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Talk of God

Barring religious convictions from the public square enervates the debate.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By DAVID WOLPE
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two dominant normative families—not the Corleone and Tattaglia families, but rather the autonomy-liberty-freedom family and the equality-neutrality-reciprocity family. These powerful and eminently respectable normative families do a good deal of legitimate business, for which we may all be grateful—I certainly am—but they also run extensive smuggling operations.

Each is buttressed by religious values and assumptions—Man is in the image of God; I am my brother’s keeper, etc.—but is unable to acknowledge, invoke, or debate them. In successive chapters Smith shows how religious assumptions undergird debates on euthanasia, free speech, utilitarianism, human rights, our attitude toward scientific experimentation, and other public questions. 

This is an engaging, clear, provocative, even witty book. In fact, the least winning part of it is the title: Such a cumbersome title seems designed to have the reader open the book with a sigh—there is fiber in this intellectual diet. It is a mild disservice to a sparkling work on the history of ideas and the hidden realities of public discourse. Smith makes a persuasive case that, if we were freer to express our allegiances, we would still disagree; but our disagreements would reflect the commitments on which they were truly based. Public discussion would be richer and deeper.

David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters.

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