The evangelical Anglican theologian Michael F. Bird provides a clear-eyed and charitable vision of the current state of religious liberty in the Western world. Working from Australia, but with a keen eye on developments elsewhere and particularly in America, Bird’s offering provides both a framework for evaluating the contemporary situation as well as a call for Christians to promote the need for religious liberty more responsibly. Bird’s book is a helpful point of departure for engaging the challenges and opportunities for Christians to protect religious liberty today, and in so doing promote a free and flourishing society.
An Anglican theologian gives us an uplifting perspective on religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and living peaceably with our non-Christian neighbors.
Bird opens his treatment with a memorable invocation of the courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three Hebrews living in exile in Babylon who were faced with death if they refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. As we read in the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar threatens the men: “But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” The men respond: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan. 3:15–18).
But if not. In those three words the three would-be martyrs summarize their faith in God to be faithful, in his own way and in his own time. “They believed that God would save them,” writes Bird, “but if not, they would never bow down and worship the image of the self-acclaiming, self-gratifying, and self-aggrandizing tyrant.” Bird’s project in Religious Freedom in a Secular Age is best understood as a charitable, generous, and indeed even winsome effort to articulate faithful Christian discipleship in a fractured age. “We need faith in the firmness of our convictions,” writes Bird, “that our heavenly Father is mighty and will deliver us, but if not, we will not bow down and worship the gods of sex, the idols of greed, or the demons of xenophobia, nor prostrate ourselves before the pantheon of false gods and their empty promises.” One of the moving epitaphs with which Bird opens the volume is from Francis Cardinal George: “I expect to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Bird wants desperately to help us avoid that possible future. But if not, then Christians must choose the path of faithfulness even if it leads to marginalization, suffering, and oppression.
Peaceable Life Together
And yet Christians are not to seek out conflict. Here the words of the Apostle Paul echo: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). Bird’s constructive proposal develops in three broad sweeps. First, he interrogates the concept of secularism, distinguishing different forms and arguing that not all versions of what often pass for secularism are equally antagonistic to Christian belief. Second, he explores the significance of religious freedom and its salience for today, with particular attention to the challenge from sexual and gender anti-discrimination movements and ideologies. And third, Bird concludes with a vision of what he calls “the Thessalonian option” and the role of apologetics for defending religious liberty and the Christian faith in a secular age.
What Bird describes as “militant secularism” is not an “empty shrine.” It is, rather, a society with no shrine at all.
The path of peace that Bird attempts to walk is between two extremes: secular progressivism and nativist nationalism. As he puts it: “It is one thing to worry about protecting religious freedom from the hyper-secularist policies of the progressive left, but equally worrisome is how the religious right and politicians with nationalist agendas can weaponize religious freedom in service of xenophobia and homophobia.”
Some may scoff at the equivalency of the dangers presented here. After all, one can hardly imagine a Christian flag flying above an American embassy, for example, while Pride flags are seemingly ubiquitous, from the U.S. embassy to the Vatican to the doors of woke Christian college professors to the commercials of seemingly every business in the country. If both sides are equally dangerous to authentic Christian witness, then only one side seems in any real danger of winning.
And yet we perhaps ought not be too quick to reject the reality of the dangers of both extremes. Even if Christian nationalism is ill-defined and, in many cases, merely a fringe phenomenon, the temptation to grasp the levers of political power even as cultural and spiritual influence declines is all too common and all too tempting. If Bird errs in presenting a kind of moral equivalency here, he does so in an attempt to chart a safe course through two very real temptations. He chooses, to use a popular contemporary metaphor, neither the blue nor the red pill.
And the goal is to find a way to live peaceably together amid deep, and even divisive, disagreement. The true choice, as Bird describes it, is between civil society and civil war:
The political extremities of the left and right pose an existential threat not only to religious freedom but to the very concept of a civil society itself. If our societies are not civil, if we do not accept that we sometimes lose, if we do not place limits on our political rhetoric, if we do not respect the rule of law, if we do not call out violence and fake news by our side, then we will slowly descend into civil conflict of a more chilling variety.
Secularism, True and False
A key element of Bird’s project is to distinguish between versions of secularism and between secularism and secularization. There are better and worse forms of secularism, or better yet true and false versions. Bird favors what might be called classic or even Christian secularism. This is a kind of secularism arising out of firm and even traditional convictions about the human person—inspired if not informed by Christian anthropology. This variety of secularism is conducive to pluralism and civil peace. Thus, Bird contends, “secularism establishes appropriate spaces for religion to be pursued and performed,” even as it “establishes spaces that are deliberately desacralized to make them common to all, irrespective of someone’s faith or lack of faith.”
