This is an important book on an important subject. It is carefully structured and closely argued, and alive with intellectual ferment. Yet even in a presidential election year, it is unlikely to find an audience much beyond academic circles, because it inevitably draws its cogency from the study of minutiae that are far beyond the purview of most people’s everyday lives and concerns. Martha C. Nussbaum deserves a wider audience than she is likely to get.
Nussbaum is a political philosopher who teaches at the
The intricacies of Nussbaum’s arguments may put her book beyond most people’s endurance, but they are fascinating to anyone interested in the American constitutional legacy and its implications for a modern
This close analysis becomes the basis for Nussbaum’s explanation of the deliberate vagueness of much of what the Founders wrote about religion – a vagueness that has become increasing unsettling in modern times, especially now that the United States is the most avowedly religious of Western nations and the most internally riven by religious arguments and counter-arguments in its politics. Nussbaum does not rest after explicating the Founders’ debates about religion – she finds them, for all their fascination, merely prologue to the hundreds of years of court history that have followed. She discusses not only well-known Supreme Court cases involving religion, but also some less known (at least to the general public) that are genuinely fascinating. For example, there is Abington v. Schempp (1963), which threw out a
Nussbaum deals with very heavy subjects throughout, but her prose is entertaining enough (when she is not parsing legal opinions in detail) to keep Liberty of Conscience moving smartly along most of the time. And she does not hesitate to take on the current Supreme Court, although never with the venom so often seen in the modern political sphere – even when she clearly disagrees with certain justices’ opinions, notably those of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Nussbaum’s own views on the legal standing of religion in the