Religious Liberty: a Rabbi's View

John Grondelski recommends In Defense of Religious Liberty by David Novak.


by David Novak

ISI Books, 2009

211 pages, $14.40

To order:

(800) 621-2736

What, if any, role can religious convictions play in formulating public policy in a secular democracy? The late Father Richard Neuhaus tried to answer that question from a Catholic perspective in warning against the dangers of the “naked public square,” advocated by secularists ready to banish from public discourse any argument containing the slightest whiff of religion. Neuhaus insisted that there is no such thing as a “naked public square” because some values would fill it. The question is: whose values?

Writing from a Jewish perspective, Rabbi David Novak makes the same observation. “The question is not a god or no god. The question is whose god. … There are really only three such gods: the God of the Bible, Platonic divinity, and Hobbes’ divinized state. The question for worshippers of the God of the Bible is how they can relate to worshippers of these other two gods. Furthermore, can the worshippers of the God of the Bible show whether the worship of the Platonic divinity or the worship of Hobbes’ divinized state is a better basis for a commitment to a democratic social contract than the other two?”

Originating as a series of academic lectures that have been reworked into a densely argued volume, Novak’s book is an extended scholarly effort to make the case that the religious commitments of those who worship the “God of the Bible” provide the surest anchor for a democratic community that is protective of human rights. Such a community is necessarily limited because it is aware of its finitude: “A society that recognizes that the rights it is enforcing are inalienable divine endowments rather than its own revocable entitlements will be able to perform its social duty with maximum cogency because it has earned the rightful trust of its members.” Such a society will necessarily protect religious liberty, i.e., “the freedom of a religious community to bring its moral vision into the world” (with all that that entails) because it recognizes that such liberty exists prior to, rather than being a gift of, the community.

Novak sees religious liberty as under assault today. A church or synagogue unable to proclaim its normative teaching for communal life in a public fashion is a religion deprived of liberty.

The author makes a tightly argued case for religious liberty. Taking modern objections seriously, he makes political, philosophical and theological cases for religious liberty, advancing his arguments in each instance on criteria that are at least intelligible to his interlocutors, even if they do not share his faith commitments. After having laid the theoretical foundations, Novak uses the Jewish tradition to consider how religious liberty is threatened today, the human rights of the “other” in Jewish tradition and whether, at root, law can make sense without God.

Novak’s arguments are always thought provoking. His essential rejection of natural theology, his sometimes sympathy for Immanuel Kant, and his notion that Israel’s initial freedom to accept the Sinai Covenant was limited might not always be acceptable viewpoints for Catholics. I, for example, did not find his critique of natural theology as persuasive as he thinks it is. In the end, however, his robust case for religious liberty, defended in an original way in a Jewish accent, is a welcome addition to the debate. The value of this book is twofold. It makes a powerful case for Jews that secularism, which has often been marketed as their best protection as a persecuted minority against Christians, is not what it is claimed to be. This hopefully might allay the suspicions that have held back some American Jews from making common cause with Christians on a variety of moral issues today. The book also makes a case for Christians to find common ground with their elder brothers in the faith to bring religious influence to bear on the shape of contemporary society. A demanding but worthwhile read.

John M. Grondelski writes from Bern, Switzerland.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.