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Author: Eric Zumbach

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Book Review: Richards’s Fundamentalism in American Religion and Law

David A.J. Richards, Fundamentalism in American Religion and Law: Obama’s Challenge to Patriarchy’s Threat to Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

“Fundamentalist religious doctrines and autocratic and dictatorial rulers will reject the ideas of public reason and deliberative democracy.”

Mr. Richards takes the epigraph (in full, above) to his volume from a late essay by John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,”  in which fundamentalist doctrines—whose comprehensive vision of the truth conflicts with the principles of deliberative democracy—are presented as a threat to a reasonable and just society.  Rawls was content to state his case, as the epigraph shows, in a measured tone.  One finds less restraint and greater risk in Richards, whose spirited challenge to religious and legal fundamentalism is noisy, passionate, and deeply personal.
As the courts have led the United States closer to civility, permitting women and gay men to participate in democracy as free and equal citizens, the reactionary forces of fundamentalism have struggled to keep the newly liberated in a state of “moral slavery” (e.g., 31) where women are considered weak-willed and best kept for child-rearing, and homosexuality a vice.  “Moral slavery” is the status quo ante bellum, a return to the hierarchical order that governed before the culture wars, before the civil rights movement and the progressive recognition of the right to intimate life.  Each fundamentalism is a project of restoration: originalism that reads the Constitution as though over Madison’s shoulder; New Natural law that draws moral principles from the vanguard of the 13th century; Protestant fundamentalism that insists on demonizing homosexuality based on a literal reading of scripture; the theology of Joseph Smith that promotes the sexual order of the (original) patriarchs.  These Edenic visions of a world that once was ordered as fundamentalists would have it ordered—these rejections of Rawls’ principle of public reason—are what Richards finds so dangerous, and against which he writes so movingly.

Even a sympathetic reader will have quibbles.  When, for instance, Richards writes in his critique of the unreasonableness of originalism that “[n]o approach to constitutional interpretation may be regarded as reasonable if its leading advocates never pursue its requirements consistently” (54), one wonders what he means by “leading advocates,” “never pursue,” “requirements,” and “consistently.”  So much has been written about originalism that one is inclined to believe it exists, but Richards’ slippery language does little to raise the phantom, and does far less to dispel it.  The same may be said for fundamentalism and for patriarchy, neither of which are well defined.  The word “originalism” is, in the volume under consideration, a circumlocution meant to call forth Scalia and Thomas, Bork and Berger without naming them individually.   Too much is made of the ideologues whose personalities are, after all, public projections of greater intellectual consistency than is to be found in the projectors, and too little is made of fundamentalism as a public event.  One may speak about John Finnis and Billy Sunday, but having done so what has been said?  Have the prejudices of the average fundamentalist, whoever or whatever that is, come into clearer focus?  Are the names of “leading advocates” the only clarity to be had?

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