Fearing Strangers: Principles and Anxieties

“Principles lose their grip in times of fear.” — Marta Nussbaum (176)

In Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, Martha Nussbaum takes a historical look religious liberty and religious equality through the lens of philosophical political liberalism. I will explore her conceptualization of political liberalism later. For now, I will just note that she views her conception as being similar to that of Rawls.

In the chapter “Fearing Strangers,” Nussbaum takes a look at early American fears about Mormons.

In the burgeoning new Mormon religion, the majority saw a threat to its political authority, its control over valuable property, and, in general, the hegemony of Protestant Christian belief and practice. Polygamy was the hot-button issue that drove people into a true panic, until cherished norms of religious respect free speech we, for a time, deeply compromised. (177)

Nussbaum ties contempt for Mormonism to similar contempt for Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roman Catholics in 19th Century America and she addresses each case in the chapter(177).

The panicked reactions to these groups show us three things, contends Nussbaum. (178)

“First, they show us the ultimate resilience of our constitutional values, but also their temporary fragility.” (178)

American history is not so much a history of freedom and equality, as much as it is a slow and painful struggle towards such values.

From this history, Nussbaum contends that we must “learn to look beneath the attractive moral language in which persecution persecution often clothes itself, asking whether the conduct involved actually amounts to persecution, even when it proponents may sincerely believe that they are defending moral values, and even civilization itself.” (178)

Nussbaum sees a clear connection between 19th center persecution and contemporary debates about a range of issues. Her sub-section in a later chapter about gay marriage ties back directly to her chapter which addresses early Mormon persecution with the sub-title “Fearing Strangers: Same-Sex Marriage” (334)

The second thing that panicked reactions to these groups tell us is “…how some of our contemporary debates arose, and what forces, sometimes not very nice, have shaped some of our modern political rhetoric.” (178)

Nussbaum argues that the phrase “separation of church and state” originally carried the connotation of “Don’t let the Pope take over our government and schools” (178)

Third, and finally, “these cases are still with us, despite the progress made by law and public debate.” (178)

“Anti-Mormon sentiment is still rife in our society. As a Mormon, Mitt Romney, campaigns for the presidency, the lower-class origins of Mormonism remain a target of ridicule, and the religions beliefs about the polygamous family, despite having been abandoned long ago, still inspire widespread fear,” writes Nussbaum (178-9).

UP NEXT: Nussbaum on Mormon polygamy and Reynolds v. United States.

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