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


This book is part of the series, Inalienable Rights, edited by my friend and colleague, Geoffrey Stone, of the University of Chicago (which happens to be my literal birthplace). All the other contributors to this series are professors of law; I am the sole historian who is involved in the project. But I happen to think having a historical perspective on what has become a vexed area of jurisprudence has real intellectual advantages. Many legal observers regard Religion Clause doctrine as a mess, and that situation makes it difficult to appreciate what a great success the radical American departure embodied in the First Amendment has been.

The basic fact remains, I believe, that Madison and Jefferson (and to some extent Madison more than Jefferson, as I explain in the book) were right: the more one does to enable individuals to be their own religious truth-seekers and to maintain a high wall of separation between church and state, the happier we will collectively be. This book does offer a short summary in its concluding two chapters of the leading issues of Religion Clause jurisprudence, though emphasizing “free exercise” more than disestablishment. But its real purpose is to provide a historical context for appreciating and, I hope, validating the American experiment in religious freedom.