Demanding Liberty (Brandon J. O'Brien) -- A Review

DEMANDING LIBERTY: An Untold Story of AmericanReligious Freedom. By Brandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2018. 195 pages.

The demand for religious liberty has been a frequent rallying cry in recent years. It has become something of a political wedge issue, with folks calling for prayer schools, tuition vouchers for private schools, and exemptions from health care laws. One of the questions that continually comes up concerns how broadly we should define liberty. Is it only for some, for those who are part of the religious majority, or does it apply to religious minorities. In other words, does liberty apply equally to Christians and Muslims (for instance). If prayer is allowed at a public event, can a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist have the same right as a Christian? Often the people crying the loudest for liberty are the same ones who want to deny it to others. When it comes to the place of religion in the public square, we often speak of a wall of separation, but American history suggests that this wall is more often a fuzzy line rather than a tall and secure wall. This debate goes back to the founding of the nation and beyond. Many early colonists were religious refugees, but often they were intent on protecting their own liberties at the expense of others. You might say that the history of religious liberty in America is a complicated one.

Many have heard the story of Roger Williams, an early dissenter who argued for extending liberty to all religious communities, which led to the establishment of Rhode Island. There were others, like Anne Hutchinson and William Penn, who also pursued liberty for themselves and others. Brandon O’Brien wants to introduce us to another important figure, one who made an impact on what emerged in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Isaac Backus was a Baptist preacher and advocate for religious freedom in New England. He started out as a separatist and eventually became a Baptist. Standing at the center of his efforts was relief from taxation imposed upon religious dissenters to support the established church, which in Massachusetts and Connecticut was Congregationalist. You might say that the current tax policies toward religious communities emerged out of the efforts of Baptists like Backus (this offers a bit of irony, since many Baptists today are standing before the state demanding protection and support).

Brandon O’Brien is an evangelical, serving as director of content and distribution for Redeemer City to City in Manhattan, NY. He is the author of several other books but has chosen to address the question of religious liberty through the life of Isaac Backus, who served as minister for Baptist congregations in the colony and then state of Massachusetts, which did not end religious establishment (state support for the Congregationalists) until 1833. While I was expecting more focus on the contemporary debate over religious liberty, O’Brien essentially lets Backus story inform us about how the nation came to understand liberty. Due to the influence of Backus and John Leland and other dissenters, many of whom were Baptists, a vision was cast that stood between that of Thomas Jefferson, who wished to cut off all support for religion and John Adams, who argued for state support (at least at the state level).

Backus came by his dissenting views from his family. He was from birth part of a religious community that rejected the Halfway Covenant that granted membership to persons who lacked a religious conversion experience (and thus allowing their children to be baptized). This was the view held by the established churches, and one can understand why. As time passed, Backus, the separatist, encountered the Baptists and reluctantly became part of the community. O'Brien believes that Backus is an important American hero, whose story is largely unknown, and who offers contemporary Evangelicals (many of whom have sought to gain political influence to protect their own cultural positions) an example of the appropriate way of pursuing religious liberty. He writes to warn against pursuing "religious liberty" for one’s own group at the expense of others. 

O’Brien starts out contrasting dueling visions of church-state relationships, pitting Jefferson and New England Congregationalists. On one hand, Jefferson believed that religion should receive no external support, while in New England Congregationalists that the nation required divine supervision. O'Brien writes that "New England Congregationalists wanted the freedom to believe and worship like Congregationalists. Everyone else—Baptists and Methodists and Quakers and Catholics—were expected to conform." Not only that, but these Congregationalists wanted all Americans to "be required by law to attend (authorized church services regularly, refrain from work on Sunday, and pay special taxes to fund the local Congregational minister, whether you attended his church or not" (pp. 2-3). What emerged was something that lay between these two extremes, a system that continues to this day (thus churches do not pay taxes). Since the book began here, I thought it might dive deeper into how this somewhat hybrid system emerged, and where it stands today. O'Brien does address this question, but less directly than I expected.

Instead of addressing this question head on, he invites us to enter into the story of Isaac Backus, whose story had "radically altered [his] perception of this part of American history" (p. 3). Thus, he seeks to make the case for Backus being a defender of "every citizen's right to exercise their religion according to their conscience" (p. 5). Among the central issues that emerges in this story is taxation, more specifically the attempt to tax dissenters to pay the salaries of clergy for the established churches. Backus spent much of his life defending the rights of dissenters to be free of state coercion. 

O'Brien admits that the story and its implications are complex and cannot be fully developed in a study of this nature. He also notes that the story became personal. He wants the reader to see Backus and his cause in the same way he does. While this is not a biography of Backus, it takes on a strong biographical tone. What makes it different from a typical biography is the intent of the author. He wants us to learn about Backus, but he wants us to do so not only because Backus is an interesting subject. Instead, he has written this book for people who care about religious liberty and believe that history can be of help in understanding the issue. While the author says that the book is as much about today as the age of Backus, O'Brien (in my reading of the book) focuses on Backus' life and work and leaves the application to the reader. In other words, this requires an inductive mindset. 

O'Brien begins the book with the context out of which Backus emerged, that is the years just prior to the First Great Awakening, when the colonies were less than religious, and needing revival. With that in mind the author calls to mind persons such as Whitefield and Edwards, setting the stage for what is to come. From there we move to Backus and his call to ministry. Like many Baptists he lacked the education that was expected of a Congregationalist pastor. Nonetheless his gifts were recognized, and he began his ministry several decades before the Revolution. He started out as a Separatist, who rejected the Half-Way Covenant but affirmed infant baptism. Only much later did he reluctantly adopt believer baptism. Even before this he had been pushing back against religious taxes, but this became more pronounced after his conversion to the Baptist position. That is, he began to see a connection between baptismal practice and the church-state relationship. 

During the colonial period religious taxation and state establishment was defended on the basis that religion required a "nursing father," that is state protection, so that the church could be the moral foundation of the community. In other words, it was for the benefit of the government to support religion through taxation. It was necessary for Backus to offer an alternative view of society, one that suggested that faith cannot be coerced. Believing there was discontinuity between Old and New Testament, he could point to the lack of state support in the New Testament. With this as background, O'Brien points us to the present, where many evangelicals are bemoaning what they consider persecution, but which is largely a waning of influence. Looking to Backus, evangelicals might find a voice calling for sacrifice of influence and standing with the marginalized rather than the powerful. That is, "loss of privilege, however, may be unavoidable. It might even be good for us" (p. 90). This might make O'Brien a lonely voice among white evangelicals who have made common cause with a particular political party in pursuit of its own goals (such as banning abortion or opposing gay marriage), but it is a crucial point.

As the story goes on Backus becomes an important advocate for religious liberty during the war, which he supported, and during the process of developing the Constitution. He was a strong advocate for a Bill of Rights—writing his own version, which at points overlaps with what ultimately emerged. Readers will be interested to note that he did advocate for gun ownership, but in pursuit of a policy that would ban a standing army (thus local militias). His version of religious liberty was rejected in Massachusetts, but something akin to what he advocated did emerge in Virginia, and ultimately in the nation.

The story is an important one. It is a good reminder of the long and complicated fight to garner religious liberty in this country, a fight that is not yet complete. It’s important to remember that Backus and others argued for religious freedom, by which they meant the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference. They did not intend for religion to be completely eradicated from the public square. That is part of the debate today, and thus one reason why I would have liked to see O’Brien pursue that question more fully. Nonetheless, while I would have enjoyed seeing him develop more fully what he would envision for today, I do agree that Backus' witness is one that needs to be heard right about now. Thus, Demanding Liberty is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about what it means to live faithfully in the public square.


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