The Good News about Religious Liberty in America

October 7, 2021 | Tal Fortgang
About the author:

In his recent book, Kenneth Starr examines the jurisprudence that has come to define the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion. Doing so, he defends the traditional idea that the government must be restrained from interfering with the natural, and salutary, flourishing of its citizens’ spiritual lives. Tal Fortgang writes in his review:

In recent years, some conservatives have shot past this tradition. They insist that seeking accommodation is basically a loser’s game. In their eyes, state power is not the problem but the solution, so long as it is wielded unabashedly by the right people with the right ends in mind. Led in spirit by Adrian Vermeule, a Harvard Law School professor and “integralist” Catholic who seeks to subordinate state power to church leadership, the new vanguard insists that trying to carve out space to worship freely will never work. What we actually need to save our souls is to infuse American government with more explicitly religious (even sectarian) ideas. Politics must be purposefully oriented to explicitly religious ends if we are to stand any chance of fending off the secularist barbarian hordes at the gates of your local public library.

Starr, [by contrast], is a constitutionalist who believes that our law (especially after Reconstruction) is meant to protect individuals against a zealous state, and to limit the power of would-be tyrants and oppressors. He is wary of substantive orientations within the law that may privilege one denomination’s idea of the highest good over another’s.

The bulk of Religious Liberty in Crisis is dedicated to Supreme Court cases from the 20th century, when America found its cherished traditions of religious freedom under assault from activist courts that might have thought it an impermissible establishment of religion if you walked into the White House and remarked, “God, what a lovely building.” As Starr shows, we have made great strides in the campaign to restore the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment to meanings befitting our Constitution’s Framers—most of whom invoked God frequently, supported religion in the public square, and were perfectly content to allow states to establish churches. Religious believers have good reason to trust now, for the first time in decades, that the courts will vindicate their rights even as democratically elected leaders are likely to become more hostile to faith and practice. In some sense, then, religious liberty is not in crisis at all.

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