Liberty of Conscience

Each era of American history has been wracked by controversy over the limits of religious liberty. Although this matter was supposedly settled by the First Amendment to the Constitution, multiple questions arise over interpretation of its provisions. Although many issues tend to recur regularly in slightly different form, the book’s author, Martha C. Nussbaum, believes that the twenty-first century has seen a subtle trend toward national endorsement of a religious worldview. Liberty of Conscience sprang from the author’s wish to counteract this trend.

The First Amendment proscription against the entanglement of church and state is contained in two clausesthe establishment clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) and the free exercise clause (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). By and large these provisions have served the nation well. However, the relationship between government and faith has always been more problematic than the simple phrase “separation of church and state” implies. This book explores the philosophical basis for these unique American principles and for the conflicts that occur around their margins.

Roger Williams is known to most Americans as the founder and first governor of colonial Rhode Island. In a persuasive opening to the book, however, Nussbaum lays out a case for Williams’s thought as the core philosophy behind American thought on the proper relationship between state power and the individual.

In his early life, Williams received a classical education and took priestly orders in the Church of England. Uneasy with the treatment being meted out to English dissenters in the 1630’s, he migrated to the New World. At first he found a welcome and a congregation in Salem, but his beliefs got him into trouble with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, too. He was forced to flee to Rhode Island, where he formulated guidelines for a new colony with true religious freedom.

Williams’s basic concern was protection for the individual conscience. He equated conscience with the soul, counting it the most distinctive human trait. He had spent much of his early life in settings where not only religious practice but also belief was prescribed by civil authorities. Such compulsion, he said, was “soule rape”worse than the foulest crimes. Nussbaum notes that this high valuation for individual conscience grew out of Protestant thought, but she adds that most religions hold a similar respect for each human’s moral faculty. This tradition goes all the way back to the Romans. A central feature of Stoic philosophy was its belief that every human, regardless of gender, education, or station in life, contains a spark of the divine in the capacity to make moral choices.

Under Williams’s leadership, Rhode Island was the only American colony that allowed complete religious liberty. In a century when the principle was very much an exception, the colony received two successive royal charters granting such freedoms. It is noteworthy that Charles II, having come to the English throne after unprecedented political-religious chaos, would not risk such leeway in Britain. However, he seems to have harbored some willingness to experiment elsewhere, and faraway Rhode Island benefited.

The scope of Williams’s respect for conscience was unusual for his time. He had spent much time with the Narragansett Indians, and hence he realized that religious diversity extended further than the differences that brought English settlers to the New World. The colony’s charter protected not only belief and its expression in opinion but also in acts of worship and other practices, as long as the adherents behaved “peaceablie.”

Although Williams was alone among influential colonists of his generation in his concern for everyone’s religious liberties, the colony’s example and Williams’s extensive writings percolated through the intellectual life of all the American colonies. Most settlers of the Middle and Northern colonies had immigrated at least partly for religious freedom, so they could relate to Williams’s sentiments if not to the details. In the century and a half of British presence in North America before nationhood, American political philosophy came to diverge more and more from the European model. Kings and nobles were far away. The church establishments that bolstered their status became increasingly irrelevant. Instead, the concept of equality flourished. A state could not logically support equality if certain citizens were “more equal than others” because of religious affiliation.

Williams’s core ideas found an especially receptive audience in the men who framed the Constitution. Their personal belief systems varied widelythe author makes sure to point this outbut all were strongly committed to the ideals of liberty and equality. Even under the...

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America 198, no. 17 (May 19, 2008): 22-23.

The American Prospect 19 (May, 2008): 37.

Booklist 104, no. 12 (February 15, 2008): 17.

First Things 180 (February, 2008): 35.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 23 (December 1, 2007): 1235.

Library Journal 133, no. 3 (February 15, 2008): 110.

The Nation 286, no. 22 (June 9, 2008): 42-48.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 8 (May 15, 2008): 24-27.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 51 (December 24, 2007): 48.