Bench Memos

My Review of Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom

The new (August/September) issue of the must-read journal First Things includes my short but very favorable review of Steven D. Smith’s The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom:

Anyone who wants to understand the perilous condition of religious freedom in America should read this book. In lucid prose, University of San Diego law professor Steven D. Smith contests basic themes of the conventional story of American religious freedom and presents a provocative and compelling counter-narrative. His account culminates in a bracing discussion of the threat posed by the emergent new orthodoxy of secular egalitarianism.

According to the standard story, the framers adopted the First Amendment as a novel experiment in Church-state separation and religious freedom. That story, Smith explains, is doubly wrong. Rather than breaking cleanly with the past, the core concepts of the traditional American understanding of religious freedom developed as a “recovery, adaptation, and consolidation” of “distinctively Christian notions”: the medieval theory of the dual jurisdictions of Church and state, and the Reformation idea of individual conscience as an “inner church.” Further, in the framers’ understanding, the religion clauses of the First Amendment were primarily jurisdictional, not substantive: they made clear that matters of religion remained within the domain of the states. Smith sketches the long and bizarrely convoluted history by which the religion clauses came to be understood as setting forth substantive rights, first against the federal government, and later (under the incorporation doctrine ultimately applied to the Fourteenth Amendment) against the states.

Smith also powerfully argues that the usual narrative, in which the post-World War II and Warren-era Supreme Court rescued the nation from a shameful history of religious persecution and discrimination, has things essentially backwards. He celebrates the “practical genius” of the theoretically inelegant “American settlement,” which recognized specific commitments to separation of Church from state and to freedom of conscience and which saw fit not to resolve the competition between the broader “providentialist” and “secularist” interpretations of those commitments. (Under the providentialist reading, government can acknowledge a dependence on the Creator, and citizens and legislators may act on their religiously informed moral views in making public policy.) When the Supreme Court shattered this settlement by adopting the secularist interpretation, it engendered a destructive “discourse of accusation, anathematization, and abuse,” a discourse that has spread to judicial interventions on related issues like abortion and marriage.

Contrary to common fear-mongering about the supposed theocratic threat from the religious right, Smith cogently sets forth what he sees as the real dangers. First, religious freedom is eroded from within by the “self-subverting logic” of the secularist interpretation: If government can’t act on the basis of any religious views, then it can’t generate the rationales that historically justified religious liberty. Second, secular egalitarianism, especially as reshaped and bolstered by the gay rights movement, is fundamentally incompatible with a robust understanding of religious freedom. Indeed, it has all the markings of an oppressive orthodoxy—a single ultimate value, inordinate certitude of its righteousness, and a desire to “penetrate into hearts and minds” to purify beliefs and motives.

 

Most Popular

U.S.

FBI to Interview Hunter Biden Business Partner

The FBI has asked Tony Bobulinski, former business partner of Hunter Biden, to sit for an interview on Friday, Senator Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) told reporters. Bobulinski was initially scheduled to give an interview on Friday to members of various Senate committees regarding his knowledge of business deals ... Read More
U.S.

FBI to Interview Hunter Biden Business Partner

The FBI has asked Tony Bobulinski, former business partner of Hunter Biden, to sit for an interview on Friday, Senator Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) told reporters. Bobulinski was initially scheduled to give an interview on Friday to members of various Senate committees regarding his knowledge of business deals ... Read More
Elections

Biden Dusts Off Obama’s Most Famous Lie

"If you like your health care plan, you can keep it," was a promise President Barack Obama often made when selling the Affordable Care Act. It was one of the most significant political lies in recent history, leveled during one of our most contentious policy debates. If Americans knew they might lose their ... Read More
Elections

Biden Dusts Off Obama’s Most Famous Lie

"If you like your health care plan, you can keep it," was a promise President Barack Obama often made when selling the Affordable Care Act. It was one of the most significant political lies in recent history, leveled during one of our most contentious policy debates. If Americans knew they might lose their ... Read More
Elections

Biden Wants It Both Ways

This week felt like a month. On the menu today: After President Trump asked, “Would you close down the oil industry?” Biden responded, “I have a transition from the old industry, yes,” and now Biden’s campaign insists the candidate didn’t mean it. Biden also insisted that he “never said I oppose ... Read More
Elections

Biden Wants It Both Ways

This week felt like a month. On the menu today: After President Trump asked, “Would you close down the oil industry?” Biden responded, “I have a transition from the old industry, yes,” and now Biden’s campaign insists the candidate didn’t mean it. Biden also insisted that he “never said I oppose ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More
Media

The Media’s Shameful Hunter Biden Abdication

In an interview with National Public Radio’s public editor today, Terence Samuel, managing editor for news, explained why readers haven’t seen any stories about the New York Post’s Hunter Biden email scoop. “We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want ... Read More
Media

The Media’s Shameful Hunter Biden Abdication

In an interview with National Public Radio’s public editor today, Terence Samuel, managing editor for news, explained why readers haven’t seen any stories about the New York Post’s Hunter Biden email scoop. “We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want ... Read More