A review of The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, by Martha C. Nussbaum

America held a particularly lacerating debate in 2010 about situating an Islamic interfaith community center, "Park 51," a few blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Pamela Geller were quick to attack the center as a "victory memorial" to Islam, and an insult to the 9/11 victims. President Obama took the occasion of his Ramadan Address that year to defend the center: "As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country…. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable." Outraged critics pounced on Obama's words, forcing him the next day to clarify that he was "not commenting on the wisdom" of building Park 51 near Ground Zero, merely upholding the principle that government should treat "everyone equal." The controversy simmered, but the construction of the center has since been constrained by financial rather than legal impediments.

Though some may see the mosque controversy as an illustration of the resilience of America's tradition of religious freedom, Martha Nussbaum considers the episode an ominous sign of the anxious West's growing religious intolerance. Convinced that the post-9/11 West is in the grips of xenophobic, anti-religious zealotry, Nussbaum's provocatively titled The New Religious Intolerance presents a philosophic invitation to self-criticism in the name of democratic decency and even-handedness. The bulk of the book is devoted to painstaking expositions of the double standards she detects among European and, to some extent, American attitudes toward Muslim immigrants. Her catalogue of religious prejudices (subtle as well as explicit, and culminating with Park 51) is intended to alarm the reader about the imminent demise of religious toleration in the West.

Nussbaum, one of America's leading liberal intellectuals and author of 17 books, highlights the efforts in the U.S. to prohibit the use of sharia law in wills, marriages, and contracts, and discusses many protests and acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship. In Europe, meanwhile, anti-Muslim sentiment is even more palpable. If we are to reacquire our moral bearings and perpetuate our great tradition of religious toleration, Nussbaum argues, we need a "searching critical self-examination" aimed at "uncover[ing] the roots of ugly fears and suspicions that currently disfigure all Western societies."

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Nussbaum starts this self-examination by attempting to establish that Western attitudes about Islam are shaped by fear, which is in turn "exploited by politicians eager to whip up aggression against unpopular groups." In light of the terrorist threat, she grudgingly acknowledges the rational necessity of airport profiling that pays particular attention to travelers from Islamic nations, but Nussbaum shows very little sympathy for the European approach to immigration. She depicts the campaign against minarets in Switzerland, and efforts in Germany and elsewhere in Europe to ban burqas, as "narcissistic" displays of ethno-cultural intolerance and close-minded fear of foreigners.

Surprisingly, she delivers such blanket condemnations without asking whether these efforts may reflect genuine cultural predicaments confronting Europe. This lacuna in her discussion of the requirements of a liberal democratic culture is especially conspicuous when she contends European sentiments against the burqa derive from antipathy to "heterogeneity." She fails even to mention the earnest and official promotion of multiculturalism over past decades, which many Europeans, including Angela Merkel and Tony Blair, have come to consider a failure.

Nussbaum often writes as if the tension between revealed religion (especially Islam) and liberal democracy is more a chimera than a reality, and as if she is oblivious to the theological requirements of separation of church and state. As a result, The New Religious Intolerance disappoints precisely where scholarly illumination is most urgently needed. It fails to engage the Islamic tradition in a candid dialogue, and never attempts to account for the genuine conflicts between Islam (and even the Catholic natural law tradition) and modern Western secularism.

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Nor does the book consider how the Reformation and Enlightenment transformed Christianity. Nussbaum cannot, therefore, assess whether Islam—which has yet to produce its own Martin Luther or John Locke—has anything to learn from these historical precedents, or instead poses a fundamentally different challenge to the West. Instead, she turns to Immanuel Kant to establish an inclusive notion of human dignity that can accommodate a diversity of religious beliefs. Unfortunately, her discussion falls far short of demonstrating that Kant provides a satisfactory alternative to Lockean-style rationalism. For Kant, the capacity to reason was the defining feature of human dignity, but Nussbaum is exceedingly reluctant to settle on any particular definition of dignity as a basis for distinguishing tolerant from intolerant religions. "Dignity is a difficult idea to define precisely, and we probably should not try to do so in the political realm, since different religions and different secular views have varying accounts of it, and we don't want to play favorites."

