Sacred Ground

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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 5, No. 1, August 2004

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United


Religious Liberty:  America's Sacred Ground

By Dr. Bruce Prescott


Barbara McGraw in her recent book, Rediscovering America’s Sacred Ground:  Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America,  does a magnificent job of explaining the morality underlying the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 


She traces the roots of religious liberty back to John Locke, uncovers his theology, highlights the value of social contract theory, underscores the role of individual conscience, and emphasizes the need to find “just bounds” between religion and the state.  

She provides a much needed corrective to the thought of Alsdair MacIntyre and others  who view Locke’s thought, and the First Amendment, as products of “autonomous individualism” and an outmoded “enlightenment rationalism.”   McGraw’s critique of the thought of church-state accomodationists like Stephen Carter is equally valuable.


Most valuable is her conception of a two-tiered public forum and the distinction she makes between civic and conscientious morality.  The morality of the civic public forum preserves by force of law the “sacred ground” that is necessary to preserve a just and equitable pluralistic society with religious liberty for all.  The morality of the conscientious public forum is preserved by persuasion, not by force of law, as diverse individuals and groups promote their competing visions of the common good.


The book’s shortcomings derive from neglect of the religious liberty advocacy prior to Locke, mostly Baptist, which probably influenced him.  Neither Roger Williams’ and John Clarke’s acquisition of religious liberty for Rhode Island nor John Leland and Virginia Baptists role in securing the First Amendment were mentioned.   Much is there that could strengthen valuable arguments she made relying on other sources.


I heartily recommend McGraw’s book.


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