Brandon O'Brien - "Demanding Liberty"
3:37PM Jul 9, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
We're thrilled today to be speaking with Dr. Brandon J. O'Brien. Dr. O'Brien is director of content and distribution for Redeemer city to city in Manhattan. And the author of the text that we'll be discussing today, Demanding Liberty: an Untold Story of American Religious Freedom, available from intervarsity press in 2018. Dr. O'Brien, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you so much for having me. Dr. O'Brien as we begin, Isaac Backus, born 1724 and died 1806 features prominently in this book, when did you develop a special interest in the life of Isaac Backus.
I became interested in Baptist history generally, during graduate studies at Wheaton, I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church and had really, other than the figures that you celebrate the different times of year in Baptist life like Lottie, moon and others, different offering times didn't have a real strong sense of where we come from. But it was not until a doctoral studies at Trinity Divinity School and a seminar about Jonathan Edwards that I really keyed in on Isaac Backus. And the reason I found him interesting is that he was a student of Jonathan Edwards, a devoted reader of his work. And he applied the work of Jonathan Edwards in sort of unique ways. And so I was interested in how he took someone is kind of seminal and generative as Edwards and applied him and really unique contexts.
How cool so I think this project grew out of Doug Sweeney's. Jonathan Edwards seminar, is that correct?
That's correct. Yeah. How
cool. You'll be willing to paraphrase for us then Isaac Backus, his position on religious freedom.
Sure. So it I think Good to keep in mind that Baucus lived at a time in New England where churches were supported by taxation. So the congregational churches like Jonathan Edwards church was supported by a tax of the general population. And that was there were people who were exempt Quakers and Baptists in certain places before the first great awakening. But after the first great awakening, the number of people who wanted to leave those established churches began increasing. And some of them didn't fall neatly into the categories of Quaker or Baptist as they were defined at the time. And so there were suddenly a lot of new people who were born again, Christians who didn't want to attend those congregational churches certainly didn't want to pay taxes to a church they weren't attending. And so that's sort of the context for Baptists his work. And his argument was that God ordains two kinds of government one is religious and one is civil and religious. Government is essentially the church. And its job is to enforce the first table of the 10 commandments, the ones that relate to worshiping God. And the civil government enforces the second table, which is things like don't steal, don't kill, etc. And those two governments can exist in the term he used was a sweet harmony, they shouldn't conflict with each other, but they also should stay out of each other's business. So they're separate but harmonious as long as they remain separate.
Dr. O'Brien some historians conclude that the fact that America has no state church is one of the reasons that revival ism has so flourished in the American context. The logic goes that because there is no state church, a steady stream of revivals is necessary in order to sustain religious life. What's your view? Is there a connection between revivalism and this lack of state church?
I think it's a great question. I think it's interesting that revivalism really in America kind of came out of a state church in the, in the 18th century. So, in that sense, you know, it was a standing order congregational and even Anglican churches and others, that people within those congregations who were experiencing what they call it new light, you know, and being born again. And so I think historically, it's interesting that those revivals kind of came out of those state churches. I think the evidence now is that inherited religion is sort of on the decline globally, and chosen religion is growing. And so in that sense, I think that whether you can show causation or not between the two, I think, you can say there's definitely a correlation between the appeal of religion when you get to choose it, versus the appeal when you're born into it. Right. I think another element that is interesting in America, especially specifically There's always this kind of an anti tradition bent. In Christianity, even broader writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century, felt like you know, even for our literature to be truly American, it had to be had to break with England. So there's something about like kind of breaking from traditional structures. But once you do that, I think in America, especially what do you appeal to? You appeal to the New Testament? So I think for angelical, Christians, historically, there's a strain of trying to like get back to the primitive faith of the first century. And that's work that you kind of have to do every generation, right. So you have a revival. And then the people who experienced that revival, feel like they are part of the sort of true sincere community of saints, but then their children or their grandchildren kind of have to do it again, themselves. And so I think, yeah, the lack of a State church creates the atmosphere in which that kind of entrepreneurial ism or kind of primitivism of getting back to the Bible. It happens in just about every generation in American history. And that's, I think, a uniquely American impulse
related to revival.
Dr. O'Brian, would you be willing to speak to us about the legacy of Jonathan Edwards theology in Isaac Backus work? What is it that Isaac back has learned from Jonathan Edwards?
