In How Free Can Religion Be? Randall P. Bezanson, who holds an endowed professorship of law at the University of Iowa, surveys the U.S. Supreme Court’s leading cases on the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Of particular interest to students of Mormonism will be Bezanson’s treatment of Reynolds v. United States (1878), in which the Court rejected the claim that the First Amendment protected the Latter-day Saints’ religious practice of plural marriage.
It is clear that How Free Can Religion Be? is a book written by a law professor. Bezanson writes, “This book . . . is neither a history nor a compendium of legal answers. It is, instead, a set of questions and arguments, a written Socratic dialogue, with me on one side, and the reader on the other” (5). Those unburdened by a legal education can get some taste of what a constitutional law class is like by reading the book, while others who have run the gauntlet of law school will find the stream of question-punctuated commentary familiar.
The strengths and weaknesses of Bezanson’s approach are on display in his discussion of the Reynolds case. He provides a workman-like summary of the facts, albeit one that ignores virtually all the published work done on the case by legal historians both within Mormon studies and within the legal academy generally. He then walks the reader through the Court’s reasoning step-by-step, asking—without answering—at each point whether the moves made by the Court were justified in light of this or that competing argument.
The appearance of the Reynolds case in Bezanson’s book is a testament to the continuing importance of the fundamental legal questions raised by the confrontation between Mormons and the federal government over the practice of polygamy. It also illustrates the extent to which Mormon history as a discipline has failed—with a few notable exceptions—to present the richness of its research on this period in a form capable of penetrating the mainstream constitutional discussion that Bezanson models.