Freedom of Religion In America: Historical Roots, Philosophical Concepts and Contemporary Problems
Henry B. Clark II, ed., University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1982, 143 pages, $6.95, paper. Reviewed by Gary M. Ross, associate director, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Because discussions of religious liberty as embodied in church-state separation are always welcome, the bits and pieces of this anthology have immediate merit. And the value increases as readers note the caliber of its authors (all careful specialists in their respective areas) and the scope of its coverage (no less than the roots, concepts, and problems of religious freedom).
The book originates from a conference sponsored in 1981 by the short lived University of Southern California Center for Study of the American Experience and chaired by the editor of this volume in close association with Edwin S. Gaustad (University of California-Riverside) and Robert S. Ellwood (USC).
One theme of any such dialogue is the public role of churches in the light of First Amendment restraints. Henry Steele Commager, Robert Bellah, and James E. Wood, Jr., address this matter in possibly the best chapters of the book.
In various ways they dispel the myth that church-state separation muted, silenced, or made private the public voice of religion. Rather, religion was supposed to stabilize the body politic and lend coherence to society by promoting virtue, justice, and equality. If this abstract burden, which weakened over time, compromised the secularity of the state, it nevertheless stopped short of rendering it "Christian" in today's sense of the term.
Indeed, the foregoing does not justify New Right behavior in our time. With admirable balance (and a helpful annotated bibliography to back him) 32 MINISTRY/MARCH/1984 Richard V. Pierard finds nothing wrong with politically active Christian conservatism per se, yet faults the style of such in the eighties. He questions legislative proposals that would threaten pluralism and worries over a wrongful, highly selective morality that disregards the needy and oppressed.
A second important theme of the book is the consolidation of religious freedom in America. Pressure from religious groups, especially beleaguered ones that suffered ridicule, was no doubt decisive in this process. Jay P. Dolan describes how Catholics pushed the legal system toward greater inclusiveness in its definitions of religion and applications of religious freedom. Joseph P. Chinnici shows Catholics to have advocated religious freedom for quite other social reasons—their high culture, which included familiarity with writers of the Enlightenment, and their frequent interaction with peoples of various denominations in worship and in the pursuit of common projects.
The story is different for American Jews. Theirs was a propensity for social action and communal welfare. This propensity, Moses Rischin suggests, caused a disregard for the technicalities of church-state separation and encouraged collaboration with a government whose social ethics and concerns appeared boundless. Hence the ease with which Jewish religious leaders could eventually seek public funding for private schools.
Jonathan Butler presents the case of Protestants, especially Sabbatarians who through arduous litigation and appeal strengthened free exercise protections. Implicitly, however, he makes another point. Government, often styled the antagonist of religious freedom, has been its maker, and this not just at the beginning of our history.
This sampling of provocative material must confine itself to one more theme, that of "de facto establishment"—the religious hegemony that prevails at a point in time. Initially, of course, the legitimate expression of American religion was white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. Then a troika of Catholic-Protestant-Jew won acceptance. Now that ring widens.
Various authors, in the presentation of these latter dynamics, provide tools for differentiating accepted religion from the "wildcats," and strategies for those that would assimilate. They examine the nonnormative religions sociologically (as for light they throw on the status of women) and weigh their tendency to chip away at the public consensus. In this story plural ism ad infinitum becomes the bankruptcy, rather than the fulfillment, of the American dream.
Considering the book as a whole, readers may find it choppy, uneven, and dated (it assumes the New Right's ascendency and does not foresee its fall as registered by numerous indices starting in late 1982). But provocative it also is. Fresh ideas update the subject, and spark sufficient interest to ensure its further study.