By not playing favorites about the meaning of dignity, however, Nussbaum makes it harder to decide whether we should play favorites between the toleration that defines modern liberal societies and the intolerance inherent in anti-modern Islam. She dogmatically settles for the middle ground offered by John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971). The "maximum liberty that is compatible with a like liberty for all" she hails as the appropriate framework for weighing considerations of religious free exercise, any ideas of "dignity" to the contrary notwithstanding. Whether or how such a principle of equality can appeal to Muslims, including liberally oriented ones who may still have reservations about female equality, is a question she never raises.

The omission of the early Enlightenment debate about religion appears strategic, insofar as it allows Nussbaum to trace America's tradition of religious toleration not to Thomas Jefferson (and through him to Locke) but instead to Roger Williams, the Puritan theologian who founded the colony of Rhode Island. Williams is a strange hero for Nussbaum, since his defense of toleration rests on a religious premise that neither Locke nor Jefferson shared. Whereas Williams thought that a "hedge or wall of separation" was necessary in order to protect what he described as the "garden" of Christ's Church from the "wilderness" of worldly corruption, Jefferson and Locke reversed this priority, arguing for separation as the means to protect civil authority from ecclesiastical corruption. This difference leads to different understandings of religious accommodation: Williams is willing to exempt conscientious religious objectors from civil laws; Locke insists that a neutral law aimed at a secular purpose must be obeyed even if it incidentally burdens the religious practices of believers.

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To the extent that Locke (to say nothing of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza) appears in Nussbaum's story, he serves the role not of a rationalist reformer of Christianity but rather of a lukewarm defender of the rights of individual conscience. "I believe that the accommodationist principle is superior to Locke's principle," she writes, "because it reaches subtle forms of discrimination that are ubiquitous in majoritarian democratic life." In Nussbaum's telling, what makes this peculiarly American tradition of accommodation superior to both Lockean neutrality and modern-day European secularism is that it insists, in the words that George Washington made famous in a letter to the Annual Meeting of Quakers in 1789, "that the laws [should] always be as extensively accommodated" to "the conscientious scruples of all men" as public safety permits. Nussbaum is on stronger ground when acknowledging that the First Amendment "does not explicitly distinguish between the accommodationist position and a weaker Lockean position." The secret to America's more solicitous, though oftentimes ad hoc approach to religious exercise may, therefore, lie not in a "consensus" (as she describes it), but in the constitutional tension between neutrality and accommodation, requiring the Supreme Court to interpret this ambiguity on a case-by-case basis.

But as Nussbaum herself stresses, the different levels of religious accommodation in Europe and America are not merely constitutional in origin. Europeans "conceive of nationhood and national belonging in ethno-religious and cultural-linguistic terms," which makes inclusion difficult to achieve. The U.S., by contrast, settles for the less divisive (and one may add, more morally appealing and philosophically defensible) vision of "national belonging" based on the founding principle of individual rights.

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One is struck by how little Nussbaum has to say about what sociologist Robert Bellah described as America's "civil religion," which may offer an alternative account of why the U.S. succeeds in protecting religious freedom and assimilating immigrants where Europe fails. Here Nussbaum's account would be strengthened if she paid heed to Alexis de Tocqueville's subtle analysis. Democracy in America famously lauds Americans for nurturing "a public opinion in favor of religion" through separation of church and state, and this is precisely what Nussbaum wants to reinvigorate today as an alternative to secularism in both Europe and the U.S.

But while she seems content merely to scold democracy when it fails to live up to her demanding standard of tolerance, Tocqueville saw more deeply and clearly that toleration is a two-way street. It presupposes the mutual accommodationof religion and liberalism, which may in turn require a transformation of traditional religion. This is why when he reflected about the future of Catholicism in the U.S., Tocqueville was optimistic: America's deep religious pluralism would compel Catholicism to reshape itself in the image of democracy, and insofar as American Catholics would be open to accepting toleration and individual freedom, their religion would not only survive but flourish in American democracy. America may, therefore, have more to teach Europe than Nussbaum acknowledges. Tocqueville's predictions about reformed Catholicism were vindicated by Vatican II, and the relative success of American Muslims in assimilating into American society gives some hope for a similar liberalization of Islam in the U.S., a prospect not foreseeable in Europe.