A Few Notes on the Libertas Conference on Religious Freedom

Mark and I are just back from the Libertas Conference at Villanova Law School. It was an extremely edifying period of thought, reflection, and fellowship with a wonderful group of lawyers, political theorists, philosophers, historians, and journalists, including Steve Smith, Damon Linker, Christopher Tollefsen, Elizabeth and David Corey, Tuan Samahon, and Gerald Russello, among many others. Rick Garnett, Zak Calo, and I were fortunate enough to moderate the sessions over a period of three days.

The sessions really broke down into four general categories: (1) genealogical accounts of church and state in modernity (including readings by Brad Gregory and Mark Lilla, as well as by Steve Smith); (2) historical studies of the specifically English and American experience of church and state (including readings by Stuart Banner and Michael McConnell), (3) comments on the projects of cultural Christianity and secularism (John Courtney Murray, Robert Louis Wilken, and Pope Benedict XVI were on the agenda); and (4) diagnoses of and prognoses for religious freedom in the United States (here some of the readings were decidedly inferior as they included some of my recent work, but also much better material by Rick Garnett and Paul Horwitz).

The conference was organized by Michael Moreland with his usual grace, generosity, and aplomb. The participants’ comments and insights will influence my own thinking and writing for a while, in ways I hope to note by and by. But here’s one initial thought having to do with scholarly method. There are of course many different ways to make scholarly contributions in law: argument in the service of changing doctrine, synthesis of a body of law to arrive at a new insight, normative pleas for turns or returns to various positions having assertedly desirable political ramifications, studies of empirical states of affairs, and so on. But my own view–helped along and shaped by the participants at the conference (as well as by posts like this one)–is that we are at the beginning of the flowering of an interesting period of long-view, retrospective, critical diagnostic scholarship in law and religion and constitutional law more broadly. Not everybody will be interested in this sort of approach, of course. Others in the field have different projects and different objectives. But at least for me, this is an invigorating thought.

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