It Usually Begins with Roger Williams


Roger Williams is one of the all-time greats when it comes to truly liberal (read: libertarian) thought: the articulator of fully secular government; humane and equal treatment of Native Americans; and toleration of all—Jews, Muslims, atheists, even Catholics!—in a time when none of that was in fashion.

Now the apostle of peace is at the center of a very entertaining imbroglio. Frequent Hit & Run commenter and blogger and movie critic extraordinaire Alan Vanneman reviews Martha Nussbaum's recent New Republic review of a new collection of Williams' writings (take a breath to catch up) and comes out swinging:

Like Martha, I'm a big fan of Roger Williams, and her article, which largely consists of quotes from Roger, makes good reading. (It's also a great way to pad your word count.) Martha also has some very good things to say about the categorical imperative, of which I am a very big fan. So where's my beef?

Well, first of all, Martha starts off with the observation that "the struggle to create societies that protect religious liberty and show respect for religious difference is never-ending." I can agree with that, but then she starts pushing. "When we consider the current uproar over Muslim immigration, particularly in Europe, we can see that the allegedly enlightened societies of the West still have a lot of learning to do."

Really? The problem is with the "allegedly enlightened societies of the West"? How about the aggressively unenlightened societies of Islam, societies that are deliberately seeking to emulate, and even exaggerate, the ruthless intolerance of the medieval past? Martha coyly does not say exactly what "we" are doing wrong. She doesn't say whether we should allow Muslim men to have seven wives, whether she's down with stoning adulterous women to death, whether Salman Rushdie should have been handed over to Iran for execution, whether we should ban Dante for speaking ill of the prophet, or whether we should execute living translators of the Comedy. She doesn't say anything other than that it's "our" fault….

I don't like the idea, which Nussbaum is pushing, that anything "religious" or religiously inspired is in fact sacred, because I don't believe in "the sacred." Nussbaum is pushing this idea, of course, because she wants to use it as a stick to beat us Enlightenment types who tend to turn up our noses at, well, medieval fanaticism. I doubt very much if Nussbaum is supportive of the proposed "freedom of conscience" regulations being sponsored by the Bush Administration that would allow employees of pharmacies, hospitals, and other institutions the "right" to refuse to provide contraceptives to those requesting them.

Well worth reading in full.