistent vascillations concerning his own view, he eventually became a convinced Baptist pastor. O’Brien notes that he, O’Brien, greatly appreciates the tenacious and rigorous process of free and principled thought that Backus evidenced in this transition even as O’Brien’s own journey has taken him in the opposite direction, that is, out of Baptist life and into Presbyterianism with its commitment to infant baptism. Thus, O’Brien has, at least at points, more of a paradigmatic appreciation for Backus than a desire for simple imitation. That, certainly, is a more than legitimate position to take. Many of us appreciate the principles and modus operandi of our heroes even if we end up in different places.
O’Brien applauds strongly Backus’ view of religious liberty. In essence, Backus was the man for his time. Baptists, along with Quakers, found themselves at loggerheads not only with the theological and ecclesial positions of the dominant Congregationalism of New England but also in a position that was fundamentally punitive, both culturally and monetarily, to their convictions. In Massachusetts all citizens had to pay the religious tax toward the livelihood of the Congregationalist clergy, be they themselves Congregationalists or not. Backus argued against this, not from a pecuniary standpoint but rather from the standpoint of principle (regardless of what some in the Continental Congress said to the contrary when Backus argued the Baptists’ case before them). For when separatists were forced, by law, to pay for the livelihoods of the establishment clergy and when, even worse, they were harassed and persecuted (i.e., imprisonment, property confiscation, harassment, etc.) for failing to do so, the state was forcing its citizens to violate their own consciences. I have, to be sure, just given a woefully inadequate summary of a much bigger story, but this book tells about the unfolding of that whole drama and its eventual resolution in the adoption of the general concept of religious freedom that we have today.
O’Brien tells the story well. He gives interesting anecdotes from Backus’ life (and the lives of others) that keeps the telling from become dry. I highlighted numerous passages that I found compelling and that I wanted to remember and ruminate on further. I was especially touched by O’Brien’s recounting of the Backus’ efforts to compile a large collection of grievances from those who had been oppressed for simply wanting to follow their own convictions in religious matters. O’Brien likened Backus’ efforts to the compilation of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I was particularly touched by Backus’ sincere investment in and outrage at the stories of injustices that were perpetrated upon those without a voice, by Backus’ fervent advocacy on behalf of the wronged parties, and by his righteous indignation at any insinuation that the claims were exaggerated or even outright lies.
Along the way, and against the backdrop of Backus’ story, O’Brien pushes against certain cherished assumptions of Evangelicals. He looks closely, with helpful evidence to fortify his assessments, at the assumption that America was “a Christian nation,” at the assumption that the modern conservative church is being “persecuted” (with a helpful consideration of what that word means and does not mean), and at the question of how Christians today who wish to argue for religious liberty should most effectively do so in the public square. In all of this, O’Brien is neither patronizing nor preachy. His style is irenic and honest. He clearly wants the modern reader to consider, against the backdrop of the development of religious freedom in 18th century America, what we mean when we say and think and assume certain things.
If I have any quibble, it is that I would have liked to see O’Brien flesh certain ideas out further. Take, for instance, the following statement:
To make any progress in debates and discussions about religious liberty, we have to figure out how to have the conversations in the lingua franca of the modern political system. This is especially true when the appeal for religious liberty today is perceived as a cover for misogyny, racism, or homophobia. Appeals to Scripture and the Christian tradition become shrill when the hearer doesn’t speak the language. In other words, original sin may be a helpful concept for understanding religious liberty within the family of faith. But the concept will likely come across as tone deaf in the broader culture. Advocating for our own religious liberty—and defending the rights of others— requires the mental agility to have the conversation differently with insiders and outsiders. (Kindle Locations 1454-1460)
One may grant the general point (I do) and yet still have real questions. Does the lingua franca necessarily exclude theological and biblical assertions, even granting the inherent limitations of making such assertions to those who do not hold to our a priori commitments to the validity of such, or are we only talking about the linguistic vehicles of these assertions? (I.e., Is it the mere recitation of scripture or the way in which it is employed in such situations that is the problem?) To what extent does the perception of “misogyny, racism, or homophobia” steer our methodology and can this be taken so far that the very epistemological foundations of our convictions are abandoned in our efforts to avoid these perceptions? Can we give away too much in our effort to conceptually connect and, in reality, do those efforts gain what we think they will? How does careful, intelligent, principled, and prophetic pushback against the system itself (upon which the assumptions undergirding the lingua franca is predicated and out of which it emanates) as Christians work with this approach?
The statement, “Appeals to Christian Scripture and the Christian tradition become shrill when the hearer doesn’t speak the language,” probably deserved more nuance. For instance, is that a de facto reality? Does O’Brien mean all “appeals to Christian Scripture and the Christian tradition,” regardless of how they are prefaced, explained, and nuanced themselves? In short (and again), is it not possible to give away too much in the noble desire to contextualize and speak the lingua franca?
Let me be clear: Brandon O’Brien knows all of this and I have no doubt would point out that these are questions that simply could not be pursued to great length in the book without it becoming a primary on apologetic methodology. And, knowing Brandon as I do, I have no doubt that his answers to these questions would be much more insightful and helpful than my own, thus my mild frustration at wishing he would have gone further in examining these ideas.
That being said, this is a fantastic book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I kept thinking that this would be a great tool to use in a small group setting to discuss the basic questions, “What is religious liberty? How, practically, does it work? What does it look like in 2018 America?”
O’Brien and his book would be a great guide through these important considerations.