BLASPHEMY by Leonard W. Levy


Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie
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 In an eloquent, monumental study that retraces some of the ground covered in his Treason Against God (1981), Levy (Humanities/Claremont Graduate School; Original Intent and the Framers' Constitution, 1988) recounts the often shameful history in the West of ``the suppression of freedom of expression in the field of religious belief and experience.'' Although Levy focuses on the development of the concept, plus the common law, of blasphemy in the Anglo-American tradition, he covers the evolution of the offense everywhere in Judeo-Christian thought through the Reformation (Christian thinkers, he says, expanded the technical ancient Jewish understanding of blasphemy to encompass idolatry, heresy, sacrilege, and related offenses of nonconformist thinking). Both the ancient Church and, later, Protestantism gave birth to fluid, heterodox religious cultures in which politically powerful factions established standards of religious orthodoxy and punished nonconformists as heretics and blasphemers. Showing how flexible the offense of blasphemy became, Levy recounts 17th-century English persecutions of nonconformist Christians (leading to a 1676 holding that ``Christian religion is part of the law itself''); persecutions of Protestant sects in Colonial America; and 18th-century prosecutions for obscenity. The author surveys the gradually dwindling number of prosecutions in 19th- and 20th-century England and America, culminating in the 1976 Gay News case in which a British court held as blasphemous a homosexual poem about Jesus, and in the confused reaction of the British legal establishment to The Satanic Verses (unquestionably blasphemous under Islamic law). Levy concludes that ``the feculent odor of persecution for the cause of conscience, which is the basic principle upon which blasphemy laws rest, has not yet dissipated.'' While the criminal law of blasphemy may appear to be ``in a persistent vegetative state,'' Levy does a service in pointing out that prosecutions of people on religious grounds aren't unthinkable--and indeed sometimes still occur.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-40236-5
Page count: 704pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1993