Jack N. Rakove


On his book Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience: The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religion

Cover Interview of January 20, 2021

A close-up

I am a linear writer as well as a linear reader (though in suspenseful novels I sometimes look ahead and then get mad at myself for hitting upon some spoiler that I should have prevented myself from learning). So I would be perfectly happy if a reader started at Page 1 of the Introduction, which begins with a key insightful remark by Madison, given in 1822, noting how the experiment in disestablishment had allowed American religion to “flourish in greater purity” without having to rely on the aid of government.

But I also like my own intriguing insight at the start of Chapter 1, “The Burden of Toleration,” that when one lives in a tolerant society, as we do, we no longer know what toleration, properly defined, historically meant.

And Chapter 3 begins by speculating how the American ideas of religious freedom might have evolved had the Revolution not occurred. Of course, the Revolution did occur, and that in turn required Americans to begin writing new constitutions of government to replace their old colonial charters. Here I quote a passage from the reading notes that Jefferson compiled in the fall of 1776, when he first met Madison. Both men were serving on the religion committee of the Virginia House of Delegates and trying to figure out what position the new state should take on matters of religious liberty. Jefferson used the occasion to reread John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, and his notes contain this trenchant remark: “It was good to go so far (as he himself says of the parl[iament] who framed the act of toler[atio]n [of 1689]; but where he stopped short, we may go on” [emphasis added].

Asking what it meant for the Americans to “go on” is an underlying theme of the whole book, so this is also a nice point of departure.