Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!
The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom
by steven d. smith
harvard, 240 pages, $39.95

Anyone who wants to understand the perilous condition of religious freedom in America should read this book. In lucid prose, University of San Diego law professor Steven D. Smith contests basic themes of the conventional story of American religious freedom and presents a provocative and compelling counter-narrative. His account culminates in a bracing discussion of the threat posed by the emerging new orthodoxy of secular egalitarianism.

According to the standard story, the framers adopted the First Amendment as a novel experiment in Church–state separation and religious freedom. That story, Smith explains, is doubly wrong. Rather than breaking cleanly with the past, the core concepts of the traditional American understanding of religious freedom developed as a “recovery, adaptation, and consolidation” of “distinctively Christian notions”: the medieval theory of the dual jurisdictions of Church and state, and the Reformation idea of individual conscience as an “inner church.” Further, in the framers’ understanding, the religion clauses of the First Amendment were primarily jurisdictional, not substantive: They made clear that matters of religion remained within the domain of the states. Smith sketches the long and bizarrely convoluted history by which the religion clauses came to be understood as setting forth substantive rights, first against the federal government, and later (under the incorporation doctrine ultimately applied to the Fourteenth Amendment) against the states.

Smith also powerfully argues that the usual narrative, in which the post–World War II and Warren-era Supreme Court rescued the nation from a shameful history of religious persecution and discrimination, has things essentially backwards. He celebrates the “practical genius” of the theoretically inelegant “American settlement,” which recognized specific commitments to separation of Church from state and to freedom of conscience, and which saw fit not to resolve the competition between the broader “providentialist” and “secularist” interpretations of those commitments. (Under the providentialist reading, government can acknowledge a dependence on the Creator, and citizens and legislators may act on their religiously informed moral views in making public policy.) When the Supreme Court shattered this settlement by adopting the secularist interpretation, it engendered a destructive “discourse of accusation, anathematization, and abuse,” a discourse that has spread to judicial interventions on related issues like abortion and marriage.

Contrary to common fear-mongering about the supposed theocratic threat from the religious right, Smith cogently sets forth what he sees as the real dangers. First, religious freedom is eroded from within by the “self-subverting logic” of the secularist interpretation: If government can’t act on the basis of any religious views, then it can’t generate the rationales that historically justified religious liberty. Second, secular egalitarianism, especially as reshaped and bolstered by the gay rights movement, is fundamentally incompatible with a robust understanding of religious freedom. Indeed, it has all the markings of an oppressive orthodoxy—a single ultimate value, inordinate certitude of its righteousness, and a desire to “penetrate into hearts and minds” to purify beliefs and motives.

—Edward Whelan is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires Violence
by gary a. haugen and victor boutros
oxford, 368 pages, $27.95

What do the world’s poor need? Clean water, food, sanitation, medical care, access to markets, education, financing. All true, but as Gary Haugen, CEO of International Justice Mission, argues in The Locust Effect (co-­written with Victor Boutros), what often goes unmentioned is the need for protection. “Vulnerability to violence” is “endemic to being poor.” Locusts of “sexual violence, forced labor, illegal detention, land theft, assault, police abuse, and oppression” sweep in to devour what little the poor ­accumulate.

Police in the developing world, when they aren’t corrupt, are un- or ill-trained, typically the “most dysfunctional element” in the system. They don’t know how to investigate crime, so they fall back on thuggery: “If they can’t find a suspect, they may just round up a group of people nearby and torture them until someone confesses.”

Dysfunctional policing is a legacy of colonialism, when police organizations were created to protect minority colonizers from mobs of the colonized. Throughout the developing world, police officers continue to do what they did during colonial times: intimidate civilians, suppress riots, and beat down political rivals. Governments deploy police mainly to provide security for elites, not to secure the streets.

When police do catch criminals, the rest of the criminal justice system moves at a glacial speed, in part because of a lack of manpower. Malawi has ten prosecutors for a population of 15 million; India has 550 for its billion citizens.

Help doesn’t come from aid agencies either, many of which, including the U.S. government and the World Bank, have long banned allocations for criminal justice. As Haugen writes with dismay, “It’s hard to imagine aid agencies banning investments in food systems, educational systems, health systems, or water systems in the developing world.” He cites a World Bank study that found that institutions of law account for “57 percent of a nation’s intangible wealth,” compared with 36 percent for education.

The Locust Effect leaves the reader outraged, but it is ultimately a hopeful book. Haugen recounts one of the successes of his organization, a program to curb sex trafficking in Cebu City, Philippines. After working for four years, “the team had exceeded all expectations. They increased law enforcement’s rescue of sex trafficking victims by about 1,000 percent” and achieved a 79 percent reduction in “children in the commercial sex trade.” In Cebu City and elsewhere, not all public authorities are “hopelessly corrupt, apathetic, and brutish.” But they need help to turn back the locusts.

For decades it’s been a commonplace of American politics to set law-and-order brutes against compassionate liberals. The former are ­blithely indifferent to the poor, and the latter have the poor’s best interests in their bleeding hearts. Haugen’s vigorous book makes it clear that support for policing and the rule of law is one of the things the poor most urgently need, and most desperately want.

—Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House, Birmingham, Alabama.

Notes from Underground
by roger scruton
beaufort books, 216 pages, $24.95

An heir to Dostoevsky’s underground man, the protagonist of Roger Scruton’s latest novel is an anti-hero, downtrodden and broken by communism in 1980s Prague. The story is told as a flashback by Jan Reichl, a Czech dissident who, from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., recounts the tale of his youth: a struggle for spiritual authenticity in a city of fear, danger, intellectual dissidents, underground churches, and clandestine priests.

It is a love story. And the loveliest of characters is the bold and disarmingly beautiful Betka, for whom our young protagonist falls. She’s a will-o’-the-wisp that touches down upon the pages of the novel and keeps them turning.

“What do you know about me, Betka?” I asked one ­afternoon.

“Oh, everything!”

“Am I so easy to decipher?”

“Yes, or you wouldn’t use that word.”

“What word?”

Dešifrovat. Most people would say rozluštit, which is at least Czech and not Latin. You make yourself into a secret. And secrets can be pried apart. It is only when people live openly that they are hard to know.”

But few could live openly under the regime. Communism’s war on property filled the streets of Prague with a profound sense of loneliness and alienation. The inhabitants of the city could not fully inhabit it because the city itself did not belong to them. Scruton poignantly illustrates the bitter lesson of communism: One cannot fully belong to an unowned place. Nonetheless, Betka rescues Jan from the spiritual loneliness of Prague and introduces him to the underground intellectual circles of the city. Jan, for the first time, belongs—to Betka, and to the small community of dissidents who gathered ­underground.

Among his new acquaintances, he meets the remarkable Fr. Pavel, a covert Catholic priest and an existentialist à la Simone Weil. He speaks of a withdrawn God who makes himself present in his absence, visible in his invisibility, and powerful in his powerlessness. Religion, for Fr. Pavel, does not provide an alternative to reality, a fantasy, or “a repudiation of this world for the sake of a better one whose unreality [makes] it more malleable to our wishes.” Rather, it brings us face to face with suffering—with the concrete facts of life—and urges us to accept the world as such. The Christian imagination helps us understand reality, not escape from it. Therefore, to those caught in the kitsch and abstractions of communist ideology, the Church provides a refuge where words such as “love” and “sacrifice” still retain their true form.

“You cannot hurry with words,” Betka said to Jan, “otherwise you drop them and they break.” Sure enough, Scruton’s own words are unhurried. The novel is woven in carefully crafted prose, and although some will be inclined to reproach the author for didacticism, it would be more sensible to see him as a sage in the tradition of Dostoevsky rather than a seamless novelist.

In a little over two hundred pages, Scruton, who supported underground dissident networks in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, brings to light the beauty and the terror of a world where people find meaning despite the general meaninglessness surrounding them. Americans are lucky to live in a free society, but this nation has its own forms of kitsch. And we ought to ask ourselves how we can search for meaning in a culture that nurtures a spiritual loneliness of its own kind.

“The supermarket heavens of my new neighbors,” Jan writes from his suburban apartment in Washington, D.C., “which draw a veil over suffering and therefore make no sense of it or of anything else, take me back to those beautiful, terrible days, when our dear city turned in its sleep and its dreams were dreams of a crucified God.”

—Macarena Pallares directs academic programs for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel
by kate bowler
oxford, 352 pages, $34.95

He took your place in poverty, so you could take His place in prosperity!” “If you have an abundance of faith in your spiritual account, you can enjoy plenty of everything—wealth, health, good relationships, peace, success!” “Name it and claim it!”

Such is the good news proclaimed by the preachers of the American prosperity gospel. While scorned by mainstream Christians, the health-and-wealth gospel brand continues to spread, boasting over one million American adherents and many more millions abroad.

Weaving historical research with first-person narrative, Kate Bowler, an assistant professor of American religion at Duke Divinity School, traces the emergence of the American prosperity gospel from its late nineteenth-­century roots in metaphysical mesmerists and itinerant healers, through its growth in the post–Second World War Pentecostal revivals, to its megachurch flowering today.

The early history of this movement reads like a case study in Nietzschean “will to power” psychology. Victorian America’s fascination with the power of mind over matter provides the anthropological foundation for the movement. Belief in mind power increases when Pentecostal preachers announce faith’s legal claim upon God’s blessings. Add in the upward aspirations of America’s Gilded Age, and the transformation is complete: The power of mind over matter has become the power of mind over health, wealth, and God himself.

Bowler notes a distinctively American character in the prosperity gospel, whether it is the early “hard prosperity” of E. W. Kenyon’s “dominating faith” or the contemporary “soft prosperity” of Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, and Paula White. (The straightforward message of the nineteenth century is now often finessed with subtler language.) The movement of “god-men and conquerors rang true to a nation . . . steeped in the mythology of individual effort.”

The prosperity movement was constituted by “the deification and ritualization of the American Dream.” This is Bowler’s critique. A more damning one may be found in the picture Bowler paints. It appears not in the positive image but in the startling absence of a certain stumbling block and obstacle.

