Most Christians have a negative impression of the word secularism. Can it be rescued from its association with antireligious animus? Michael F. Bird, a theologian teaching at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, attempts this balancing act in Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government. Natasha Moore of the Centre for Public Christianity (also in Australia) spoke with Bird about the place of faith in pluralistic societies.
How has religious freedom become such a contested ideal?
In the West, we’ve long assumed that Christianity was the default setting and Christians were the chaplains for Christendom. But now, as we enter a more post-Christian era and even a time of radical de-Christianization, new fault lines are emerging. And that’s going to affect the way we think about competing rights between different groups. It’s going to call for some very, very interesting management of diversities in our multicultural democracies.
What do you wish Christians—and secularists—knew about secularism?
I wish Christians knew that secularism is not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. Secularism is what stops a country from becoming a theocracy, where the government politicizes religion and religion becomes culturally shallow. Secularism is what protects you from government attempts to regulate, define, or interfere with your religion.
I wish secularists knew that secularism is a very broad term. There are different types of secularism that exist in France, Thailand, Japan, or Australia. And it doesn’t mean deliberately marginalizing people or communities of faith. Secularism is about creating space for people of all faiths and none.
In contrast to this benign form of secularism, you describe the rise of a more militant alternative. What options are there for countering it?
Certain segments of the media and the political sector see people of faith as a threat to a progressive agenda. In their minds, religious freedom must be restricted at every point possible. It should alarm us that a small, vocal segment of our society seems to want that.
Yet we have every reason to support legal and constitutional arrangements that safeguard religious communities of all types. Everyone has a vested interest in religious freedom, not just the minority of active religious people. Religious freedom is part of an interlocking body of rights—you cannot reduce religious freedom without also reducing freedom of association and freedom of speech. Religious freedom is often one of the best litmus tests for how truly free and pluralistic any given jurisdiction is.
Some of the fiercest religious-freedom clashes involve the rights of sexual minorities. But you’re optimistic about the prospects for a workable resolution. Why?
I’d like to envision a settlement where LGBT people are not subject to harm or discrimination, but there are reasonable accommodations made for religious communities to live out their own understandings of family, marriage, and sexuality. There are examples in places like Utah where religious and LGBT groups have tried to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. Neither side gets everything it wants, but they get what they need to live in peace together. That’s what it will take, in the long run, to sustain our pluralistic societies.
You lay out a set of behaviors and responses called the Thessalonian Strategy. What is that about?
The idea comes from something an angry mob said about the apostle Paul and his gang when they arrived in Thessaloniki: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (Acts 17:6, CSB). In the case that we do have a progressive government that wants to be more coercive toward religion, then we will need to turn the world upside down. We’ll need to seek means of resistance, but in a very Christian way. Not the way of Christian nationalism, not the way of civil religion, but instead finding new ways of living at peace with others and loving our neighbors, even if the default setting of government and media is one of hostility.
What are some of these “new ways” to love our neighbor in a hostile climate?
One, I think, is being more invested in the welfare of the religious communities among us. We need associations that bring people together and encourage a shared interest in promoting religious liberty. The cause of religious freedom could present a major ecumenical and interfaith opportunity. Because if I don’t want the government coercing Christian churches, then the same applies to synagogues, Sikh temples, and Muslim mosques. What happens to one group obviously affects others as well.
You dedicate the book to Tim Wilson, an Australian politician. Why is that?
Tim Wilson is a member of Parliament and a former human rights commissioner. Several years ago, he convened a roundtable discussion about religious freedom and LGBT rights. The idea was to arrive at a settlement where LGBT people wouldn’t be subject to harm, harassment, or unfair discrimination, but where we also allow the Muslims to be Muslims, let the Jews be Jews, and let the Christians be Christians.
Tim is a gay man who is married to another man. But he has been a voice of reason, sanity, and fairness in these discussions. He’s shown us how to have healthy, nonadversarial conversations in a context often filled with accusations and hateful hypotheticals.
Tim has noted that Australia is not a secular country—it’s a multicultural democracy with a secular government. That’s a good way to put it. Having a secular government (as opposed to being a secular country) might mean sacrificing certain customs to protect that secularity. So maybe, for instance, we shouldn’t have the Lord’s Prayer recited at the beginning of parliamentary sessions, which is an example of religious privilege, not religious freedom.
You quote a remark from the author Os Guinness that we’re entering “a grand age of apologetics.” How do apologetics relate to religious freedom?
If we want to defend religious freedom, we have to defend the concept of religion itself: Why is religion worth defending? What does it do for society?
There’s one side of our politics that loves religion because it represents a demographic to be weaponized for political ends. And another side treats religion as something to tolerate begrudgingly. With those extremes, we need to learn to defend religion as something that genuinely contributes to human flourishing.
If you could peek forward decades down the road, what would you consider a good outcome when it comes to religious freedom?
Beyond reaching an accommodation on LGBT rights and religious freedom, we need to develop a generous secularism, which means a context where government and religious communities can work together in areas like education, police chaplaincy, hospitals, and the armed forces—areas of mutual interest where cooperation makes sense.
That said, we want to avoid a religionized politics, where religious communities are weaponized for political ends, and where people prey on religious differences as a means of sowing division. Achieving that equilibrium is what success looks like to me.
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