Yeah, that's a great question. So the one thing that's really clear in all of his writings is that Baucus learned from Jonathan Edwards that to be a true Christian you have to be born again. So you can't inherit Christian faith you can only receive it as you know as your own or willful choice. That's why he became believers Baptist instead of paedo Baptist later in his life. That is has to be something you choose. And the reason that's significant for religious liberty is, you know, there's an argument at the time that it's important for Christian society that we have an established church to sort of guide people in the right direction. And Baptists would say, Well, the problem is it doesn't work because the state church can't make you a Christian. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. Really the only thing a state church can make you as a hypocrite because it can tell you that you need to live a certain way. And then if, if you don't want to, or that doesn't match your convictions, you're just pretending right about your faith. And so this state church can't make a true believer because only the spirits regeneration can do that. So that was sort of his starting point. A second thing that's a little more subtle, but I think is really important is he got from Edwards this idea that of the way the human will operates. And Edwards was famous for saying that the will is as the great greatest apparent good is and what that means is that he, he believed that human beings are going to choose to behave in any given moment, in whatever way works out to their greatest benefit. And the way this plays out in religious liberty is before Baucus tried advocating for laws to protect religious liberty, he tried appealing to religious leaders in authority to just let people who disagree leave their congregations and form their own congregations. But what Edwards helped him understand is that it would always be in the best interest of the people in power to keep more people in their congregations paying taxes, and so that their wills would not allow them to work against their own best interest. And if you live in a society where the people who have power are, are permitted to make laws that reinforce their own best interest and the people who are weak, don't have any recourse against that, then the people in power will always be in power and the people who are subjugated will always be subjugated. And so, his argument for you know, having having an amendment in the Constitution, for example, to specify and clarify religious liberty came from his legacy from Edwards that he believed the human will is bent toward its own self benefit. And there are really important places in our life where we can't rely on their good intentions or their sanctification or something. We have to have laws in place that keep people's self interest in check.
Dr. O'Brien Isaac Backus has this giant legacy in our understanding of religious freedom. And probably for many of us, the most recent large scale public discussion of religious freedom here in the United States was the 2015 Supreme Court. decision in which it was decided to grant same sex couples the right to marry. And this sparked a whole lot of public debate about this issue. How might Isaac Backus views of religious liberty shaped the discussion of this Supreme Court decision today?
Yeah, that's it. You know,
if Isaac Baca solve the problem for us, I think this book would sell incredibly well, because everybody would like to have answers to this question. I think the short answer is, you know, Baucus does not resolve all the tensions for us, and he doesn't give us a clear answer, but I think there are a couple of things that where his example is instructive. One of those is that you know, in the book I described back as his journey, it's, it's kind of a mini mini biography really telling his story. And Baucus left the church of his childhood and but it took him 10 years to become a Baptist by conviction, and he had people in his congregation who were Baptist by conviction and people in his congregation who would wanted to baptize infants. And he spent 10 years trying to figure out, how do I keep people with these different points of view, in fellowship together in community together, and give them space to have liberty of conscience and let the Holy Spirit change their minds at his time, right. And so he proposed suggestions that seems silly to us today. So he, at some point decided that he would only baptize adults, but if somebody wanted to baptize infants in the church, then he bring a pastor from another church to do that. That seems kind of silly, but his heart was in the right place. He was really trying to bring peace. And so I guess how this would apply to us is I think there are two sets of conversations one is within the church. I think this supreme court hearing, raise the issue of you know, before that, I don't know that Christian people are had to have this conversation as seriously as they do now. And it it revealed faultlines within congregations and within denominations between people who are affirming and people who are not. And I think that what Bacchus shows us is that all everybody's opinions are sort of in transition. And some people may come to Biblical conclusions faster than other people. But the best thing for us to do is to remain in fellowship together as that happens. And so on the one hand when it comes to the internal conversation about same sex marriage, I think his example of doing everything you can to maintain unity, even a disagreement for the sake of the gospel is really important. I think as it relates to the broader conversation about how Should Christians understand the sort of legal ramifications and those kinds of things. This is where Bacchus is sweet harmony between church and state gets a little fuzzy because I think at the end of the day, he was operating in worldview where the morality of the age was basically, Christian or what we would call conservative Christian. So he just could not have imagined a world in America in which this kind of legislation would be passed. But I think it does sort of forced people to explore that gap between church and state. It's not a high wall, like Thomas Jefferson described it where the two never interact. But this sort of sweet harmony where there's intermingling between church and state creates real challenges for us. And so I think Baucus would say that, I think this would force him to clarify what he means about the strict limits of one of those governments over the other civil and religious. I think at the end of the day, he would say that the government should be enforcing, basically Christian points of view. But they shouldn't, they shouldn't be enforcing denominational points of view, if that makes sense. That's a distinction that Doesn't make as much difference today as it did in his lifetime. But I think that that's the reason these things are so fuzzy is Baucus was one of the clearer thinkers on the subject. And even he had these big gray areas that are really hard to sort out
very much appreciate that reflection. Thank you. Dr. O'Brian. You are not only the author of the text we're discussing today, but also the director of content and distribution for Redeemer city to city, the church that Tim Keller planted. Would you be willing to share just a brief moment about your current work?