—Dominic Verner, O.P., a former summer intern at First Things, is a student at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

The Oracles Fell Silent
by lee oser
wiseblood books, 262 pages, $12

Lee Oser’s second novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, follows the efforts of the young and well educated, but otherwise unremarkable, Richard Bellman to assemble the memoirs of washed-up British rock star Sir Ted Pop (think of a fatter, less likable Mick Jagger).

The aging rocker Ted is beset by rumors that he killed his friend and former bandmate during a rooftop altercation years earlier, and Bellman soon becomes a pawn in the PR war between Ted and his rivals to define the official history of that night. As in The Man Who Was Thursday and The Flying Inn (two books Oser clearly had in mind), Oracles offers a kaleidoscopic supporting cast with verve: a duo of fast-talking and hard-drinking female real-estate agents and amateur golfers whose banter is straight out of an Abbot and Costello routine (“Tell me, dear, why does a man want sex?” “That’s easy. Because he isn’t hungry”); the fanatical yet suave Muslim imam educated at Georgetown; the feminist chair of “Thing Theory” at Harvard University, Professor Candy Swash.

The young Bellman leads a desultory life among the ranks of Hamptons glitterati, yet he is nevertheless a cradle Catholic and a daily communicant seeking a good he does not yet understand. Bellman’s struggles—romantic, spiritual, and professional—play out over the course of his life, and his long path to conversion is fraught with temptations and missteps. “You’re religious?” Sir Ted asks Bellman early on, warning him, “You won’t be when I’m done with you.” Indeed, Bellman’s drama is essentially a forward-­looking, teleological one, as he attempts to sort out how he will live.

Sir Ted’s drama, on the other hand, is retrospective and eschatological. Bitter, paranoid, loveless, and drunk, Ted must confront the chilling reality of a life poorly lived. And yet in the book’s climactic scene, in which Ted faces a choice between grace or justice straight out of ­Flannery O’Connor, he chooses the latter: “He had been fate’s minion, raised by her whimsical favor, kissed by her laughing lips, caressed by her wanton finger. But in the end he made his own choice. He would not seek after grace. He would not bend his knee.”

Thus the inscrutable, tragicomic mystery of grace. Bellman is an unlikely candidate for redemption, but he eventually chooses to reorient himself toward old-fashioned faith. Sir Ted, though talented and charismatic, has exhausted his reservoir of moral courage. In that one blindingly bright moment when God extends His hand to him, Ted proves unwilling or unable to accept it. There is more than a hint of autobiography in Oser’s two main characters—the author spent a somewhat aimless youth floating between odd jobs and playing bass in the popular Portland-area band the Riflebirds in the 1980s before earning a PhD at Yale, returning to Catholicism, and devoting himself to teaching.

Throughout, Oser proves himself a master craftsman of language. Many times while reading Oracles one is struck by a particularly supple turn of phrase or a seemingly innocuous observation, disarmingly charming but laden with profound wisdom. He reminds us that “your story will be written by someone you could never buy, and you wouldn’t like the narrative.” It is the great virtue of this novel that it manages to bring us to that simultaneously glorious and terrible realization.

—Travis LaCouter works for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition
by louis markos
wipf and stock, 244 pages, $27

In this slim but not slight treatment of literary classics, Louis Markos, professor of English at Houston Baptist University, brings the witness of Christian orthodoxy into dialogue with poetic interpretations of heaven and hell.

Four great epics that portray the fate of the soul—The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost—form the structure of Markos’s book. Throughout, he highlights Christian artists who read “God’s presence in the highest poetry, history, and philosophy of the pre-Christian, Greco-Roman world” and saw it fulfilled in the New Testament’s revelation. Dante and Milton saw themselves as completing, not rejecting, Plato and Virgil.

Markos argues that this Christian humanist vision that God’s revelation answers our highest aspirations has suffered since the Puritans portrayed heaven as an escape from earth rather than as the redemption of ­creation. With the Enlightenment, the ­sacramental vision of the continuity between the afterlife and everyday life became more deeply ruptured, as William Blake subjectivized heaven and hell, and ­Tennyson struggled to believe in the soul in a scientific age.

Heaven and Hell closes with a solemn warning and a note of hope. If we immanentize the eschaton and come to believe with Blake that we can “build Jerusalem” in our “green and pleasant land,” we will create a hell on earth rather than God’s ­eternal kingdom of absolute joy. Markos attributes much of the imperial ambition and totalitarian barbarism of the twentieth century to this loss of faith in divine justice after death.

Markos offers a hope for a renewed vision of the wholeness of truth whereby the poetic classics would be read without erecting “an artificial and unnecessary breach between the power of their poetry and the truth of their subject matter.” He holds up C. S. Lewis as a twentieth-century thinker with the imagination to see that “mystery and doctrine are as firmly compatible as science and religion or reason and faith.” Perhaps through the beauty of poetry an age uncomfortable with the whole question of the fate of the soul after death may be brought to reconsider the permanent things.

—Luke Foster is a student at Columbia University and a former intern at First Things.