In Liberty of Conscience, University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that the separation of church and state is the very foundation of American freedom—and that it’s being eroded by both the right and the left.
Is Liberty of Conscience [Reviews, p. TK] your first book with Basic Books?
Yes. I had talked with Basic authors who had had a very good experience with them, and I thought that for this book, which I would like to reach a wide audience, they would be a better choice than the university presses with whom I’ve published. I also admired my editor Bill Frucht—and I’ve really enjoyed working with him.
Why is it important at this point in history to write a defense of America’s tradition of religious equality?
History shows that the idea of equal respect has been fragile in times of fear, and that is very much the case today. Many Americans, feeling insecure and fearful about the future, believe that we can best stabilize our political life by aligning the nation with a particular religious tradition. They don’t pay enough attention to the consequences of such a move for the equality of citizens, something fundamental to our democracy.
As a Reform Jew, you have personally experienced life as a religious minority in America. How does this inform your writing?
I grew up with the majority, and I saw their ugly prejudices up close. My family didn’t want Catholics or Jews living in our neighborhood, for example, and when I married a Jew my father didn’t come to my wedding. When I converted, it was partly in order to stop belonging to the majority. I saw in the Jewish family I was joining through marriage a passionate commitment to justice for the underdog that has been a large feature of the American Jewish tradition.
Of all the Supreme Court plaintiffs you write about, whose story do you find most compelling?
My personal favorite is Ellory (now Ellery) Schempp, the high school student who began the case that led to the 1963 decision, Abington v. Schempp, that threw out the Pennsylvania law requiring daily Bible reading in the public schools. Ellory Schempp was not being persecuted, and the text he brought in to test the law, the Qur’an, was not from his own religion. He simply thought the law was unfair, and he wanted to test it for the sake of us all. For a 16-year-old to throw his own future into jeopardy for the sake of a principle (his high school went on a real campaign to get colleges to reject him) seems to me really wonderful, and I would like to see young people today following that example.