Yeah, sure. So city to city exists to help resource church planners and pastors who serve specifically in the great cities of the world, so we have practitioners in every continent and the goal is to move, tried to plant and encourage people to plant gospel centered church. That are contextualized in their ministry in a local place. And so it's not planting little Redeemer Presbyterian churches all over but it's helping practitioners read the culture around them and figure out how best to connect the gospel in the ministry of the church to that place. And my job within that is to help provide the print and digital video resources etc to help them do that. And so it's a great opportunity for me I love it because I get to interact with pastors all around the world and get to learn from them about what works where they are and what doesn't and actually shines a light back I think onto my own experience as a Christian in America. It helps me see what I take for granted and and what I can learn from other people.
So Dr. Bright Orion, if I can ask you exactly about that point. What are the ways that the questions that Americans are asking about religious freedoms today? What are the ways in which those questions or tips Typically the global context, and what are some of the ways that they're very different from the questions that you hear from the pastors that you're interacting with around the world?
Well, very broadly speaking, I think a lot of the world is sort of wrestling with what it means to be a faithful Christian and a society that either views Christian morality, views of sexuality, etc, with suspicion as harmful or dangerous. And that's kind of the context in Europe, parts of Latin America, or in what it means to be faithful, and in light of governments that are outright hostile, which is, I think, the situation in China, for example. So at the beginning, at the end of last year, I think it was maybe December of 2018, there was a crackdown on unregistered house churches in China and hundreds of people arrested and because they refuse to register their churches with the government, and so there's been You know this. There's this sort of range of severity, but I think people in different parts of the world are all trying to figure out how do I how can I be a good citizen? How can I be a good Christian when the social context or the government context, you know, is working against us? So I think that is happening in degrees on most most of the globe. I think what's really different is the USA, I think Americans, American Christians tend to take a lot of liberty for granted. So I think the idea of having to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian is for a lot of American Christians. Almost a nonsense question, right. I mean, I think historically, for at least the last few decades, it's been easy to be both to be a good citizen and a good Christian. And I think increasingly that's difficult. It's difficult to be faithful to your convictions and also be acceptable in the eyes of society. And so I think that a lot of the things that we feel are increasing limits on freedom are probably actually increasing limits on privilege sort of priority that Christian churches have had in the last few decades especially. And I think by comparison to our brothers and sisters around the planet, they're the things that we sometimes categorize as persecution, by contrast to the rest of the world, just simply aren't. Now they're, they're drastically changing the way of angelical is especially interact with our government and with our society. But by comparison to brothers and sisters, other places, we have pretty easy in terms of living our faith in the public square. And so I'm looking at Europe, who I think is probably a generation ahead of us in terms of secularism and other things and trying to Learn from our brothers and sisters. They're, what the best practices are and how to be faithful. And we continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in China who are experiencing, I think what we all agree is outright persecution for not conducting their faith in a way that is acceptable to to the government there.
Dr. O'Brian if I can ask a question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity and what is it that we can do to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
Yeah, I think the last part of that question is maybe the easiest for me to address and I think, I think for me, what's required is, is repentance. And by that I wholesale and their whole groups of Christians that I think need to repent other whole groups, but I think we live in an age where it interpersonally there's a tendency to think that all of the problems that exist are caused by someone else other than me. And I think that I can't imagine how Christ's body in America could could heal divisions without beginning with repentance and saying, you know, the problem starts with idolatry in my own heart, and the problem starts with my defensiveness and my fear, and my whatever else, you know, and offering that repentance to God, obviously, but also to our fellow brothers and sisters. And then I think the corollary to that is offering forgiveness. So, you know, again, we live in an age where it's very hard to even admit that you were wrong about something before because if you say, you know, if you admit you're wrong, you sort of violate your in group, or you put a soundbite out for your enemies to exploit and say, Did you hear that he sent this thing, you know, I mean, so the internet makes this all really precarious. And so I think we needs to be marked as a group that offers forgiveness quickly, instinctively. And that starts, you know, with our, with our own Christian family, and then it exudes out. And so if we can take responsibility for our own sins and shortcomings and confess those, you know, readily and also be quick to forgive when our brothers and sisters offer that repentance. I think that that's the first step in us working toward that unity that Christ prayed for us in john 17.
It's been our delight to be speaking with Dr. Brian J. O'Brien, Director of content and distribution for Redeemer city to city in Manhattan, and also author of the text demanding Liberty an untold story of American religious freedom available from intervarsity 2018. Dr. O'Brien, thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you.