“I feel safer down here among the Christian savages along Narragansett Bay than I do among the savage Christians of Massachusetts Bay Colony,” wrote Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, shortly after his exile from polite society in 1635. Williams was one of the great heretics of what Europeans deemed a new world, not least because he bothered to learn the languages and customs of those he found already living there. He knew the Native Americans he admired were not Christians in any doctrinal sense, but he believed they lived according to a spirit of brotherly love more fully than the Puritans of Massachusetts from whom he’d fled. Martha Nussbaum argues that Williams’s friendships with Narragansett leaders in Rhode Island left him with the kind of nuanced understanding of tolerance that would become the bedrock of American religious freedom–and, what’s more, liberty of conscience. What is the distinction? Religion is a set of beliefs, ideas, rituals or customs. Conscience is more fundamental: the faculty of searching for the beliefs, ideas, rituals or customs that make up religion or, for that matter, the rejection of religion. Conscience is “precious,” she says, whether it’s exercised or not, an insight she credits Williams with recognizing long before John Locke–due, in large part, to Williams’s fascination with the non-Christian savages he encountered in the process of colonizing their land.
Was Williams romanticizing the Native Americans he met, mostly leaders like himself who surely grasped the value of good relations with a powerful newcomer to their territory? Undoubtedly. Does Nussbaum, a professor of law, philosophy and divinity at the University of Chicago, take a similarly rosy view of what she calls “the lesson of the first Thanksgiving,” “a distinctively American combination of principles” she refers to throughout Liberty of Conscience as “the tradition”? (emphasis mine) Surely. After all, “the tradition” hasn’t had much staying power, as she demonstrates in chapters on anti-Mormonism, anti-Catholicism and even, quite recently, a Supreme Court hostile to the religious customs of Native Americans. The tradition isn’t yet traditional, but Nussbaum’s book, a fundamentally flawed but wise consideration of the subtle distinctions between “freedom” and “equality,” may help cultivate it in years to come.
Meanwhile, Founding Faith–a new book by Steven Waldman, a former religion reporter–is the sort of carefully crafted crowd pleaser that trades Williams’s liberty of conscience for the solace of centrism. “The Founding Faith,” Waldman writes, “was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty–a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.” Here we see the implications of the fine line Nussbaum draws between “freedom” and “equality.” The former, on its own, can collapse into the sort of bland theism announced by an original catchphrase of Beliefnet, an online religion portal created by Waldman in 1999 and recently sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp: “Everyone believes in something.” In political terms, such a sentiment results in the banal cold war faith of President Eisenhower, who dispensed with the Constitution’s Establishment Clause with the curt declaration that “our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith–and I don’t care what it is.”
Religious freedom protects one’s right to believe, but too often it has been interpreted as doing no more than that, and not just by sleepy executives who prefer golf and war to the subtleties of civil liberties. “An ‘establishment of religion,'” Nussbaum reminds us–that which was forbidden to the federal government by the First Amendment–“means that government has put its stamp of approval on some particular religion or group of religions, creating an official orthodoxy.” It’s a short leap from Waldman’s implicit contention that government ought to promote faith to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s judicial notion of “nonpreferentialism,” which holds that while government cannot favor one religion over another, it can certainly favor religion in general. Nonpreferentialism is itself an orthodoxy: call it religionism.