Andrew Walker recently joined the Public Discourse editorial team as a Contributing Editor. Our Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Anderson, sat down—at a safe social distance, of course—with Andrew to discuss his background, how Public Discourse played a role in his intellectual development, and his hopes for the future of Public Discourse.
RTA: First, thanks for joining us on the PD team. We’re excited to have you. For readers who aren’t familiar with you, can you say a little about your background?
ATW: I grew up in central Illinois, a good Midwesterner. I received a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Southwest Baptist University and a Master of Divinity, Master of Theology, and Doctor of Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under the supervision of Russell Moore. I got my start working for the Family Foundation, a public policy organization in Kentucky. From there I went to work at the Heritage Foundation in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. There I focused on the defense of marriage, which is where you and I first began working together (contrary to legend, I was never Ryan’s intern). From there, I spent a little over six years at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy and moral concerns agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. In November 2019, I began work as an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I also lead the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. I also serve as Executive Editor of Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology, the publication of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Fundamentally, I’m a social conservative interested in the intersection of ethics and public theology. Through the years, I’ve also authored a number of essays at Public Discourse.
RTA: You’re a Protestant, an Evangelical, Southern Baptist, and also a natural law scholar. How’s that working for you?
ATW: The backdrop to your question is the so-called settled assumption that Protestantism rejects natural law. That may be true of twentieth century theology and ethics, but as I gain more understanding of the field of contemporary evangelical thought, I am actually seeing something of a renaissance in warming to natural law. This is especially true within ethics and public theology. It is doubtlessly the result of American culture’s radical embrace of revolutions around sex and gender. Most evangelicals I’m in conversation with are no less interested in appealing to Scripture, but they are understanding that reciting a Scriptural truth on, say, marriage, may be met with a blank stare, since the modern secular mind finds its authority center elsewhere.
This explains where I think the greatest nexus is between evangelical thought and natural law: Understanding that special revelation (the Bible) and general revelation (natural law) are not in competition with one another but unite in beautiful harmony. As I stress over and over in my classes, the best of natural law theory is giving explanation and illustration to the truths of creation that are revealed in Scripture. For example, your own natural law explanations on marriage are nothing else than rational expressions of what the Bible refers to as a “one flesh” union. The Bible’s account of creation accurately witnesses to the creation that we know around us. Natural law’s explanatory power at articulating the inner logic of biblical truths is one of its greatest uses in my view.
From my vantage point, whatever damage such individuals like Karl Barth did to natural law discourse in the twentieth century, the greatest damage to natural law was the idea that it was somehow set in opposition to Scripture. That’s mistaken, and I intend to correct that caricature in my teaching and writing. Secondly, natural law has been viewed as unnecessary in Protestant circles. I think this was that result of a Protestant Christian belief that America was operating in the shadow of Christendom and did not really have to offer any apologetic for its ethics. When everyone thinks they are some type of generic Christian, there is little need to do the hard work of formulating explanations that people already agree with. So, what happens is that culture absorbs tacit conclusions that are easily demolished as radical voices introduce new ethical paradigms. That is the catch-22 of natural law, in my opinion. Its use is most necessary and critical at the exact point where a civilization’s moral roots are being cut off—which is where we are right now. When such things as abortion and same-sex marriage were not in the public mind, there was little need to engage in natural law thinking, insofar as a Judeo-Christian worldview was the operating assumption. That’s no longer the case, and there’s been a growing interest in natural law as a result. Whenever I lecture or give a presentation, people are enamored with this idea that Scripture is not just an in-house epistemological project—it’s speaking to reality itself.
There is much more I could say, but let me just go ahead and anticipate one of the greatest objections I hear from some Protestants about natural law: that it’s a failure to reckon with the depravity of the sinful heart and darkened mind. To this, I simply want to reply, “Whose natural law?” I don’t paper over the depravity of humankind. My understanding of the natural law simply sheds light on what happens when reason is jettisoned: absurd and even deadly conclusions are embraced in culture and public policy.
Moreover, so what if it isn’t immediately persuasive? Appeals to the natural law are similar to appeals to the gospel; just because it may not immediately be persuasive, that does not make it any less true or mean that we stop appealing to it for its own sake, for its benefit for others, or for society to order itself around.
I am a natural law proponent. That is no obstacle for the Reformation tradition. Coming from an ethics and public theology emphasis, I see it as a useful tool for public discourse. I don’t mean to make it the savior of Western civilization, but I find natural law to simply be the aggregate expression of society’s exploration of common grace amid sin.
RTA: You’ve been reading Public Discourse since the beginning. How has it had an impact on your own intellectual formation?
