Liberal Religion and American Freedom

February 11, 2013

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.


Religion and politics according to Roger Williams: A Thanksgiving Meditation

November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving is unique in the American sequence of major holidays. It is rooted in one of the nation’s primary historical eras and expresses one of America’s foundational narratives. It combines religious, political, and cultural elements, but in a way that allows the holiday to be embraced not only by Christians but also by people of other religions or of no religion.

This holiday, perhaps more than any other, reveals the fact that the nation’s very existence is based upon the radical disregard for the people who already were here when Europeans arrived. Thus, no matter how joyfully we celebrate the day, it is right that Americans remember, with remorse, those whose way of life has been trampled upon in order to allow the rest of us enjoy the way of life experienced by the dominant members of the population.

Although we rightfully focus our attention upon the good things in life, as manifested in traditional Thanksgiving services and feasts, this holiday is also a time to revisit the central political themes that are enshrined in the historical tradition.

For me this year, this political aspect of remembrance focused upon Roger Williams who was one of the most astute architects of the American system of liberty and equality. During the days surrounding the holiday, I came across an extended review of John M. Barry’s new biography: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

“Anyone who reads this book,” reviewer John Fea writes, “will need to come to grips with the fact that it is Williams, not [John] Winthrop, who best represents the historical roots of the religious liberties that citizens of the United States enjoy today.” (This review, with the title “The original separationist,” appears in Christian Century, November 14, 2012, pp. 36-37.)

My second encounter with Williams over the Thanksgiving weekend was in a book entitled Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books, 2008).  Its author is Martha C. Nussbaum, a philosopher who “holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School at the University of Chicago, is co-chair of the university’s Human Rights Program, and…is the author of thirteen previous books” (from the book jacket).

Nussbaum is a vigorous defender of the central pillars of the American tradition, which she describes as freedom and equality. It is clear to her that this way of setting up national life is unique in the world and that it is “a tradition under threat.”

Early in the book, Nussbaum devotes an entire chapter (entitled “Living Together: The Roots of Respect”) to Roger Williams, a Puritan intellectual who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, but five years later fled because his opposition to the established order was likely to lead to his arrest.

He established a new community in Providence, Rhode Island, in which he used his distinctive principles to establish a colony noted for its receptive attitude toward people of widely varying ideas and practices. From this secure position, he maintained a vigorous literary debate with Boston leaders, especially John Cotton, pastor of the First Church Boston.

The mood and style of the debate is indicated in the titles of the treatises they produced during this controversy. Williams: The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) and The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652); Cotton:The Bloudy Tenent washed and made white in the bloud of the Lamb (1647).

Nussbaum begins this chapter with a quotation from The Bloudy Tenent:

“Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all Nations and Countries” (p. 34).

What stands out in her treatment of Williams, however, is not the colorful language, but instead the extent to which this lonely figure anticipated better known political philosophers and leaders in later generations. His writings during the 1640s “anticipate [John] Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration in every respect” (p. 41).

“It is not implausible,” she writes, “to compare his core ideas to those that will animate the philosophy of Immanuel Kant a century later” (p. 56). The “ideas of fairness and respect” as Williams presents them “continue to be central to the best work in recent political philosophy in the Western tradition,” and here Nussbaum cites John Rawls’s books A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism (p. 57).

When I read the Williams-Cotton Bloudy Tenent debate half a century ago, I was paying attention to other issues and overlooked the importance of Williams’s ideas about liberty and equality. While it is unlikely that I will reread these “logic-chopping” treatises, I do plan to continue reading Nussbaum’s book and then move to other expositions of Williams’s life and thought. My remembrance of Thanksgiving will carry me well into the new year!