Religion takes more than its fair share of blame for antipathy and hysteria

The somewhat overwrought subtitles of these books (Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age and A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right respectively) - as contributions to the current genre of studies of hysteria that are themselves somewhat hysterical - suggest that their authors have forgotten FDR's dictum that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Martha Nussbaum is a professor of law at the University of Chicago. Like many legal academics, she takes a considerable amount of time to make what seem like obvious points. There is, for example, a lengthy criticism of the legislation in some European countries, most particularly France, banning the wearing of the Muslim burqa and niqab - both of which cover the face apart from the eyes - and the hijab or headscarf. Of course, the burqa and the niqab represent a view as to the role of women that is not shared by most non-Muslims. But they are not a real issue outside a few countries in western Europe. Rare incidents aside, there is no movement in Britain, the US or Australia to ban them.

This fact indicates a deeper problem about Nussbaum's work. French objections to this masking of women are not really an example of religious intolerance but of cultural antipathy. There are in truth few instances of purely religious persecution in recent Western history. It is not easy to identify precisely what motivated the Germans who organised the Holocaust but it was not the religion of the Jews. Even outside the West, where religious persecution is more common, the greatest mass killings of recent times - for example, the murder of 800,000 Tutsis by Hutus in a matter of months in Rwanda in 1994 - have tended not to have a religious but rather an ethnic or tribal basis.

The question of religion in the US has always been complicated by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that Congress ''shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof''. By this, America's founding fathers seemed to have envisaged a variety of religious views and tolerance for all of them.

This has not, however, prevented abstruse arguments in the Supreme Court over such questions as whether government funds can be given to church schools or Jehovah's Witnesses can be compelled to salute the flag at school ceremonies.

It would be easy to gain the impression from outside the US that fundamentalist Christians play a major political role there. The truth is that America has, like other Western countries, a broadly secular culture but it has a wider spectrum of political debate than most, including Australia. As a result, some religious groups take an active role in election campaigns, although their influence, while not without impact, is not as great as many inside and outside the US affect to believe. Having identified a problem that barely exists, Nussbaum proposes it be addressed by policies ''showing equal respect for all citizens by providing both ample and equal liberty, indeed the greatest liberty that is compatible with equal liberty for all and the preservation of vital public interests (such as peace and safety)''.


Quite so - and let's hear it for motherhood as well!

Arthur Goldwag's book is entitled The New Hate but is largely about old hate, particularly anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and anti-Masonry in American history. He has written a previous work on cults, conspiracies and secret societies and one of the themes of this new book is the role of groups that adhere tenaciously to conspiracy theories.

There is a lot of interesting material here, although not always a sense of proportion. There is, for example, a 60-page chapter on Henry Ford's anti-Semitism.

Ford was very good at making automobiles but, like most people who become very rich from one skill, he did not know the first thing about politics or economics. It is hard to see why anyone took his views seriously then, and even harder to see why they should be taken seriously now.

There was certainly a strong strain of anti-Catholicism in the US until World War II - as there was in Australia up to that time. Not many readers would have been able to guess who referred in the course of a debate over funding for Catholic schools to the ''gang of false and villainous priests whose despicable souls never generate any aspiration beyond their own narrow and horrible and beastly superstition … dregs of foreign filth - refuse of convents''. The answer is Walt Whitman - one of America's most revered and ''democratic'' writers. But writing a few decades earlier than Whitman, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose observations of American society still repay close reading, noted that many factors ''have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects … his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven''.

The author quotes this passage although it suggests the role of religion in American society both past and present is often exaggerated or misunderstood.

The truth is that America has, like other Western countries, a broadly secular culture but it has a wider spectrum of political debate than most.

One of the problems about writing about hysteria is that the writers, like the doctors of previous centuries who studied diseases at close quarters, can become infected with the condition themselves.

It needs to be remembered that America has a black Democrat president and that his difficulties in being re-elected later this year are largely due to current economic problems that have caused similar difficulties for his counterparts in many other countries. The so-called Tea Party movement has not been able to exert any real influence in the Republican primaries. In any event, that movement is supposedly one for smaller government. This is an unfashionable idea in continental Europe but is hardly outside the mainstream of American or even Australian political debate. If anything, Goldwag's work shows that American politics is more tranquil now than it was 100 years ago.

Martha C. Nussbaum
Belknap Press/Harvard, 267pp, $26.95

Arthur Goldwag
Scribe, 368pp, $32.95