Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Free Life and Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality

Before I started reading for my book award committee, I pretty consistently would read one book at a time. Now I always seem to have three or four books going at once. Right now, I am reading two. One is A Free Life by Ha Jin and the other is Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality by Martha Nussbaum.

A Free Life has been an interesting book by Ha Jin. This is the story about a Chinese couple who come to the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their child. I have been enjoying it very much in spite of the fact that I have spent most of the book wanting to smack the main character for his utter determination to be as unhappy as possible. The moments in the book that I find myself still thinking about are the interactions with others, and most particularly with a white couple adopting a Chinese baby. As with several couples I know personally, this couple is determined to make sure that their child grows up knowing all about her cultural heritage. What I found funny in this book was the way the Chinese couple reacted to this. They were politely baffled. Why, they ask, would the couple do this when their child would be growing up as an American. I still think Waiting is Ha Jin's best book but I do recommend this one as well.

The author of Liberty of Conscience is one of those books that (so far) has been a joy to read because it so closely echoes my own beliefs and ideas about what the separation of church and state (not to mention religious freedom) is all about. The author has presented her thoughts and ideas in a clear, scholarly way that argues for the founding fathers intention to build a country that "respects the preciousness and dignity of the individual human conscience and the equality of all religions (or lack of religion)". In other words, the right of every individual to follow his own path, to pursue spirituality (or lack thereof) it his own way. The author revisits every major defining moment of our country and shows that it was founded with very clear protections and ideas about the separation of church and state for the protection of BOTH entities and also makes an excellent case for why protecting those boundaries is so important to the health of each entity.

I really believe in these principles but of course, I still struggle with some of the more day-to-day practical issues. For example, a friend was raised as a Jehovah's Witness and it did an enormous amount of damage with regard to her ability to follow her own path and discover her own religious truths. How does governmental non-intervention respond to these kinds of issues and where do we draw the line?

Who knows, I haven't quite finished the book yet so maybe the author will manage to address these issues as well and answer my questions in a satisfactory way.


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Joe said...

I also found this a very good read if a bit weak on the negative side of mixing religion/state and (the bit more technical) sometimes on interpretation of the case law.

But, her main thesis and defense of conscience was eloquent and her positive account of Williams quite different from my general picture of the guy. And, unlike some of her work, it is quite readable for the non-philosopher! Lol.