We evangelicals have been complaining quite a bit lately about increasing infringements on our freedoms as people of faith. I frequently join in voicing those complaints.

My own worries tend to focus specifically on higher education. Evangelical colleges and universities benefit considerably from federally funded student loans—in many cases, three-fourths of a school’s tuition income is dependent on such resources. This pattern is seriously threatened by efforts to deny federal student loans—as well as federal funding for faculty research projects in the sciences—to schools where faculty are required to subscribe to doctrinal standards and students and employees are expected to abide by traditional Christian norms of behavior.

Similarly, on some secular university campuses these days Christian groups are being denied access to meeting spaces. The insistence that student leaders in these groups must affirm specific theological commitments is seen as incompatible with prevalent standards of free inquiry.

Reading Steven Waldman’s fine new book, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom, has been good for my soul, in that it helps me keep the issues of religious freedom in a proper perspective. Waldman wouldn’t want people like me to stop complaining about such matters. But he does encourage us to see them in their larger historical context.

The Madisonian Model

Waldman makes it clear, for example, that things have been much worse for religious minorities in the past. By the time of the American Revolution, the Anglican clergy in the Virginia colony had seen to it that over half of the Baptist preachers there had been arrested and jailed at some point and even severely tortured on occasion—simply for being Baptist. Nor did matters improve much with the establishment of the new republic. A half-century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, not only were Protestant mobs setting fire to Catholic convents, but they also treated the teeth of nuns buried in the convents’ crypts as valuable souvenirs. And as recently as the World War II period, Jehovah’s Witness were treated brutally—in some cases they were castrated—for their refusal on conscientious grounds to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Waldman’s narrative does not dwell on these horrific details, but he does provide us with just enough background to show how bad religious persecution has been in American history. And his account attends not only to the suffering faced by the groups featured in standard narratives of American religious history—Quakers, Catholics, Mormons, and others—but also to the oppressive treatment imposed upon Christian slaves, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Muslims.

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Nor were the nation’s founders paragons of virtue in the realm of religious freedom, since they disagreed among themselves about the degrees of tolerance that different faith traditions deserved. Thomas Jefferson was an Enlightenment thinker who was not all that enthusiastic about religious freedom as such. Indeed, as Waldman points out, when Jefferson pledged “eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” the “tyrants” that he actually had in mind were some Congregationalist leaders with whom he had been disputing.

Waldman’s hero from the founding generation is James Madison, whose views on religious freedom—and Waldman is clearly right on this—hold up well in our contemporary setting. As Waldman puts it, while Jefferson supported “the freedom to think,” Madison was passionately committed to “the freedom to pray”—in other words, to act on one’s faith in the public square. Madison believed that a healthy social order depends on a diverse and vibrant religious life among the people.

I can confirm the sincerity of Waldman’s Madisonian convictions in this regard. When he was editor in chief of Beliefnet, the website he co-founded, I was one of his columnists, and he encouraged his diverse group of writers to give expression to their deeply held convictions. While he was in the early stages of writing this book, he and I talked at length about what he was planning to cover, and it was clear that one of his hopes was to encourage evangelicals to engage in a vibrant advocacy for religious freedom in American life—not only for themselves but for members of all faiths.

The general case that Waldman makes for promoting religious freedom fits nicely next to our contemporary evangelical ethos. The Madisonian model, he writes, “does not rely only on constitutions, laws, and regulations.” Rather, it encourages “a dynamic system that ensures its own perpetual self-improvement”—a kind of “free market for religion.”

This robust pluralism does not commit us to moral or religious relativism. I can reject the basic claims of Hinduism, Waldman says, “while also relishing how exceptional America is for allowing a Hindu priest to open a session of Congress” with a prayer. I can see someone’s spiritual quest as misguided and still be pleased that we live in a society where spiritual quests of various sorts may be pursued without unnecessary restrictions.

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Concluding his discussion with a number of helpful proposals for strengthening the cause of religious freedom, Waldman makes a special point of urging evangelicals to “regain their position of moral leadership.” Historically, he observes, evangelicals “have done more to advance religious liberty than any other group.” In recent years, however, we have become narrowly self-interested, focusing, for example, on “the freedom to oppose homosexual rights without suffering mockery” and often promoting Islamophobic attitudes. In all of this, he remarks, we who were once “[t]he great champions of religious freedom have switched to the wrong side of history.”

Generosity of Spirit

I said earlier that reading Waldman has been good for my soul. The truth is that his book speaks to the evangelical soul in general. He is not asking us to accommodate ourselves to contemporary relativisms. His call, instead, is to return to what we have stood for in our own past. We have known what it is like to suffer for our convictions. We have often been strong voices, for example, in the abolitionist cause and in promoting the created dignity of human life.

Sacred Liberty presents fresh models for how evangelicals can address complex religious freedom challenges. Waldman points, for example, to what many of us know as the “Utah Compromise,” where the Mormon leadership has agreed to support gay rights in public life in exchange for assurances from the LGBT community that faith communities with alternative perspectives can freely teach those perspectives and live them out institutionally.

Waldman cites the views of the LGBT activist Chai Feldblum as an example of the willingness, on the part of some key figures in that movement, to forge such alliances. Feldman was raised an Orthodox Jew, and she confesses that she understands “the feeling that if God decides your actions have made you complicit in sin, that is all that matters.” Thus, she says, we need to “acknowledge the full and complex reality of those who are different from us and then find the generosity of spirit to reach across divides.”

This plea for a new “generosity of spirit” in our challenging times is at the center of Waldman’s powerful book. The more we take it to heart, the farther we’ll go toward regaining the moral leadership that Waldman fears we’ve forfeited. And, hopefully, toward building a cultural consensus on the virtue of religious freedom for all.

Richard Mouw served as president of Fuller Theological Seminary for 20 years. He is the author, most recently, of Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels (Brazos).

Sacred Liberty: America's Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Sacred Liberty: America's Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom
Release Date
May 7, 2019
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