The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square

The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square

The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square

The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square


The presidency of George W. Bush has polarized the church-state debate as never before. The Far Right has been emboldened to use religion to govern, while the Far Left has redoubled its efforts to evict religion from public life entirely. Fewer people on the Right seem to respect the church-state separation, and fewer people on the Left seem to respect religion itself--still less its free exercise in any situation that is not absolutely private. In The Last Freedom, Joseph Viteritti argues that there is a basic tension between religion and democracy because religion often rejects compromise as a matter of principle while democracy requires compromise to thrive. In this readable, original, and provocative book, Viteritti argues that Americans must guard against debasing politics with either antireligious bigotry or religious zealotry. Drawing on politics, history, and law, he defines a new approach to the church-state question that protects the religious and the secular alike.

Challenging much conventional opinion, Viteritti argues that the courts have failed to adequately protect religious minorities, that the rights of the religious are under greater threat than those of the secular, and that democracy exacts greater compromises and sacrifices from the religious than it does from the secular. He takes up a wide range of controversies, including the pledge of allegiance, school prayer, school vouchers, evolution, abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, and religious displays on public property.

A fresh and surprising approach to the church-state question, The Last Freedom is squarely aimed at the wide center of the public that is frustrated with the extremes of both the Left and the Right.


Writing about religion at the beginning of the twenty-first century is something like writing about race at the beginning of the twentieth. I don't mean to suggest that the consequences of religious bias are as grave now as the effects of racial bigotry were then, but the manifestations are similar. Most Americans are not mindful of the problem because they are not affected by it; those who bear the heaviest burdens from it are not positioned to correct it; and the people who feed its malice have convinced themselves that they are justified, even righteous, in what they do.

Religion is among the most fragile of our freedoms. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, the governmental actors who assumed responsibility for interpreting and enforcing the American Constitution gave freedom of religion a relatively low priority. They did so at a time when the nation was becoming increasingly sensitive to human rights and the needs of minority populations.

Even in the best of circumstances, religion, like any freedom, is not absolute. It must be reconciled with other individual rights, and competing definitions of religious liberty itself. As a result, it is virtually impossible to grant devout religious observers the degree of legal protection they need to live their lives in harmony with the dictates of conscience. That is a serious shortcoming in itself. Beyond that, we can be doing a better job protecting them than we now are.

It may seem counterintuitive to speak of the erosion of religious freedom in America in the year 2007, when the so-called blue states are scrambling to take the White House back from the red states, and the composition of the Supreme Court seems to be growing more conservative. The ascendancy of the religious Right in American politics carries its own problems, to be sure. Among others, it has fed a backlash against religion, making the most religious among us more vulnerable.

In any case, the story of religious freedom in America is older than the last presidential election. Religious controversy has a way of reinventing itself in the United States. Who would have thought that, more than eighty years after the famous Scopes “monkey trial,” school boards would be fighting over the teaching of evolution in the public schools?

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