ATW: For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the intersection of theology, ethics, and politics. It is hard to pinpoint my first exposure to the work of Robert P. George, but it was in gaining familiarity with his work that I came across Public Discourse. Public Discourse has stood out as perhaps the most singularly sophisticated publication for social conservatism, which ranks first in my hierarchy of conservative priorities. I do not mean to oversimplify my explanation or make it too pat, but social conservatives are told they are the weird ones. We’re given short shrift and are often given the impression that Conservatism Inc., and especially mainstream Republicanism, would rather we just go away. It’s neither popular nor easy to be of the social conservative caucus, and at a time when I was coming into my own intellectually, Public Discourse was there as an outlet confirming these inner, undeveloped dispositions that needed refinement and elaboration. It bolstered confidence and fraternity. It has continually said things that stand contra mundum pro mundum. It’s an affirmative social conservatism, not simply reactionary or nostalgic. It has been a bulwark against the madness of political correctness; peerless in its publication courage. Public Discourse stands for intellectual courage, and we need more of that, never less.
Through being a Public Discourse reader, I’ve made friendships I would not otherwise have made. The joy of any movement is the relationships it fosters, and my life would be less fulfilled were it not for the intellectual camaraderie that is enjoyed by many within the Public Discourse readership.
RTA: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing our nation right now, and how can Public Discourse help?
ATW: A question like this draws me to Jeremiah 6:16:
Thus says the LORD:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
This verse represents a sort of lodestar memory verse for how I see Public Discourse functioning: It’s a signpost to a better, tried, and truer way that must have new champions replenishing the well, so to speak. But the verse ends with a sense of obstinacy and stubborn refusal by those who refuse to recognize the “ancient path.” Tension is baked into the storyline. That’s where we are at the present moment. Anyone with a sense of sobermindedness would know that this is not an ideal time to be a social conservative, but true social conservatives dismiss these challenges as merely contextual, not metaphysical. Take issues like life, marriage (family life more broadly), and religious liberty. Unless there’s an outlet that stays truthful to these pillars of the common good, we are ceding ground to those who not only are wrong but have a nefarious impact on human flourishing. Institutions must flourish that are bulwarks of liberty against a creeping and increasingly naked illiberalism. We stay loyal to our convictions, no matter what resistance is encountered. Any conservatism competent to the task will be about the pursuit of perpetual retrieval. We are not innovators nor radicals. We stand within a tradition of thought that champions what Russell Kirk referred to as “The Permanent Things.” The best, most necessary thing that Public Discourse can be is an enterprising spokesperson for the ancient paths.
RTA: What are some of the most pressing debates in your world right now and how can Public Discourse help?
ATW: There are many, among them the divisiveness of the current political age. Within evangelical circles, the response to President Trump is often the determining shape of one’s preference to spew virtue or vice in either direction. There’s a grating moralism in both directions. It’s sad and demonstrates that despite our high-minded rhetoric that attempts to subjugate politics to second-tier issues, it remains a functional god or merit badge of sorts that we use to denounce those whose political judgments do not perfectly match our own. More thoughtfulness on the ethics of voting, for example, is one essential area that needs much greater consideration within evangelical circles. What are we signaling when we vote? Is it a maximal or minimal expression of our understanding of a candidate’s qualification to lead?
Another area of creeping fracture within Protestant evangelical circles is the re-evaluation of gender. We’re having debates about whether men’s and women’s roles within church and society should be more “broadly” or “narrowly” understood. It’s a fine debate to have, but it fails to unearth more fundamental questions like nature, teleology, and biology. Underneath a lot of the discourse, I think, is a general embarrassment that most evangelicals have with the Apostle Paul, who grounded gender and sex not only in roles, but in creation. Ultimately, it’s a crisis of biblical authority.
RTA: What’s your next big intellectual research project?
ATW: Several are on the horizon. In 2021, a forthcoming work of mine will be released with Brazos Press. It’s a distillation of my dissertation that attempts to ground religious liberty in Christian thought. From my vantage point, religious liberty is understood by Christians primarily in terms of constitutionalism and generic categories of theism. It needs greater tethering to explicitly Christian thought as a pillar of public theology. I make the argument that religious liberty is the result of Christian influence, and where Christianity wanes, religious liberty declines and illiberalism ascends. This is a theological matter, not merely sociological.
In 2022, a second edition of my book God and the Transgender Debate will come out. It’s only after the publication of a book that an author realizes what he should have written. This second edition will do more in explaining the relationship between general and special revelation in grounding male and female identity.
Lastly, I am working with two scholars from Baylor and Georgetown in assembling a large edited volume on Baptist political theology. More news will be coming soon about this project, but it will be the first of its kind, and I’m very excited about it.