Is religious liberty important for all people, including Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, or just Christians? How do we make a public case for the importance of religious liberty? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with Dr. Andrew Walker about his latest book Liberty for All: Defending Everyone's Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age.

About our Guest

Andrew Walker is an associate professor of Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously served as senior fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is also the author of God and the Transgender Debate.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture, a podcast from Talbot School Of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.

Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: We have a guest today to talk about a topic we've covered a number of times on the Think Biblically podcast, but never from the angle we're going to look at it today. It's one of the most pressing kind of political and cultural issues, which is religious liberty. Our guest, Dr. Andrew Walker, has written a recent book that just came out called Liberty for All. And he takes a theological look at this, which is so fresh and interesting. So Dr. Walker, thanks for coming on

Andrew Walker: Sean and Scott, it's great to be with you and thanks for the invitation.

Sean McDowell: So tell us a little bit more about the unique approach you take to religious liberty in this book.

Andrew Walker: Sure. So the whole project actually originated out of my dissertation, which I should go ahead and say up front, the book is an adaptation of my dissertation, but all of the dry academic minutiae has been removed. So it's a little bit more readable and accessible. But it began out of my dissertation and basically me asking the question of how have evangelicals thought about religious liberty? And as I did that research, I really came to the conclusion that they've thought about it more as a result of thinking about the constitution or thinking about it in kind of broad, general theistic categories, but nothing particularly tied to the biblical storyline.

And so I kind of set out to ask the question, if we were going to think about religious liberty from an internal conversation, how we, as Christians would talk about it, how would we do that? And so I kind of came to the categories of eschatology, anthropology, and misseology, which are big fancy seminary terms for the kingdom of God, the image of God and the mission of God. And so what I tried to do in this book is craft an argument that would convince Christians why we should embrace religious liberty as something internal to the logic of the scriptures and something intrinsic to the very nature of the gospel. Not simply as an afterthought because of John Locke or the first amendment.

Sean McDowell: Well, we're going to get into that case that you make. But first off, I would definitely say someone having done a dissertation at the same school, we both went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which you teach Ethics at, by the way, I wanted to do a dissertation where I could make a genuine contribution, not just get a degree. And you did that with your book. You definitely did that with your book, it's readable, but such an important contribution. So before we get into the case that you're talking about, can you just define what you mean by religious liberty for us?

Andrew Walker: Sure. So there's kind of two components to my definition of religious liberty. There's an intrinsic component and an extrinsic component. And the intrinsic component is the idea that individuals, if they're going to have a authentic religious experience, it needs to be voluntary. It means it can't be coerced that when you come to an encounter with the Divine, I'll use that in the broadest possible sense, it needs to be something that you come to on your own terms. You're not lured or blackmailed or forced into belief of any type. And in reality, it's impossible to force belief. That would be false belief if it's forced belief. So there's the intrinsic component of how one receives the message of any particular religion. And then there's the extrinsic component that as you have that encounter with the Divine, someone will inevitably want to align every aspect of their being, of their personhood, with what is true in terms of how they grasp the Divine.

And so that means someone is going to order every aspect of their existence in accordance with what they believe is ultimate reality. And that's simply a matter of ethics that if something is supremely important to you, you're going to want to live that out in all facets of your life.

And so what I kind of like to talk about is three big pictures around religious liberty are three moves. First off, it's a forum for gospel proclamation. It's a forerunner to gospel acceptance. And then lastly, it's a pathway for authentic gospel ethics. And so it's more than just believing. It's the ability to act on our beliefs. This is where the first amendment gets it, right? It's the freedom of religion, not the freedom simply of worship, meaning it's not confined solely to the four walls of our worship center or your synagogue or your mosque.

Scott Rae: So Andrew, let's think about it like this. Not only is religious liberty as a term never used in the scripture, but Old Testament Israel was a theocracy in which every other religion besides Judaism was considered idolatry. And the New Testament church never knew anything about religious freedom. And I think a good argument could actually be made that it flourished because of the lack of religious freedom that existed in the Roman Empire, in part. So if that's true, then why do we say that religious freedom is this first freedom, this fundamental freedom that we all enjoy, when the scripture seems to treat it as sort of an afterthought?

Andrew Walker: Sure. There's so many different ways to answer that. I would say at the most foundational level is, if you think about being made in the image of God, it means that you possess reason, rationality, moral agency, the academic term would be self-constitution. The idea that you want to authentically order your life in accordance with your grasp of truth. And religious liberty is mistakenly thought of sometimes as defending the merits of all viewpoints. That's not at all what religious liberty is. Religious liberty is defending the integrity of the faculties or defending the integrity of the conscience to come to those truth claims on its own.

