‘Public Reason Disease’

The Religious Left and Church-State Relations

Steven H. Shiffrin

Princeton University Press, $35, 256 pp.

Generally speaking, the “religious left” in the United States is credited with broadening political support for progress on issues such as environmental stewardship and economic justice. But an obvious question looms regarding an even more fundamental issue that marks the political divide: What does the religious left have to say about church-state relations? Cornell professor Steven Shiffrin insists that religious liberals can fill a gaping void in this country’s ongoing, often rancorous debate over the separation of church and state. Religious liberals have a persuasive and authentic case to make for separation, says Shiffrin, not because religion does not matter (as secular liberals often seem to imply), but because it matters so much.

 As a leading civil-liberties scholar and a Catholic who is liberal both theologically and politically, Shiffrin is uniquely positioned to deliver this message. His new book, The Religious Left and Church-State Relations, offers a tour-de-force account of the First Amendment’s religion clauses and how they should be interpreted. This is no dry academic exercise, but rather a direct response to conservatives who view supporters of church-state separation as uncaring, even hostile, toward organized religion. The book is a refutation by one who cares deeply.

 When religious liberals enter religious liberty debates, conventional wisdom accords them two possible aims: either sticking up for a nonmainstream religion that...

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About the Author

Robert K. Vischer, a frequent contributor, is professor of law at the University of St. Thomas and the author of Conscience and the Common Good: Reclaiming the Space Between Person and State (Cambridge University Press).