Free to Believe is organized into three sections: defining and defending religious freedom; contemporary threats to religious freedom; and where the battle goes from here. In the first section, Goodrich breaks down what religious freedom is, from a legal, historical, and scriptural/theological perspective. Specifically, he persuasively argues that Christians ought to support a strong conception for religious freedom not just for their tradition, but for non-Christian traditions as well.
With the arrival of the novel coronavirus in the United States in 2020, many states took unprecedented action to discourage even small gatherings of people in order to slow the spread of the virus. Among those affected by these orders were churches. And while the vast majority of churches transitioned to another form of worship with their congregations, several filed lawsuits after facing penalties for continuing to hold services as normal.
While these lawsuits centered on established constitutional protections such as the freedom of religion, many experts on religious freedom were skeptical of the arguments. One of these experts was Luke Goodrich, an attorney specializing in First Amendment law. “Every constitutional right has limits,’ Goodrich told Christianity Today, “and the right of religious freedom doesn’t mean you can harm your neighbors.” Based on this language, it is possible one could mistake Goodrich for an enemy of religious freedom.
But as seen in his recent book, Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America, nothing could be further from the truth. Goodrich, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, makes a compelling and convincing case for a robust understanding of religious freedom under the Constitution. He outlines several challenges facing religious freedom in the United States, while simultaneously avoiding hyperbole and tempering the most pessimistic predictions. He also offers practical and helpful advice for people of faith as these challenges arise, reminding the reader that there is hope beyond winning court cases.Ac
Goodrich’s credentials are impressive. A graduate of Wheaton College and the University of Chicago School of Law, he clerked for 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Michael McConnell, among the most respected minds on religious freedom in America. And as a lawyer Goodrich has been involved with many of the most noteworthy religious freedom cases of the 21st century, including Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Holt v. Hobbs, and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.
Free to Believe is organized into three sections: defining and defending religious freedom; contemporary threats to religious freedom; and where the battle goes from here. In the first section, Goodrich breaks down what religious freedom is, from a legal, historical, and scriptural/theological perspective. Specifically, he persuasively argues that Christians ought to support a strong conception for religious freedom not just for their tradition, but for non-Christian traditions as well. “We were created in the image of God for relationship with Him,” Goodrich writes, “but we can’t have an authentic relationship with Him unless we also have the freedom to embrace or reject Him.”
In addition to explaining what religious freedom is, Goodrich also gives readers a roadmap for how to persuade skeptics of the importance of guaranteeing religious freedom as a constitutional and human right. He writes that there are multiple arguments one can make in favor of religious freedom that don’t presuppose support for a particular tradition. For example, encouraging religion to flourish will encourage the moral virtue required for self-government. Moreover, religious freedom ends up protecting diversity and dissent, and also reduces social conflict in society – when government treats religions equally, there is little reason for tensions between them.
Free to Believe’s second section is the longest, and in many ways speaks most clearly to the challenges of the moment. In these several chapters Goodrich outlines the relationship between religious freedom and policy involving abortion, same-sex marriage and gay rights, so-called separation of church and state, and more. Goodrich does not gloss over these challenges; he recognizes that these issues are often in natural tension with religious freedom and lead to difficult legal questions. Rather, he describes how these challenges have emerged in recent years and how history can be a guide for these tensions moving forward.
For example, Goodrich highlights the Quakers’ fights over conscientious objector status in times of war as especially instructive today. In the same way that the government eventually granted religious exemptions to military service for pacifists, those with religious objections to providing abortions and participating in same-sex weddings should be seen as conscientious objectors of sorts. Religious freedom, Goodrich suggests, does not mean prohibiting activities one finds objectionable, but it does mean being given the opportunity to sit certain things out.
The book’s third and final section amounts to advice for the reader and to the broader Christian community. Goodrich encourages Christians not to become so determined to win that they lose important aspects of their witness to a hurting world. Now, he does not encourage Christians to lay down and wait for the culture to roll over them and their cherished beliefs – after all, he is a lawyer who enjoys winning cases. But winning legal battles can’t be the most important thing, even on issues with immense implications for religious exercise. “We’re called not to avoid losing as all costs,” he writes, “but to glorify God at all costs.” Goodrich also encourages Christians to plan for the future in terms of institutional missions and embracing Christlikeness in their interactions with the world.
Goodrich’s writing is well-organized and accessible. He does not overwhelm the reader with legalese nor does he dumb down content – he is a careful communicator who knows how to present complex issues to a non-expert audience. Consider his discussion of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act: the layperson may not have heard of RLUIPA or considered how zoning and land-use laws are related to religious freedom, but Goodrich effectively discusses the ins and outs of the legislation, and more importantly, why it matters in the first place. He is also convincing in explaining why certain legal tests are more problematic for religious freedom than others, and how differences in federal, state, and local policy can all affect religious freedom in different ways.
I typically try to include critiques in book reviews, primarily so the reader trusts that the review is not the result of bribery or blackmail. Unfortunately, I found this practice difficult for this book: Free to Believe is an exceptionally well written and accessible book, and relevant for audiences interested in law, politics, and culture. The book does, at times, come across like an advertisement for the work of the Becket Fund, but this isn’t particularly surprising given Goodrich’s background, and it would be odd for him to limit discussion of cases on which he has a particular expertise. And at one point he describes Douglas Laycock as a leading scholar and supporter of gay rights, without also acknowledging Laycock as an important defender of religious freedom. But in the end and despite these minor nits, it is easy to see why Free to Believe has garnered such acclaim.
As even the most ardent civil libertarian would likely acknowledge, no constitutional right is absolute. This is true of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. But in Free to Believe Luke Goodrich makes an eloquent argument for holding this particular provision in especially high esteem. His years of legal experience give him a unique perspective on some of the most thorny and controversial issues of the day, and his perspective is reasoned, measured, and above all compassionate. Tackling problems and conflicts involving religious freedom may not be easy in this era of pluralism and colliding individual rights, but if Free to Believe is to be believed, it is something we cannot—indeed, should not–ignore.
Daniel Bennett is an associate professor of political science at John Brown University and assistant director of the Center for Faith and Flourishing. He is an expert on the relationship between politics, law, and religion in the United States. He blogs at his website, Uneasy Citizenship, and is on Twitter at @BennettDaniel.