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  • The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom
  • John F. Wilson
The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom. By John T. Noonan, Jr. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998) 436 pp. $35.00

To report that this is an unconventional book will not surprise anyone who knows the author’s scholarship—which ranges widely throughout the history of Western intellectual, legal, and religious traditions. The title is meant to signal the central role of President Madison. The subtitle, however, more closely indicates its preoccupation. But even this delineation is at once too narrow and yet insufficiently precise—too narrow because Noonan charts the American achievement as the outcome of centuries of Old World struggles, explores its tenuous development across the nation’s history, and suggests its influence on several other societies in the modern world; and insufficiently precise because the heart of the argument is that the genius of the American experience has been to define religious freedom not in the abstract but in terms of its “free exercise.” Throughout the extraordinary range and reach of this study, two figures loom large, Madison, who first formulated in Virginia, and then helped place in the Constitution, provision for the “free exercise of religion,” and John Courtney Murray, S.J., who, singlehandedly, laid the groundwork for the Catholic Church’s “conversion” to endorse religious liberty in its Second Vatican Council.

The Lustre of Our Country is painted in vibrant colors on a vast canvas. It also incorporates dimensions that enlarge its scope. The genres used in composing it challenge conventional scholarship, even as they astonish and delight the reader. The initial chapter is frankly autobiographical: Noonan places his boyhood and youth in—but not entirely of—Boston’s Irish Catholic community and then traces his own intellectual development through Harvard College, the University of Cambridge, explorations of European traditions, and finally intensive immersion in “Catholic consciousness” at the Catholic University of America. The sub-theme of these pages is his early suspicion of, but increasing appreciation for, the position that Murray was working through as an internal reconstruction of Catholic tradition. A fascinating chapter, cast in catechetical form, treats an earlier (seventeenth century) Boston, where dissenters were persecuted and Quakers hanged. Madison appears against this backdrop, with emphasis given to his “free exercise” formulation, first in the Virginia struggle and then in drafting the amendments to the Constitution. Parenthetically, Noonan’s presentation of this latter episode, though brief, stands as a first-rate discussion of this critical, but little explored, event. Angelique de Toqueville (an imaginary sister of Alexis) critiques her brother’s account of religion in the new American nation, chiefly by attention to its ubiquity in local situations. The first major section of the book also includes an imagined treatment of Theodore Parker suggesting, in effect, that if not a “war [End Page 337] of religion” the American Civil War was, nonetheless, a religious struggle.

The second major set of chapters makes use of additional genres to explore the vagaries of American law to the extent that necessity has required interpretation of the First Amendment in the twentieth century. Noonan sets up a dialogic symposium among sterling students of the chief law schools to explore the range of ambiguous decisions anchored in the deceptively simple text. Beyond that, he brings the contrasting perspectives of William James and Emile Durkheim into exploration of such matters as the nation’s status as potentially sacred, its symbols (the flag), and the ritual occasions evoking responses to it (civil religion). Finally, he insists on the central role of martyrs (Martin Luther King, for one) and crusaders in the American political culture. The last and comparatively brief part comprises a series of chapters, each an independent review of how the American ideal of “free exercise” informed—or failed to inform—French experience from the Revolution through the Dreyfus Affair, the recasting of Shinto in Japan under the American occupation, the status of religion in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, and the reworking of Catholic teaching in Vatican II. As befits a study that eludes easy categorization, a new “decalogue” comprises its Epilogue.

Clearly, The Lustre of...

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pp. 337-338
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