America Does Not Have a Religious Identity

What inspired you to write The Constitution of Religious Freedom?

At a practical level, I have been fascinated by the rise of Christian conservatism, and particularly the claim of what some call Christian nationalism, that America is a Christian nation, as a major factor in American politics. At a theoretical level, I have always thought that, at its broadest, politics is the process by which we negotiate our differences. In particular, liberal democracy—a political order in which majorities rule but not over everything—is an institutionalized agreement to disagree. My concern is the question: what happens, and what do we do, if there are some things about which we cannot agree to disagree? Prominent on that list is religion.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

The central argument of the book is that the Constitution does not protect religion—it protects religious freedom. The latter is very different from the former, and understanding the distinction enables us to understand the political meaning of the religion clauses of the Constitution. Specifically, I argue that the meaning of the religion clauses is that the locus of religious identity is the individual, not the nation; that the American political order does not have a religious identity of its own, but, rather, is a political order that allows and encourages individuals and groups of their choosing to have their own religious identity without having one of its own.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

There is nothing I had to leave out. Baylor University Press was nothing but supportive of my scholarship. My goal was to explore what I think is problematic about the conventional discussion of the religion clauses of the Constitution: debates about “separation of church and state” or “neutrality” have come to obscure more than they reveal. The central question underlying an understanding of the political meaning of the religion clauses, as noted above, is whether the locus of religious identity is the individual or the nation. This is what the literature seems to miss.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

When I ask an audience of students or others whether America is a Christian nation, they usually reply by saying either that the Founders were themselves Christian or that the Founders intended that the nation be Christian. My argument is that the question here is not an historical one, but a theoretical one, the one noted in point 2 above.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

While a major purpose of the book is to make a significant contribution to an ongoing scholarly literature, I always strive to write for what I call the intelligent but uninformed reader who has no prior knowledge of the subject matter. That pushes me to be as clear, careful, and precise as possible in laying out the argument I am trying to make. We always have a reader or an audience in mind when we write, and thinking in terms of the intelligent but uninformed reader instead of the specialist forces me to avoid the hidden and uncontested assumptions that can weaken even the best scholarly work. Nevertheless, I did write The Constitution of Religious Freedom to make a scholarly argument for a scholarly audience and thus did include a substantial footnote apparatus.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

As my response to the next question indicates, I am certainly trying to provoke readers, but to do so in the sense of challenging their unexamined assumptions and encouraging them either to agree with me or to push me to reformulate my argument to address significant objections to it. At the same time, I am indeed attempting to advance a meaningful, scholarly argument about what having our Constitution means to the politics of religious freedom.

What alternative title would you give the book?

My original title was deliberately provocative: One Nation under Whose God? Law, Politics, and Religion in America. The experienced people at Baylor University Press said, however, that this title might suggest the mistaken perception that the book was more of a sociological work than the theoretical work it actually is. Deferring to their expertise, I chose the main title, The Constitution of Religious Freedom, with the deliberate double meaning of 1) the Constitution as a charter of religious freedom, and 2) the act of constituting religious freedom, and Baylor came up with the clever subtitle, God, Politics, and the First Amendment. I was able to give my concluding chapter the title, “One Nation under Whose God?”

How do you feel about the cover?

I’m actually quite happy with it. Beyond being aesthetically attractive, it makes a substantive point by nesting the title, my subject matter, in the text of the Constitution.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

That’s an interesting and difficult question. At the risk of giving an erroneous impression, I might say that I wrote the books I’ve written for a very selfish reason—in each case there was an issue or topic that I wanted to clarify for myself and find out what I really thought about it. In that sense, to borrow the old saying, I write to find out what I think. I enjoy the way an argument seems to take on a life of its own, such that the process of exploring one idea leads me to discover views or positions I didn’t know beforehand that I had. That said, I have always taught in teaching-intensive academic settings, and I regret never having had the chance to turn my dissertation on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit into a book and to make my definitive statement on the Hegel-Marx relationship. My scholarly interests simply changed along the way.

What’s your next book?

I have been interested in the constitutional claims of the Tea Party movement, whose supporters always express reverence for the Constitution and who claim to be “constitutional conservatives.” My early explorations have led me to believe that Tea Party constitutionalism, for all its reverence for the Constitution, is actually the preferred constitutional theory of the Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution rather than the Federalist supporters. I am still in the process of deciding how I want and need to pursue this argument.