And so I would say, you're right. Religious liberty is not explicitly in the Bible in terms of, "Thou shalt have religious liberty." It's an entailment that I think flows downstream from our understanding of personhood. But then I would also say to get to your question about the uniqueness of Israel's arrangement with Yahweh, I would say that that religious liberty, there was not religious liberty in Israel. That's for sure. And I don't think there was a legal doctrine of religious liberty as we would understand it at that time, with surrounding nations. What I would say in response to that though, is the arrangement between theocratic Israel and Yahweh was a unique arrangement that was not normative for all times and in all places and in all cultures. And what I do in the book is to actually root our understanding of religious liberty more in the Noahic Covenant. The Noahic Covenant, it's not a salvific covenant in the sense that the Abrahamic Covenant is salvific.

The Noahic Covenant is merely the covenant of creation that God has promised to continue a stage for the unfolding of the world to occur on. And when we look at the Noahic Covenant, in terms of the ingredients of what it means to participate meaningfully in the world, in the Noahic Covenant, there's not a stipulation that one must have correct theological belief in order to participate in creation. In order to participate in creation, as I read it from the Noahic Covenant, which I think is an extension or recapitulation of Genesis 1 and 2 is, you need to have a doctrine of justice, a doctrine of the family, and a doctrine of the cultural mandate. And in so far as individuals of any religion are fulfilling those three stipulations, they're meaningful cultural participants and have equal say in the public square. Because when we look at what government has been assigned, as far as its authority over, I don't see in the New Testament, any argument that says that the state has been authorized to make adjudicating claims on what is true or false theological belief.

In a longer conversation, we could talk about a special revelation metaphysic versus a natural theology metaphysic because at the end of the day, the state can't be agnostic about morality. That's where we have to have some type of discussion of morality enter into the equation, which I'm really big into natural law ethics. And that's how I resolve that conundrum. I better stop. Otherwise, I may keep going into [crosstalk] of my book.

Sean McDowell: We're going to talk just a minute, how religious liberty is tied to eschatology, the end times, anthropology, human nature, and the mission of the church. But first, I think there's many nonbelievers, when they hear religious liberty, they think this is just a license for bigotry or a license to force your values upon us, make a case for why religious liberty is not just good for religious people, whatever that religion may be, but for all of society as a whole.

Andrew Walker: Yeah, no, that's a great question. And in the book, I try to make an argument for how someone who might not identify as religious or may even identify as secular could appropriate a construct like religious liberty. And the three categories that I come up with are the terms authority, authenticity, and adoration. And those three terms, what I call the three A's of religious liberty, they're more inevitabilities of what it means to simply be human. That if you are human, you are going to be living according to some authority, whether that's a divine authority, an authority born of self-autonomy, or some cultural authority. Everyone is living according to some authority. And then everyone is trying to live an authentic life, which means you simply want to live in accordance with what you believe is true and order your life as a result of that, what you believe is true.

And then third is this understanding of adoration. And I'm pretty reformed in my soteriology and how I see things. I see that there's a God shaped hole in every single person's heart, and we're going to give something our ultimate affection, our ultimate allegiance, our ultimate love. Again, it's related to that issue of authority. It's asking the question, "What is that thing that we are adoring ultimately?"

And then I would simply say too, as far as why I think everyone should have an investment in religious liberty is it's essential or integral to protecting an ecosystem of just liberty more broadly. When we have a sociopolitical context, we have to ask a question, how are people going to derive what ultimate truth is? Is that going to be something that's handed down from the state, or is the state going to voluntarily limit itself? And to allow people to come to conclusions about what is true, good and beautiful according to theistic conclusions and theistic truths.

And then at a legal level, why everyone should have an investment or a stake in religious liberty is religious liberty is a legal and procedural good that exists in order for us to make substantive arguments. So what I need to keep saying over and over and over again, wherever I speak on this is, religious liberty isn't really for religious liberties sake. Religious liberty is there in order for us to make those substantive truth claims that allow us to debate and have serious discussion about those contestable claims in society about what is true and good and beautiful, and where we have societies that closed themselves off to the divine and where they closed themselves off to religious liberty. What do we see as a general rule? Well, they become the most illiberal and the most hostile societies.

And so I don't think it's any coincidence. There's a correlative relationship that America is growing more secular and also more illiberal at the same time. And that's because we're defining what is true and good and beautiful solely on secular grounds. And secularism doesn't have an account for extending reasonableness to those who define true and good and beautiful on theistic grounds. And so in many ways, religious liberty is helping us translate. When you have secularism and religious people living in close proximity, that's apt for conflict, which is what we might call the culture war. And so religious liberty to me is, it's a vehicle for translation for allowing us to all live peaceable lives together in the same nation state, and solving those disputes through procedural mechanisms, not simply solving those things through coercion or violence, for that matter.

