Monday, January 4, 2010
Here is my First Things review of David Novak's recent book, In Defense of Religious Liberty. A bit:
[T]o mount a serious defense of religious liberty, one must understand what that liberty is and why it is worth protecting. But reaching such an understanding has proved, for more than a few contemporary scholars, harder than it sounds. One senses in current academic conversations a desire, perhaps just a vestigial one, to protect religious liberty in and through law, but also a reluctance or inability to explain why we should. One of Novak’s important and timely tasks is to do just that. . . .
Novak’s focus, in his Defense, is on . . . the “freedom of a religious community to bring its moral wisdom to the world”—to “sing the Lord’s song on strange ground.” It is a freedom that is “exercised for the world, even though many in the world may resist it.” So often, discussions and debates about law, religion, and policy are animated by a concern about keeping religion in its place and cataloging the circumstances in which religion is to be permitted to make its claims and present its vision. Always lurking, it is thought, is the danger that religion will be “imposed” on the civic, the political, or the secular. Novak’s case, though, is again consonant with John Paul II’s: “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.”
“Make no mistake,” Novak warns, “religious liberty is being seriously threatened today.” Religious liberty, “the claim that a historically continuous ethical community makes upon a secular polity,” is vulnerable and this vulnerability is easy to miss because we so often think of religious liberty exclusively in terms of privacy and individual exemptions. We imagine that, so long as we are permitted to be “personally spiritual,” liberty is alive and well. But as Novak insists, “Becket was not martyred because he was ‘spiritual.’” Religion makes claims, and religious liberty necessarily includes the liberty to make them. . . .