This kind of “benign” secularism “is not against religion, but about common spaces that are neutral, nonsectarian, and free of religious affiliation.” We might be reminded here of Michael Novak’s metaphor of the empty shrine, which he used 40 years ago to describe “a genuinely pluralistic society” in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. “That shrine is left empty,” argued Novak, “in the knowledge that no one word, image, or symbol is worthy of what all seek there. Its emptiness, therefore, represents the transcendence which is approached by free consciences from a virtually infinite number of directions.”
To extend Novak’s metaphor, what Bird describes as “militant secularism” is not an “empty shrine.” It is, rather, a society with no shrine at all, because anything evocative of transcendence is opposed and overthrown with totalitarian force. “Secularism as manifested in the separation of church and state is good for a tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic state,” writes Bird. But “militant models of secularism require a state to intervene in people’s religion precisely to keep it a private matter and publicly invisible.” Bird’s distinction between true and false forms of secularism mirrors a distinction made cogently by Hunter Baker in The End of Secularism, which disambiguates the institutional separation of church and state from a more thoroughgoing and “militant” secularism.
That modern prophet of secularism himself Harvey Cox warned in The Secular City about this latter kind of secularism. Bird invokes Cox’s warning that militant secularism “menaces the openness and freedom secularization has produced; it must therefore be watched carefully to prevent its becoming the ideology of a new establishment. It must especially be checked where it pretends not to be a world-view but nonetheless seeks to impose its ideology through the organs of the state.” Bird laments in something of an understatement: “I think Cox’s warnings are coming to fruition.”
The Establishment Ideology
And what precisely is “the ideology of a new establishment,” to use Cox’s phrase? Certainly one feature of modern secularism is its virulent hostility to religion, at least religion that is not gelded of public virility. But the new establishment cannot be defined simply by what it is against. Rather, it must be interrogated in terms of what it stands for, what it promotes, protects, and in some sense demands devotion to. In this regard, Carl Trueman’s exposition of the revolutionary implications and consequences of “expressive individualism,” particularly in its expressions of sexual and gender identity, provide a compelling narrative of the rise of the new establishment ideology.
And it is not sufficient, of course, for such an ideology to come to merely cultural or social expression. It must manifest itself in the use and transformation of political power, or what James Poulos has evocatively termed “the pink police state.” Bird spends considerable time examining what he calls “an intractable and entrenched series of legal conflicts over competing rights and freedoms related to religious communities and LGBTQI+ identities.” Bird is correct to observe that such battles “are stoked by religious leaders, journalists, lobbyists, activists, bureaucrats, and politicians.” And this is true for those on all sides of every issue of our current culture warring. There are grifters and hucksters and profiteers to be found everywhere. Sex sells, and so does a sexualized culture war.
One feature of modern secularism is its virulent hostility to religion, at least religion that is not gelded of public virility.
Bird argues for a détente in this sexualized culture war, one that allows for sexual orientation and gender identity civil rights that have been recognized thus far to continue to be respected, even while the rights of religious people to demur from participating in certain kinds of activities is likewise respected. This kind of compromise is perhaps the only fruitful way forward, at least in the short term. It is also, unfortunately, unlikely. This is in part because the momentum is squarely on the side of cultural progressives and sexual transgressives, and also in part because there is little incentive for either side to compromise. “We must remember that freedom of conscience means the freedom of all consciences, not just the ones we happen to agree with,” observes Bird. It is true that we ought to remember this. But this is a difficult reality to recall when one is in the intoxicating position of cultural superiority and political dominance.
Neither Quietism nor Triumphalism
Bird is concerned to promote “the idea of a diverse and pluralistic society where well-rounded freedoms of religion, conscience, and association are safeguarded yet not weaponized against sexual minorities.” Ideas are important and, indeed, have consequences. We must also argue for the idea that the establishment ideology should not be weaponized against religious minorities in increasingly militantly secularized societies.
But ideas are not all that matter, and this is where Bird’s apologetic emphases are strongest. Bird reminds Christians that a faithful response to an increasingly aggressive and hostile secularism is not an equally virulent and pugnacious Christianism. Rather, the best response might be to suffer in expectant hope. But if not. Bird’s proposed model, the “Thessalonian strategy,” calls for neither quietism nor triumphalism. “It is no overstatement to say that love is the most potent weapon we have in our arsenal to show that Christian faith makes people better, it offers a better way of being human, and it mingles perfectly with other virtues like faith and hope. Christ’s way of love constitutes a more humane worldview to live by.”
One might quibble or even disagree with details of Bird’s analysis, his weighing of the pressing dangers of the day, or the prudence of his proposed strategy. But careful readers will come away from this volume with an appreciation for a principled Christian commitment to pluralism and religious liberty as a way of loving. And that is no small thing, especially in this secular age.