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Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality Hardcover – February 5, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this engrossing history of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, Nussbaum (Cultivating Humanity) makes a strong, thoroughgoing case for America as a haven of religious liberty for believers of all stripes. Beginning with an illuminating rehabilitation of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams as America's earliest defender of religious equality, Nussbaum continues by examining how Williams's ideals have been both upheld and abandoned throughout the nation's history. After detailing the adoption of the establishment and free exercise clauses, Nussbaum comments at length on how these fairly general, vague clauses have been fleshed out by more than two centuries of case law. Refreshingly, Nussbaum does not add to the acrimonious cacophony around the idea of separation of church and state. Rather than pushing for strict separation, she argues for what philosopher John Rawls calls overlapping consensus, which echoes Williams's belief that citizens who differ greatly on matters of ultimate meaning can still agree to respect each other's liberty of conscience. Nussbaum writes engagingly and with generosity; her critiques, particularly those of opinions written by Justices Scalia and Thomas, are pointed but respectful, and she demonstrates warm regard for Supreme Court plaintiffs who have braved persecution as they have followed the dictates of conscience. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

Despite codification in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the U.S. has long struggled with the concept of freedom of religion. Nussbaum, ethical philosopher at the University of Chicago, plumbs the historical, political, philosophical, and legal debates surrounding religious freedom. She recalls troubling times in U.S. history when, fueled by xenophobia, Americans—even the Supreme Court—acquiesced in some curtailment of the religious freedom of others, including suspicions and attacks against Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and atheists. She explores issues surrounding the word God in the Pledge of Allegiance, gay marriage, prayer in school, the influence of Christian fundamentalism, and fear of Islamic fundamentalism. Nussbaum documents the ways, large and small, that the Bush administration has actually subverted religious freedom, from faith-based initiatives that flirt with favoritism to actual proselytizing by prominent officials. At a time of unprecedented religious diversity and tension within the U.S., this is a thoughtful and penetrating look at religious freedom. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (February 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465051642
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465051649
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,523,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in Law, Philosophy, and Divinity.

Author photo by Robin Holland

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 60 people found the following review helpful By JMB1014 on April 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Martha Nussbaum is in danger of becoming the next Isaac Asimov - a freelance expert on everything in general. This book is more of a tour de force than a serious study. Nussbaum makes a good argument for "overlapping consensus" in discussing equality between the religion clauses in the First Amendment but really misses the boat when it comes to injurious religious practices - the major obstacle to the equality principle. (It was John Rawls who earlier argued for "overlapping consensus" between believers and non-believers.) She does this by merely shrugging off pernicious effects that religious practices can have. Why did the Pope recently have to meet with victims of abuse by Catholic clergy? Nussbaum also unaccountably gives a free pass to polygamy, which has been in the news lately. She is cavalier in dismissing Jon Krakauer's seriously troubling indictment of polygamy. He is a mountaineer, she asserts, and has no major credentials in religion. And who, precisely, is Ms. Nussbaum to complain about someone else's being a non-specialist? Yet Krakauer only shows part of the immense and disturbing problem that polygamy poses. Andrea Moore-Emmett, an award-winning journalist from Utah, exposed much deep ugliness and cruelty underlying polygamy in her study, "God's Brothel," which featured the harrowing accounts of 18 actual women who all lived under polygamy.

The problem is there are people who are willing to prey (no pun intended) on the credulous and inflict severe emotional and physical damage while claiming merely to be freely exercising their religion. This is where the equality principle - and Nussbaum's thesis - founder. After all, the Supreme Court has held that religious belief cannot be regulated but religiously-motivated conduct can. This is fortunate.
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15 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For years, I have been fascinated by the legal and political questions involved in religion/state affairs. What do the religion clasuses of the first amendment permit and rule out? How can the state be neutral towards religion while repectful of it? I have read many books on these questions from all different sides of the "spectrum" and I must say that Nussbaum's "Liberty of Conscience" is easily the weakest and most surface-level analysis I have thus far read.

Her goal is to show that our religious tradition of nondiscrimination towards, and non-establishment of, religion(s) is based on a vision of human equality that finds embodiment in the Stoic philosophers and Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island. I have never heard this point before and after hearing it, I can understand why. It is a tenuous view at best.

Most scholars argue, with evidence, that the libertarian-ish view towards religion stems from sources such as John Locke (who Nussbaum swears copied Williams's ideas), to a Montesqeiuian skepticism towards National government. Not so, says Nussbaum! Even though Williams was scarcely read in the New World and the Stoics were never quoted in the founders writings on religion, she finds ways to interpret the writings of Madison, Mason, Jefferson and the like through her desired lens.

Her next main concern is to argue for the rightness of the 'accomodationist' view towards religion. If a law or policy (you can be called to testify in court on Sundays) puts an undue burden on some religious folks, the state can accomodate (within reason).
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By drose on October 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had to purchase this book for a college religion course, and I have been gravely disappointed. Nussbaum draws comparisons that are unfounded; criticizes more than she analyzes; and uses irritatingly un-scholarly phrases and generalizations. If I wasn't enraged, I was incredibly bored. I hope that this next generation of religion scholars who are my cohorts will produce more substantive, respectful, and less predictable work.
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