Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Joseph Viteritti’s The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Nov 20, 2007 4:10 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Joseph Viteritti’s The Last Freedom: Religion from the Public School to the Public Square (Princeton University Press, 2007).

The First Amendment’s declaration about religion--“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—is brief and concise. As Joseph Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, demonstrates, it is also far more complex than it first appears to be. Viteritti wants the courts, the Congress, and the public (he has surprisingly little to say about the president—or the President) to redress the balance between freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion, a balance which in his view has been tipped too far towards the latter, secular side.

In Viteritti’s view, we have more to fear from the left than the right, from Michael Newdow (who objected to the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance) than from Judge Roy Moore (who refused to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom). But, Viteritti says, we have to be careful not to give too much to either side. “Finding the correct balance has never been easy,” he says, “but there are broad analytic considerations that can be useful in working our way through the problem.”

Despite Viteritti’s willingness to ignore George W. Bush’s heavy thumb on the scale, he has a defensible argument. But his book’s tangled, almost perverse structure seriously limits its impact. The sequence of chapters seems almost random, and the individual chapters, while sticking more or less to their declared themes, run back and forth (and back again) through time so abruptly that the reader cannot follow the overall trajectory of events that Viteritti is responding to.

The caution flags go up right away. Viteritti takes two-and-a-half pages in his preface to explain the contents of his nine chapters (and still never gets around to explaining he calls the book “the last freedom”). Chapter 1, he says, “outlines the main argument of the book,” then Chapter 2 “further structures the larger discussion” by focusing on “the current political environment” and the “unseverable connections that exist between politics, morality, and religion.” (In other words, Chapter 2 has two themes by itself.) Chapter 3 throws us back to the Scopes Trial of 1925, then jumps forward to the Mozert case of 1986, which “highlights a central point I want to make about the vulnerability of religious minorities in a secular culture.”

Chapter 4 goes back to Jefferson’s ideas about education, then considers Horace Mann’s approach (saturated by Protestant moralism) and then John Dewey’s (now-dominant) secular outlook. After Chapter 5 “brings us to the twentieth century” and looks at decades of controversies in education, including struggles over textbooks, religious instruction, school prayer, and the like, Chapter 6 examines Supreme Court cases. (In the course of this chapter, Viteritti notes that between 1947 and 1997, the Supreme Court heard 52 cases dealing with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, and he touches upon many of them.) Chapter 7 throws us back to a discussion the ideas of the nation’s Founders.

Readers who haven’t already suffered chronological and/or thematic whiplash will get it from Chapter 8, which again leaps to the present and talks about the findings of researchers such as Alan Wolfe and Robert Wuthnow, who suggest that most Americans occupy religion’s “hollow middle” (Viteritti’s term, and an unfortunate one) and favor compromise on the presence of religion in schools and the “public square.” Chapter 9 attempts to pull it all together by talking about how to maintain distinctions between “private life and public life, political speech and political action, politics and government, the special place of schools, and the distinct role the Supreme Court plays in mediating our differences.” Got all that? Pay close attention. There may be a quiz.

The book doesn’t work as a series of “stand-alone” essays either. Viteritti’s penchant for what might be called analysis interruptus means that there are too many sentences like “We will return to these considerations in a later chapter.” If this were a movie, the editor in charge of continuity would deserve to be fired.

The best thing about the book may be its treatment of individual Supreme Court cases. Viteritti discusses, among many others, the Everson case (1947), which put the Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause “in legal tension,” and the Lemon case (1971), which established a stringent test for public funding of activities at religious institutions. And, of course, he looks at the Zelman case (2002), in which the Court upheld a Cleveland school voucher program in a decision that “emphasizes the need for evenhandedness or neutrality in the treatment of secular and religious institutions.” So in some ways at least, the country may be moving in the direction Viteritti would prefer. But he looks at so many other cases—and so many other issues, and in such random order—that it’s hard to tell which way Viteritti thinks the grunion are currently running.

That’s a shame, because the debate over religion’s place in public life and education badly needs the pragmatic approach that Viteritti tries to take. But Viteritti’s moderating voice is too often drowned out by static. The Last Freedom is most unlikely to reach the broad audience that he seeks.

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