Martha Nussbaum on Women, Religion and Rights

At Conversations with History, Harry Kreisler interviews the philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Women’s Rights, Religion and Liberal Education. (Both transcript and video are available.)

[Kreisler] This problem of the role of religion and the role of the state, their interactions and so on, is a problem that you are grappling with now. Is that correct? Tell us a little about your research about what it is to have freedom of religion and of religious practice.

[Nussbaum] This is a rare case where I’m focusing on the American tradition, and I did it because after the election of 2004 I felt I wanted to make an intervention into the public debate, because people are increasingly polarized around religious matters and they often misunderstand certain things about the tradition. Religious people think that the idea of separation of church and state is an idea that means that religion is being marginalized, it’s being trivialized, it’s being said to be unimportant. What I set out to show is that there is a long tradition — you could associate it particularly with Madison, although it goes back further to the seventeenth century and Roger Williams — that says no, the central issue is one of fairness. We want all to be citizens of equal standing in the public realm. We want not just adequate liberty but equal liberty. What that means is that any kind of religious establishment or religious orthodoxy in public life is a problem, because it jeopardizes that equal standing.

Madison was thinking about a law in Virginia, which seems very benign and it’s what lots of European countries have now, which is that there would be a tax for the benefit of the Anglican Church, but if you have some other church you could always choose instead to [benefit] your church. And he said no, by making the Anglican Church the central one, this makes a statement that our society is basically an Anglican society and other people don’t enter the polity, as he put it, on equal conditions…

I want people to think about that and what that implies. If we want to separate religion from the public realm it’s not because we hate religion or because we think that it doesn’t belong in human life, it’s because it just can’t be done in a way that’s fair to all and gives all equal liberty. That also means that we shouldn’t impose special burdens on religion…

That’s why separation is not a very helpful idea, but equality is a much more helpful idea.