American Religious Freedom: The Revised Story
The Russell Kirk Center - The University Bookman
In legal scholarship, as in any literature, style matters as much as content. The subjects authors explore, their manners and patterns of thought, the metaphors and idioms they select, the grace with which they address the audience and carry it along—in sum, the personal qualities that emerge in the telling of the tale—are remembered long after the details of the argument have faded. Over the duration of a scholarly life, a writer constructs a personality. And as the relationship of author and reader matures across the years, the publication of a new piece is the occasion to look not so much for argumentative roundhouse punches that could have been thrown anywhere by anybody, as for an old friend.
This is the way I come to the work of Steven D. Smith, the most penetrating and thoughtful scholar of religious freedom of our generation, and that rare author in American legal academia whom it is a joy to read. His new book, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom, represents a distinctively and recognizably Smith-esque contribution. His authorial method has always been primarily diagnostic: he describes the existing legal and historical landscape, and in so doing brings a particular critical perspective that generally runs more or less against the current. Toward the conclusion of his work, Smith often gestures toward several possible resolutions to the problems he has discussed, but they are rarely more than that: soft speculations, almost afterthoughts, about a few pathways out of the forest. But the heart of a Steve Smith book is in the careful exposition of a problem. He has cultivated this method over the years with consistent, wry panache to great effect—whether the subject is the healthful absence of a single theory of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, or the contemporary obsession with the value of equality, or the unsustainable claims about the “reason” that inheres in constitutional law and scholarship. Always, Smith offers an alternative historical and doctrinal description. Always, he hints suggestively at contrarian possibilities and ends. Always, the leitmotivs are skepticism and decline.