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Religious Freedom in a Secular Age by Michael Bird

by
22 July 2022

In the West, prospects for faith are troubling, says Nick Spencer

AS I write this, the House of Representatives Select Committee has captured prime-time TV in the United States with its report on the events of 6 January 2021, when a mob invaded the Capitol. Prayer and the rhetoric of a Christian nation were at the forefront of that insurrection, just as they were in Donald Trump’s original campaign for the White House. A more graphic illustration of the unholy alliance between religion and politics would be hard to find.

A few years before the riot, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission found against a Christian baker who had refused to decorate a cake celebrating gay marriage in a case weirdly similar to the Ashers Baking Co. case in the UK. In that finding, one of the commissioners opined that “freedom of religion . . . has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery [or] the Holocaust. . . it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use.”

The US Supreme Court subsequently overturned the Masterpiece Cakeshop judgment on the basis that it showed clear anti-religious bias. These two examples represent the twin monsters — Christian nationalism and militant secularism — between which Michael Bird picks a path in this eminently sane book.

Bird is academic dean at Ridley College in Melbourne, and his book has a clear focus on the Australian, American, and, to a lesser extent, British scenes. His tone is unfailingly generous. He recognises the sincerity and commitment of many on the religious Right, and applauds their commitment to the pro-life cause and other unpopular causes, such as conservative sexual ethics. He also supports secularism, highlights its Christian origins and logic, and acknowledges many secularists’ good intentions in their campaign for equality and fairness.

Generosity does not blunt his critique, however. He condemns religious nationalists for confusing flag with faith, and for supporting Trump and other moral gargoyles. He is also clear-eyed about the mendacious, aggressive, and self-serving turn that secularism has taken in the wrong hands. He is especially clear-eyed, and sobering, about the prospect for orthodox Christianity in a secular, liberal, and (theoretically) plural public square. It may be nothing compared with what Christians in the Middle East or Nigeria fear, but things in the West are likely to get worse before they get better.

Bird is not for retreating, however. He criticises various proposals for withdrawal, most famously the Benedict Option, and puts forward constructive suggestions for a public square marked by “confident pluralism”, and for a Church characterised by what he calls a “Thessalonian strategy”: “seeking social transformation through a subversive praxis that builds a countercultural society within a secular society”.

Although he ultimately tries to Hoover up a bit too much (a short concluding chapter on apologetics feels slightly tacked on), Bird is a helpful guide to the rocky landscape of religious freedom which lies around us, and before us.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos and host of the Reading our Times podcast.

 

Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian case for liberty, equality, and secular government
Michael Bird
Zondervan £11.99
(978-0-310-53888-2)
Church Times Bookshop £10.79

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