The American Experience of Religious Freedom
Email this review


A thoughtful examination of American religious freedom from a US circuit court judge and retired law professor (Univ. of Calif., Berkeley). Much has been written about America’s unique guarantee of religious freedom, but few works have situated this privilege so carefully in American history, social theory, and international relations. Noonan also writes well, avoiding the —legalese— which has marred other discussions of religious freedom. The book is grounded in case studies, which helps the abstract legal issues to remain firmly rooted for the reader. Part one traces the history of religious freedom in America, from colonial times through the early national period. Noonan should be applauded for rehabilitating James Madison, whose contributions to religious freedom have been generally passed over in favor of his more flamboyant fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson. This section also includes a lengthy chapter from AngÇlique de Tocqueville, —the keen-eyed younger sister of the famous Alexis,— who traveled through America in the 1830s and was particularly interested in the vitality of American religion. Part two is more philosophical than historical, examining the often uneasy relationship between religion and the state through various court cases (Noonan quite cleverly casts this as a debate between Bunyan-inspired characters, calling the evolution of religious freedom in America —The Pilgrim’s Process—). Part three traces the influence that American religious freedom has exercised in France, Japan, Russia, and Noonan’s own Catholic Church. While Noonan tries to present a balanced story, one flaw of this book is his tendency to perceive religion solely within the patterns of the Judeo-Christian trajectory. Such a bias is evident from the opening pages when he defines religion as —a relationship to God,— passing over important religions like Buddhism which posit no belief in a deity. Noonan does try to broaden his canvas, including Native Americans— challenges to the courts at a few key points. Overall, his work stands out as exemplary in its grasp of complex historical and social issues. (12 b&w illustrations and 1 line drawing, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-520-20997-4
Page count: 430pp
Publisher: Univ. of California
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998