A review of The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

"No whining!" the plaque on my study wall all but shouts. Steven D. Smith does not whine as he invades a territory frequented by whiners. Some, whom he names secular rationalists, moan about the religious discourse that they regard as threatening. On the other hand, the religious who fear the secularists complain that secular discourse claims and possesses a near monopoly in the public world. Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego, takes on but then transcends the whiners.

His weapon is argument, and his goal is eliciting a new openness on all hands, but especially on the part of the secularists, who tout reason and tend to unreflectively or calculatingly dismiss almost all expressions of religion in public. He argues with notables who can handle themselves, including John Rawls, Susan Jacoby, Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum, though I imagine that they will make future utterances with more care if they read Smith.

At issue are the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment, especially in the American version embodied by many of the nation's founders. Deftly he shows how the most notable, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, employed religious motifs and rationales. In fact, he points out, Madison lay explicitly theological foundations under the structure of constitutional frameworks. At the same time, Smith knows that we know how much the world has changed since the American founding, and he takes those changes seriously, as one must. He shows how Henry Steele Commager, a giant among historians of the Enlightenment and author of The Empire of Reason, believed that Reason ("notice . . . the upper case") would "solve all of those problems that pressed upon [us] so insistently"—a line that to Smith looks "quaint, almost childlike."