Well-considered, challenging analysis of America’s commitment to religious liberty.
Nussbaum (Law, Divinity, Philosophy/Univ. of Chicago; The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, 2007, etc.) finds that this distinctly American tradition, embodied in the First Amendment, is based on six principles: equality, respect for conscience, liberty, accommodation of minorities, nonestablishment and separation of church and state. She examines how it arose in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the severe challenges it faced in the 19th with an influx of Roman Catholic immigrants and the appearance of new religious groups such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There is an ongoing need for refinement of constitutional principles, Nussbaum argues, given the increasing religious diversity in the United States. Not only are the numbers of Muslims, Buddhists and other non-Christian groups increasing, but so are those who profess to no religious belief. Citing specific cases, the author looks deeply into the difficult question of what measures are appropriate in order to accommodate religious observances that conflict with civil laws. She considers such issues as same-sex marriage, polygamy, prayers in public schools (and the related question of whether school children can be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance), the use of public funds to support sectarian schools, public display of religious symbols and the teaching of evolution. Her discussion of how the Supreme Court has approached these various questions in different eras reminds readers of some distressing episodes in our history. Americans, she warns, must be alert to the current threats to our tradition of religious liberty and vigilant to resist them. In conclusion, Nussbaum argues persuasively that this American tradition has much to offer the nations of Europe, many of which still have established churches, value homogeneity and tend to consider divergence from the majority view as subversive.
A timely topic and a fine example of scholarly yet accessible writing.