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Liberty of Conscience’: An Exchange

In response to:

Where Shall the Preaching Stop? from the May 15, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful to Kent Greenawalt for his conscientious and respectful review of my book Liberty of Conscience [NYR, May 15]. We are in agreement, obviously, on many issues. I do wish to alert readers to two difficulties. First, Professor Greenawalt says that I provide “little support” for my interpretation of Roger Williams’s philosophical ideas, insofar as it diverges from what he calls “the standard view.” (This must mean one book by law professor Timothy Hall, since no other discussion of Williams in recent years shows signs of serious detailed engagement with the philosophical treatises, as opposed to Williams’s letters.) I refer the reader to my, admittedly, dense thirty-seven pages of exegesis of those long treatises (each around five hundred pages long), citing, and interpreting, dozens of specific texts in order to reconstruct Williams’s arguments for his thesis of toleration. It is through this reconstruction that I show that Williams’s arguments do not rely on his odd religious views as premises, but, instead, on independent moral notions of impartiality and liberty.

Second, Greenawalt says that I overestimate the influence of Williams’s books on the development of ideas about religious equality in the colonies. I believe I do not. The primary role played by Williams’s books in my argument is as sources for an attractive normative argument for religious liberty and equality, with which I am largely in agreement. Historically, I argue that his books (published in England) were not well known in the colonies, but that his letters and his political practice were extremely well known, and that, whether through influence or through independent innovation, similar ideas about equality and liberty came to prevail in many of the colonies. I offer a particularly detailed account of the ideas of James Madison, arguing that they are very similar to those of Williams in key respects, though not because of direct contact with Williams’s books.

Martha Nussbaum

Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics

Law School, Philosophy Department, and Divinity School

University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

To the Editors:

In his otherwise thoughtful review of Martha Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience, Kent Greenawalt poses a central objection to Nussbaum’s interpretation of Roger Williams that is misleading. At the same time, he inadvertently succeeds in pointing up a problem with her interpretation. Since Nussbaum devotes considerable attention to Williams, building much of her central argument on his ideas, it is important to get the story straight all around.

Greenawalt asserts that “Nussbaum provides little support for her ascription of only minimal importance to Williams’s theological premises.” It is true that Nussbaum engages in overstatements of her own by declaring that Williams “nowhere alludes to [his religious] beliefs in arguing for liberty of conscience…since it is his considered position that political principles should not be based on sectarian religious views of any sort.” In fact, Williams repeatedly invokes scripture and theology in defense of his belief in “soul liberty.” How anyone could read him without understanding that is baffling. On the other hand, Nussbaum is certainly right that Williams by no means confines himself to religious premises. Again and again, throughout his writings, he self-consciously supplements scripture and doctrine with independent appeals to natural “reason and experience.” Greenawalt should have taken to heart Williams’s definitive claim, quoted by Nussbaum, that the foundation of any given political authority “is not religious, Christian, etc., but natural, humane and civil.”

If Greenawalt needs to be reminded of the importance of natural law in Williams’s thought, Nussbaum’s own exposition is only partly right. To be sure, the whole idea of freedom of conscience rests on a belief in a prior “natural” entitlement equally available to all human beings concerning fundamental commitments. That entitlement constitutes, in Williams’s mind, an inviolable natural moral constraint on the exercise of force. The problem is that Nussbaum overemphasizes the influence of the Stoics, and altogether neglects the role of the natural rights tradition in Williams’s thinking. When Williams denounces, as he does frequently, acts that deprive a person “of any civil right or privilege, due him as a man,” he is invoking a tradition that is only remotely related to Stoicism. Nussbaum herself gives some interesting reasons for distinguishing Williams’s ideas from the Stoics. But more importantly, by ignoring the natural rights context to which Williams belongs, she fails fully to exploit that tradition, as mediated by Williams, for supporting a “right” to liberty of conscience.

David Little

Professor of the Practice in Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict

Harvard Divinity School

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Kent Greenawalt replies:

Professor Nussbaum writes that her primary reliance on Williams’s books is “as sources for an attractive normative argument for religious liberty.” That is borne out by her text, and I did not mean to imply otherwise. Her letter acknowledges uncertainty whether ideas similar to his arose “through influence or through independent innovation.” My problem with passages in her book such as the one referring to “the success of his arguments” is that they are ambiguous, seeming to imply a causal connection that in fact is seriously in doubt.

In various ways, both Professor Nussbaum and Professor Little challenge the claim in my review that her book provides “little support” for her thesis about the independence of Williams’s political views from his religious premises. These challenges raise complex questions of interpretation, ones which, it may fairly be said, my comment oversimplified. When an author such as Williams combines religious reasons with other reasons for a position, it is a delicate question how far the other reasons—whether they are ones of traditional natural law or (as Professor Little emphasizes) natural rights—are genuinely standing on their own. I am not an expert about Williams’s thought, but taking into account the period in which he wrote, the pervasiveness of his religious rhetoric, and the power of his religious convictions, I am disinclined to construe occasional passages that do not rely directly on religious premises as demonstrating that these premises have faded into insignificance for his views about religious liberty and impartiality.

David Little notes Williams’s position that the foundation of political authority “is not religious.” Perhaps, as Little recommends, I should have paid more attention to that, but it is worth noting that a person might be drawn by an understanding of true religion—as separate from state power— to a view that the authority of the state does not rest on religion. Thus, the issue of the status of religious underpinnings for one’s overall political understanding (which I was addressing) differs subtly from one’s sense of the grounds of a state’s political authority (to which the passage quoted by Professor Little speaks).

Although the exact relation of religious and nonreligious premises in the thought of Williams himself is an interesting historical inquiry, the crucial concern for us now is whether we can draw from Williams reasons for supporting religious liberty and equality that need not depend on particular religious premises. On that point, which strikes me as the one of primary importance for Professor Nussbaum’s overall approach, she gives us solid grounds for an affirmative answer.

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