David A.J. Richards, Fundamentalism in American Religion and Law: Obama’s Challenge to Patriarchy’s Threat to Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2010, $90.00.
When you read the words “This is a provocative book” in a review, you know you’re in the presence of a mixed compliment. On the one hand, the critic will praise the book for saying something new, interesting, and potentially valuable about an important topic. On the other, it signals that the critic thinks there is something deeply flawed, wrong, or misguided about the book, and has reached for polite language to damn it with faint praise.
With that said, let me be clear: In Fundamentalism in American Religion and Law: Obama’s Challenge to Patriarchy’s Threat to Democracy, David A.J. Richards has written a provocative book.
Its ungainly title gives a fair indication of its thesis, but Richards’ book is not so easily reducible. This is not your average jeremiad. Richards is not content simply to condemn an approach to both religion and constitutional interpretation that he finds dangerous. Instead, he wants to diagnose it: to put it on the psychologist’s couch and toy with its innards. Richards offers a vision of constitutional and religious critique as DSM-IV.
Fundamentalism, both in religion and in American constitutional law and particularly originalism, are “rooted in a patriarchal psychology,” Richards writes. By patriarchy, he means “a hierarchy – a rule of priests,” in which “only the father has authority in religion, politics, or law.” Its roots are both historical and personal. It represents a tradition stretching back to ancient Rome, and taking in most especially the life and influence of St. Augustine, in which patriarchy “arises [from] traumatic breaks in personal relationships (including of sons from mothers).” This leads to a fundamentally repressive approach to both law and religion. Its opposite is “democracy, in which authority accords everyone a free and equal voice, a voice that both breaks out of the gender binary and contests hierarchy.” More in anger than in sorrow, Richards argues that religious and constitutional patriarchs are, not to put too fine a point on it, sick, while those who favor “democracy” are healthy, integrated individuals. His primary positive example is Barack Obama, who “has seen more deeply into and resisted originalism than any other American politician,” and whose “moral voice” has elicited a profound “resonance in the American people.” Read More