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'Modest Expectations'?: Civic Unity, Religious Pluralism, and Conscience


Richard W. Garnett


Notre Dame Law School


Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 06-17
Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 23, 2006

Abstract:     
America is divided, and religion is divisive. These two claims - usually asserted with both confidence and concern - are the drone notes sounding under so much of what is said and written today about law, politics, religion, and culture. This essay reviews two recent books dealing with religious freedom, pluralism, and conscience: Noah Feldman's "Divided By God: America's Church-State Problem ­and What We Should Do About It" and Kevin Hasson's "The Right To Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America." Each of these authors hopes for, and holds out the promise of, a less rancorous civil society. And, each of these works puts the freedom of conscience at the heart of the authors' arguments about religious liberty, state action, and the common good. Neither, however, pins his hope on a public square scrubbed clean by judges of religious expression, symbols, and activity.

"Divided by God" and "The Right To Be Wrong" are engaging and rewarding books. Each has its strengths; each is, in some places, provocative, and in others, inspiring. Each is animated by a spirit of charity, and by a welcome and worthy desire to find common ground, to engage fellow citizens on that ground, and to point the way toward a state of affairs and law that is conducive to civil peace and consistent with mutual respect. It is true, as Feldman writes, that our diversity has long and often been called a blessing and a source of strength or balance, and is at the same time a fundamental challenge to the project of popular self-government. Feldman and Hasson are right to remind readers that our response to this challenge need not, and should not, include a demand that religious expression, symbols, and activities be confined, laicite-style, to the private sphere or the margins of our common life. The end-game, though, will not and should not be unity, but respect. As John Courtney Murray suggested several decades ago, given the reality and permanence of pluralism, we should cherish only modest expectations with regard to the solution of the problem of religious pluralism and civic unity.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 30

Keywords: Feldman, Hasson, Divided By God, division, religion, religious liberty

JEL Classification: K10, K19, K39

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Date posted: September 20, 2006  

Suggested Citation

Garnett, Richard W., 'Modest Expectations'?: Civic Unity, Religious Pluralism, and Conscience. Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 06-17; Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 23, 2006. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=931196

Contact Information

Richard W. Garnett (Contact Author)
Notre Dame Law School ( email )
Room 327
P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-6981 (Phone)
574-631-4197 (Fax)
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