Book Review – Briefly Considered

Briefly Considered

The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom by Steven D. Smith (Harvard University Press, 2014) explains the complicated history of religious liberty not as an Enlightenment secularized break from religion but as a tension and dialectic between providentialist and secularist movements that often overlap. The First Amendment was not a novel concept that changed religion and politics with either a progressivist or pietistic bias. Rather, it preserved the religious status quo with a way to manage open contestation among religious and non-religious agendas—with neither becoming ascendant.

Why Tolerate Religion? by Brian Leiter (Princeton University Press, 2014, now in its second edition) has annoyed many with religious sentiments and provoked much discussion in the current disputes about religious liberty. Ultimately, Leiter argues that a liberal democracy can be conducted by tolerating religion—but only minimally. Religion involves beliefs that are unhinged from any rational discourse and, so, not admissible to the public square. Such beliefs may, at most, be held privately. The current debates over this no longer unpopular position which Leiter clearly sets out for readers are vigorous and serious. The future of religious liberty may well pivot on the definitions of rationality and who gets to define the terms of reasonable argument, justification, and valid epistemology.

Religion, Law, and the Constitution by Daniel Conkle (Foundation Press, 2016) provides understanding and reason to religious liberty in the now-chaotic public arena. By examining America’s religious liberty from Locke to the First Amendment to the present day, the author identifies the evolving constitutional values of religious voluntarism, identity, equality, the freedom of religious speech, and how these protect government from religion and protect religion from government. The book covers the Supreme Court’s decisions, doctrinal tests, and reasoning about religion in public schools, financial aid to religious schools and organizations, and claims for Title IX religious exemptions.

Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal by Glenn Tinder (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007) serves as a comprehensive text on liberty in which he brings together the themes of faith, reason, biblical anthropology, the Enlightenment, tolerance, and the public square. Tinder employs a broad view of rationality that includes insights from Aquinas, Kant, Marx, Mill, Dostoyevsky, and Freud. Says Tinder in his prologue: “I write from a Christian point of view, and I argue and assume at various points that Christianity contains truths—for example, about human nature—that everyone, regardless of religious or irreligious orientation—should seriously consider.”

Russ Moulds
Professor of Psychology
Concordia University, Nebraska
Editor, Issues in Christian Education


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