Scott Rae: So Andrew, you make the claim in your book that religious liberty is not an ultimate right, but a penultimate right? What's the difference between those? Because we hear very commonly that rights of conscience, rights of religious liberty, that's the first freedom, the most fundamental freedom. But you're saying that's not an ultimate right. What's the difference?

Andrew Walker: Yeah. So we have to make distinctions between ultimate rights and penultimate rights. And we would not say as of angelical Christians, that individuals have an ultimate right to offend and rebel against God, that religious liberty is an interim ethic, that at some appointed time in the future, God is going to judge all false belief and religious liberty will come to an end because basic biblical truth is God cannot have rebellion and disbelief in his presence. So there's no ultimate right to religious liberty.

But I do believe there is a penultimate legal right to religious liberty. A penultimate legal right is simply the idea that because as an entailment, from my understanding of eschatology, that the government has not been authorized to referee theological claims. That does give people a legal right to come to false, wrong conclusions about the Divine. And not only is the state not authorized to adjudicate theological claims, I don't think it's competent enough to do that. And so my understanding of religious liberty is religious liberty is a response to the conscience, but the conscience belongs to Christ. Christ is Lord over the conscience because he's Lord over the conscience, that domain belongs to him, not the state.

Sean McDowell: Should Christians support religious liberty for people of all faiths? And if so, why? And how far does that go? Because I know there's been cases, even at Supreme Court about like Peyote with certain tribes, issues of animal sacrifice, Sharia Law. How far does that go?

Andrew Walker: Yeah. Great question. So, the general kind of legal principle here is insofar as someone's religious exercise is not a threat to public health and public safety, individuals are typically reserved the right to have a maximal account of liberty. When we think about rights, rights are always ordered to the common good. And that means when the common good is at stake everyone's rights are equally and reciprocally bound up in each other. And so when we think about rights, we have this sense in America that rights are absolute. Rights aren't absolute, they've never been absolute. The Supreme Court has ruled in ways where I think you can lawfully restrict religious liberty. And there are ways to lawfully restrict speech as the Supreme Court has established. When we think about what religious liberty means in the context of the public health component is, if you are endangering other people or you're abusing in the name of religion, you can't do that. Rights are ordered to the common good.

And when the right you're claiming is truly a disturbance to the common good, deliberative, constitutional bodies have the ability to make approximate mediating judgements on where to draw that line. And the wonderful aspect of living in a nation like ours with the rule of law is, ideally we would have Congress rather than the courts make these decisions. And we do have really good legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which basically says that if the government's going to restrict your religious liberty, they have to have a compelling interest. They can't just do it wantonly. And then if they're going to restrict your religious liberty, they have to do it using the least restrictive means possible. And all of those realities are attesting back to a more fundamental reality in accordance with our constitution.

And that's the idea that in an American context, you have the presumption of liberty. You can exercise your liberty and your agency to do what you want up to a point, as George Will would say. That's the most important four words in a constitutional republic is, "Up to a point." [crosstalk 00:19:46] there's some type of governor that is going to restrict someone's activity.

Sean McDowell: I think that's really helpful because there's obviously some tough cases and that's what the courts are for. So the fact that there's tough cases doesn't mean we throw religious liberty out. That would be crazy. Let's get a little to the heart of your case. Now you have a whole section on each one of these. You're going to kind of have to give us the quick outline, but you tie religious liberty to eschatology, which is the doctrine of the end times. What is that kind of quick connection for us?

Andrew Walker: Yeah. And I got to be careful because otherwise I could go on at length for every one of these categories. Big picture for me on the eschatology component is, eschatology is asking a question like, "Where is the direction of history going?" The direction of history for the Christian is leading towards the climactic return of Christ. Christ is sovereign. He's absolute. He is king. Because he's king over everything, we have to ask the question, "What mediating authorities has he given authority to, in this particular age?" And he has given legitimate derived authority to political machinery and political apparatuses. But when we look at what government is designed to oversee and authorized to make claims over, it's not designed to make claims over religion because as I read the scripture, government is there effectively to praise what is good, punish what is evil. So it can do very, very little, very, very well is what I would say about the government.

But ultimately that's rooted supremely in Christ being king over the conscience. And because he is king over the conscience, the government is not. When you get to a category like anthropology, and I've kind of hit on this already, at length of various points, it's the idea that we have reason, rationality, we're possessed with a conscience that allows us to come to conclusions about religious matters on our own terms.

But then more practically speaking, you have to ask the question, how are you going to ground a doctrine of human rights? How can secularism provide an account that makes human rights inviolable? And secularism really can't. It needs something underneath it or above it to give it an account of inviolable rights. And that's where the language of the image of God has come in, historically.

In my research, it was kind of a consensus I was reading, even from non-Christian historians, that an idea of human rights doesn't really come on the stage until Christianity comes on stage. I mean the first person to ever use the term religious liberty and to use rights adjacent language was the church father Tertullian. So legitimately, religious liberty, you can say in good confidence, it comes from Christian thought originally.

