May 3, 2013
Freedom of Religion encompasses more than intellectual assent and private, enclosed worship services. It includes the integration of one's faith into all spheres of life, such that one's deeply held religious convictions are allowed to animate, unhindered, speech and conduct in the public, professional, and community spheres.
It is for this reason that the Bill of Rights lists freedom of religion as its first enumerated freedom: The Founders recognized that allegiance to God has to precede allegiance to the state, or else the state itself would usurp the role of God. This is directly opposed to the essential principle of America's very existence, that our rights come from our Creator, not the government.
University of Chicago law professor Bruce Leiter thinks otherwise. In his new book, Why Tolerate Religion, Leiter asserts, "no one has been able to articulate a credible principled argument for tolerating religion qua religion - that is, an argument that would explain why, as a matter of moral principle, we ought to accord special legal and moral to religious practices" (p.7).
I wonder if Prof. Leiter has every read a survey of Western history, perhaps one that contains sections on the persecution of the early church, the Inquisition, anti-Catholic violence, or the Holocaust? Perhaps he should spend a few minutes reading official federal government reports on the ongoing and massive oppression of Christians and other people of faith around the globe.
The assertion that a "principled" case for religious liberty remains unmade is so striking in its ignorance that it invites the derision a serious academic should find embarrassing. As my friend Joe Loconte, professor of history at The King's College in New York, writes:
The author seems astonishingly unaware of the Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition and its contribution to the foundations of liberal democracy. The scientific revolution, the concept of human dignity, an ethos of compassion for the poor, the political ideals of equal rights and government by consent — all of these developments are unthinkable without the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West. (Source: Standpoint Magazine)
The University of Chicago Law School often is hailed as one of America's premier institutions of legal thought and training. It's luster has been dimmed by Prof. Leiter's uninformed and prejudicial rant. However smooth his prose, the absence of logic, factuality, and dispassion - ostensibly the very foundations of legal reasoning - does not deter him from publishing one of the most troubling and intellectually discreditable books by a serious American scholar in some time.
My distinguished colleague Bob Morrison summarizes the case for religious liberty this way: "One's right to worship God and follow his conscience according to the principles of his religious faith was foundational to all morality. A man whose religious faith was repressed could never be a loyal citizen, since the state was usurping his first allegiance and costing him his primary, or first, freedom."
Anyone presenting himself as an interpreter of American law and justice who fails to grasp these truths should read an interesting couple of texts he might find rather arresting, namely the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Remembering the Creator to Whom the Declaration refers and Whose bestowal of rights and liberties is the steel beam of American public life might prove useful to Prof. Leiter and all who, like him, would reduce religious and, thereby, all liberty to the whim of the state, the very thing against which a brave and thoughtful generation of Americans revolted in the 1770s.