Liberal Religion and American Freedom

Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, by Martha C. Nussbaum (New York: Basic Books, 2008)

NussbaumAs a liberal, I have always believed that it is important that we keep religion and politics clearly distinguished and that we avoid the intermingling of political and religious authority and power.

Not that I have always been consistent. While not objecting to released time religious education when my children were in public school, I opposed (as did most liberals) the use of tax money to support any activity related to parochial, especially Catholic, schools.

In recent times, I have worried about the way that secular civil policies are being interpreted in Europe. In our country, I have puzzled over the right policy concerning the insistence that full face photos have to appear on drivers’ licenses regardless of religious disciplines. Increasingly I have been distressed by the alliance of right wing politicians and conservative Christians (Catholic and Protestant) who are seeking to enforce certain religiously defined practices and prohibitions by governmental action.

Lately, I’ve puzzled over what might be the right course of action, and on what grounds, with respect to requiring that health plans be required to provide contraceptive coverage.

All of the above makes be appreciate Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Liberty of Conscience. At the University of Chicago, she holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School, and she brings all of these disciplines to bear upon her analysis.

Nussbaum illuminates how distinctive the American system of religious freedom is in the history of human societies. It has very few ancient precursors. Contrary to what I had assumed, it is not a product of the European Enlightenment.

Instead the initiator of this organizing principle of the American experiment was Roger Williams, an ardent Puritan preacher and prophet whose convictions about soule libertie ran counter to orthodoxies in Europe and the American colonies, including New England—the “City Set on a Hill.” Its basic characteristics were developed into a constitutional structure by a remarkable group of American political figures, including Jefferson and Madison.

Since then, the system has been developed and interpreted, although in back and forth fashion, because of changes in American life and deepening judicial reasoning. Unfortunately, the system has been threatened by fear and paranoia, and by flawed decisions of the Supreme Court. Nussbaum’s illustrations include bad decisions by Justice Frankfurter in an earlier period and by Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist in more recent times.

It is clear that the American system of freedom, fairness, and equality—all based on the first amendment—must constantly be tended, nurtured, defended, and interpreted. It is easy to draw the conclusion, although we ought to be cautious in so doing, that this pattern should be lifted up as a standard for other nations and societies.

One reason why the system has worked better here than in Europe, is that Americans have defined themselves politically rather than by blood or soil. We have violated our own principle in matters of race and ethnicity; but even here the deeper principles of equality and fairness have begun to help our nation work toward a better life for the diverse peoples of the nation.

Nussbaum calls attention to the relative ease with which the United States has accommodated Muslims in recent times. Our political tradition, she suggests, has been well taught and has penetrated deeply into the American psyche.

Liberty of Conscience is tightly argued, extensively illustrated, and interesting. In contrast to a suspense novel, however, it can be put down and is sometimes difficult to pick up again. Much of the exposition revolves around cases in the Supreme Court in which the meaning and application of the first amendment have been developed. A good way to make personal notes for the sake of understanding and remembering the book would be to make a list of these cases with identifying comments for each one.

Nussbaum often refers to the separation of church and state. Although she appreciates the intention of this idea, she skillfully shows that ideas of fairness and equality are more useful in helping us maintain liberty of conscience in American life.

Among the book’s strengths are the introduction and conclusion. In the introduction Nussbaum summarizes her intentions for the book and gives defining paragraphs for eight concepts and six principles that are central to the American tradition of religious equality. We would do well to commit these lists to memory!

The conclusion offers a concise and hopeful exposition of the American commitment to developing and maintaining an overlapping consensus about matters of individual conscience and the wellbeing of the society. With many others, including Nussbaum, I am anxious about threats to the American tradition of religious equality. This book helps me understand it better than I did and bolsters my confidence that this tradition will prevail.

One Response to Liberal Religion and American Freedom

  1. Rod Reeves says:

    Keith, appreciate your review of Nussbaum’s book. Just finished it last night. Although the subject matter is extemely critical in my view, and her obvious depth and width of knowledge is impressive. At times, I was hoping to run across a bit more humor. For I too could easily put the book down. When the author can make you laught with at least moderate frequency (a la John Dominic Crossan in The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus), it is not as easy to put the book down. It took me a looong time to get through her book. But glad I stayed with it. Look forward to our reading group tomorrow evening. Rod

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