And that's the whole idea that we're not simply material beings. That were ensouled beings who are enfleshed, but we are made in God's image. And there's an ontological nobility and a dignity to us that the state is there to recognize, not confer over.

And then you get to the third category of misseology. And misseology is simply the idea related to the very beginnings of our conversation, that intrinsic and extrinsic reality of religious liberty. I want to have the ability to share the faith without violating blasphemy laws, without going to jail. So that means we should care about the sociopolitical contexts that we find ourselves in and be creating those environments that are less hostile to religion rather than more hostile to religion. And then when you get to something, thinking about the relationship of our extrinsic responsibilities and our moral obligations is, if you're a Christian, you want to live in accordance with what you believe is true. And so you take Christians who are gathering together, channeling their resources to help serve women with an unplanned pregnancy, well, when Christians are channeling their resources together, whenever they have property rights, whenever they have the ability to organize a nonprofit around a theological belief, well guess what? That implicates religious liberty. So in many ways religious liberty is underneath, it's a subterranean principle, really striking at the heart of so much of the internal logic, not only of our evangelism, but of our ethics, which is why in the whole book, I'm trying to situate this, not really just about religious liberty itself, but as a foundational component and pillar to public theology.

Religious liberty is helping us answer the question of, "What is the relationship between ultimate authority, or eternal authority, versus temporal and penultimate authority?" And that's a really big question that we need to really be thinking big questions about and providing substantive answers, because how we answer those questions is going to indicate so much about our philosophy of statecraft and how we understand how society is going to settle really, really deep intractable debates about what is true and good and beautiful.

Sean McDowell: That's really the heart of it that you get into your book. And I think you do it well, what's the role of government and the role of the church on our conscience and the way we live. And you wrestle that really, really well. And really thoroughly. Let me just ask a final question to you, related to this, more of a practical one. There's many Christians listening to this who are genuinely concerned about religious liberty, whether it's big tech or whether it's the Equality Act or other bills we hear coming down, what kind of final encouragement would you give for believers, in the moment in which we find ourselves?

Andrew Walker: That's a great question. I would say first and foremost, religious liberty can't be assumed anymore. When things become tacit or assumed, we stopped doing the hard work of having to think about things. And so to me, I think the encouragement is because things have fallen out of favor concerning religious liberty. It means we're going to actually have to do some study and do some thinking around this issue, which one of my own views on cultural formation in challenging times is, it's often in times of refinement, where we have new retrieval forged. And that's how I view what my book is, is yes, I'm making some new arguments about religious liberty, but I'm ultimately trying to both forge and retrieve truths for a new generation and articulate in ways that are what I hope to be timeless.

What I will also say is religious liberty is great in so far as you think about the jurisprudence and Supreme Court. We've had a lot of good wins there of late. And I think that the Supreme Court makeup is very positive at present, but the jurisprudence is only going to be as strong in so far as the culture behind it is nourished with good belief and concepts related to religious liberty. And so I think we need to not only study, we have to advocate, we need to actually have these types of ideas, be at the forefront of our public theology.

And then third, I mean, quite frankly, this is very practical, but we need to vote for individuals that have this robust sense of religious liberty, that they have an account of ordered liberty. That government is there to recognize pre-existing rights, that the government is not there to tell you and define all aspects of the common good. It needs to find some aspects of the common good, but the state is not there to settle every last dispute in our lives. That's why we have the ability to debate. That's why we have religious liberty, but we need to have people in office who, this sounds ironic to say this, people who enter into office with the acknowledgement that for them to be the best legislators they can be, they need to be voluntarily self-limiting of their own power while they're in office.

Sean McDowell: Dr. Andrew Walker, there's a ton I've taken from your book. I'm going to read a quote at the end that I love. You said, "Rather than Christians embrace in a theocracy or a secular state," you call it a [contestialocracy]. And this quote says, " places interrogation, debate, and liberty at the forefront of settling disputes over religious, moral, and ideological difference." That's one of the big takeaways I'm going to take from your book. This idea that Christians are in favor of religious liberty, because God doesn't coerce us into relationship with him. He invites us into relationship and gives people the freedom to reject him.

And as you develop that point, I read it and I'm like, "That's why somebody could understand the theology behind this." They would actually see that Christianity theologically provides the basis for religious liberty uniquely, which is why you said by Tertullian and beginning of the third century, we see this emerging from Christians. So I want to commend to our listeners, if you want a deep dive on a theological defense and look at religious liberty, why it's good for everybody in our pluralistic age, check out Liberty for All by Andrew Walker. Andrew, thanks so much for coming on.

Andrew Walker: Sean, Scott, thanks for the invitation.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. We offer programs in Southern California and online, including the Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.