Religion: A Public or a Private Right?

Originally appeared in  Public Discourse:  Ethics, Law, and the Common Good
Online journal of the Witherspoon  Institute of Princeton, NJ

 Susan Hanssen*

Twentieth-century religious liberty jurisprudence developed on the far side of a great historic chasm that separates us from the traditional definition of religion. Between Americans in 2012 and the American founders in 1776 stand William James and the beginnings of the “science of comparative religions.” If we are to grasp the founders’ idea of a natural right to religious liberty, we must perform a labor of historical imagination and recover the longstanding definition of religion that has been lost to us.

The classic book that launched the social scientific approach to the study of religion was James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1903). The book was initially his series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh—the prestigious Gifford Lectures. James deliberately refused to accept the usual title “Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology” for his series of talks and chose instead to call them lectures in “Natural Religion.” He assumed that religion was not, as the word “theology” implied, subject to any rational justification. Rather, he saw religion as essentially experiential and the study of religion as essentially empirical—the collection of a variety of accounts of wildly divergent spiritual experiences. . . [Read more]

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