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Religious scholar argues for better understanding of church and state

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In “Religious Freedom in a Secular Age,” Michael Bird takes on several tough challenges — arguing that secularism in government is a good thing, that both sides of the American political spectrum fail to properly understand the role of church and state, and that there are better ways to balance religious freedom and LGBTQ rights.

He ends with a call to a different, and unexpected, option.

That’s a great deal for a relatively short book to tackle, but Bird provides a concise guide to the problem and some intriguing solutions.

On the first point, an embrace of secularism might seem off-putting to religious readers. But Bird’s concept of secularism is closer to what I would call “confident pluralism,” to quote John Inazu.

To Bird, secularism is “not antagonism toward religion … but a place where everyone could cooperate and work together on this-worldly concerns.”

Bird’s vision is a government that is not controlled by any one church but gives people of different faiths a place to come together.

Bird contrasts this beneficial secularism with “militant secularism,” which seeks to vanquish religious ideals and is probably what most believers have in mind when they hear “secularism.”

On this point, Bird is a sharp observer of current events, noting that militant secularism is not so much a rejection of religion as the embrace of politics and ideology in the place of church: “In a godless age, there will still be gods.”

Related: She’s a mom, Sunday school teacher — and prominent religious freedom attorney

As an academic dean in Australia, Bird brings an intriguing perspective on the current American political situation.

His stories from Australia are a bracing reminder of the importance of defending religious freedom and the value of our constitutional protections.

If you’d like to know where militant secularism in the United States could go in the short term, Bird’s discussion of current events there is a useful guide. As an outsider to the American political system, Bird has strong words for both religious conservatives and secular progressives and is sure to ruffle feathers on both sides.

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Read “Court expands religious freedom”: Kenneth Pybus analyzes four cases involving expressions of faith that came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022.

On issues of religion and LGBTQ rights, Bird summarizes current political debates in both the U.S. and Australia and makes a strong argument for the importance of allowing religious people and institutions to live out their faith. He also highlights the importance of Christian love and service.

While I believe some of his legal proposals would be problematic in practice, I appreciate his overall approach to explaining to outsiders just why religious freedom matters.

The book’s final section sketches out a “Thessalonian strategy” for relating to an often-hostile world.

Bird argues for a “grand age of apologetics,” encouraging believers to make their case.

“We need good arguments, good character, and good manners. Our business is not to score points in debates, but to win people to Christ,” he writes.

Here, Bird’s book is at its best, responding to common modern critiques of Christianity and arguing for a version of apologetics that is less focused upon proving the historical accuracy of Scripture and more upon defending Christianity against its cultural critiques.

His call to have a “a ready answer” will resonate with many believers, and it adds an oft-ignored component to discussions over how we handle issues of religious freedom.

Bird’s book is a brief, engaging discussion of current religious freedom issues. It will be valuable to those who are interested in seeing a new perspective on American religious liberty debates and thinking about both the legal and cultural responses.

LORI WINDHAM is a constitutional lawyer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in religious freedom cases. She is a member of the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia.

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Filed under: Church and state Constitutional law Features Religion and politics religious freedom Reviews Secularism Top Stories

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