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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Review of Feldman and Hasson

I have posted on SSRN a review essay (forthcoming in Constitutional Commentary) about two (relatively) recent books on law and religious freedom, Noah Feldman's "Divided By God," and Kevin Hasson's "The Right To Be Wrong."  Here is the abstract:

America is divided, and religion is divisive. These two claims – usually asserted with both confidence and concern – are the drone notes sounding under so much of what is said and written today about law, politics, religion, and culture.  This essay reviews two recent books dealing with religious freedom, pluralism, and conscience:  Noah Feldman's "Divided By God: America's Church-State Problem­and What We Should Do About It" and Kevin Hasson's "The Right To Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America." Each of these authors hopes for, and holds out the promise of, a less rancorous civil society.  And, each of these works puts the freedom of conscience at the heart of the authors' arguments about religious liberty, state action, and the common good. Neither author, however, pins his hope on a public square scrubbed clean by judges of religious expression, symbols, and activity.

"Divided by God" and "The Right To Be Wrong" are engaging and rewarding books. Each has its strengths; each is, in some places, provocative, and in others, inspiring.  Each is animated by a spirit of charity, and by a welcome and worthy desire to find common ground, to engage fellow citizens on that ground, and to point the way toward a state of affairs and law that is conducive to civil peace and consistent with mutual respect.  It is true, as Feldman writes, that our diversity has long and “often been called a blessing and a source of strength or balance,” and is at the same time “a fundamental challenge to the project of popular self-government.”  Feldman and Hasson are right to remind readers that our response to this challenge need not, and should not, include a demand that religious expression, symbols, and activities be confined, laicite-style, to the private sphere or the margins of our common life.  The end-game, though, will not and should not be unity, but respect.  As John Courtney Murray suggested several decades ago, given the reality and permanence of pluralism, we should “cherish only modest expectations with regard to the solution of the problem of religious pluralism and civic unity.”

I'd welcome any comments.

Posted by Rick Garnett on September 20, 2006 at 11:41 AM in Religion | Permalink

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Comments

whoops: 'But I do think leaning about religions, which in many cases would mean students would be compelled to objectively if not critically examine aspects of their own religious traditions (individuated as Habermasian 'lifeworlds'), would go some way in altering the nature and volume of debates about religion in our country.'

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 20, 2006 6:12:04 PM

I found the review analytically accurate, fair, and at times, provocative. While I'm more receptive to Feldman's argument than you may be (e.g., on the question of public support of private schools), your response is suggestive of important issues worthy of wider consideration and discussion.

Permit me to make a comment a bit off topic with regard to the review itself but not unrelated to the temper and quality of the many debates about religion in the various publics of civil society. A neglected issue here concerns the need for a public education curriculum that that would include the study of religions (not merely as an elective). It is rather unfortunate that many young people do not begin to learn about religions (plural and comparatively speaking) and religion (as such, vis-a-vis non-religious worldviews and ideologies) until their college years. I frequently have students ask me why they were not exposed earlier to the kinds of information they get in my class (an introductory course on 'world' religions). Part of my response consists in helping them appreciate the plethora of unexamined and often unwarranted fears about the capacity to teach ABOUT religions in an objective and descriptive manner. But I do think leaning about religions, which in many cases would mean students would be compelled to objectively if not critically examine aspects of their own religious traditions (individuated as Habermasian 'lifeworlds'). The animating presumption here is that the intransigence of some debates, as well as their incendiary character, is owing in no small measure to the appalling degree of widespread ignorance about religion(s) among citizens, whatever the putative, nominal or self-described nature of religious identification in this country. Young people should learn about religions through the various methodological lens provided by history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and so forth. It may take a generation or two for the consequences of such an education in 'religions' to evidence filter down-, spillover- or ramifying-effects in the public arena, but I'm inclined to believe such effects would be salutary as regards, for example, the concerns of both 'legal secularists' and 'values evangelicals.' At the very least, we could begin to rule out the plausibility of any proposals 'demand[ing] that religious expressions, symbols, and activities be confined, laicite-style, to the private sphere or the margins of our common life.' At the same time, all our young people (well, those attending public schools) would learn early on the virtues of tolerance and respect, of all faiths or none. I'm assuming here that knowledge of such things matters, and our myopic albeit understandable focus on current public policy and judicial questions has led us to neglect the possible importance of learning about religion(s).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 20, 2006 6:05:49 PM

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