Stanley Fish Reviews Leiter's "Why Tolerate Religion?"

Religious Exemptions and the Liberal State: A Christmas Column

On Sunday in these pages, Molly Worthen reported on the decline of “the Protestant civil religion that has undergirded our common life for so long “(One Nation Under God?).” That might come as a surprise to the millions of TV viewers who watched the memorial service held in Newtown, Conn., a little more than a week ago. Despite a few gestures in the direction of Catholics and religious minorities (and no gestures at all in the direction of non-believing atheists and agnostics), the tenor of the service was deeply Protestant, as were the remarks of President Obama (that famous Muslim!) who seemed more preacher than chief executive as he repeatedly struck biblical chords and ended by recalling Jesus’s call to send the little children to him.

The memorial service was not the only occasion marked by the unapologetic invocation of religious sayings and symbols. For a few days at least, God and Christ were major media personalities, and the outpouring of ritual piety seemed to confirm Brian Leiter’s identification of “existential consolation” as one of the chief characteristics of religion. For believers, writes Leiter in his new book, “Why Tolerate Religion?” religions “render intelligible and tolerable the basic existential facts about human life, such as suffering and death.” Rendering the suffering and death experienced in Newton intelligible is surely what Obama and others were trying to do, and it is easy to understand, as Leiter observes, why religious belief is of “central importance in so many lives.”

But Leiter has another question: Does the undoubted centrality of religion in the lives of its adherents suffice to justify exempting it from generally applicable laws? Should religion enjoy a special status that merits a degree of solicitude and protection not granted to other worldviews or systems of belief?

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