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Faculty Spotlight: Professor Howard Lesnick's Religion in Legal Thought and Practice

August 22, 2011

In Religion in Legal Thought and Practice, Howard Lesnick, Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of Law, examines moral issues in public and private life from a religious but not a devotional perspective. Rather than seeking to prove that one belief system or moral stance is right, the book guides readers to a greater understanding of the effect of religious beliefs and practices on ways of conceiving and addressing moral questions, without their having to accept or to reject a specific religious outlook. Professor Lesnick sat down with Penn Law’s Office of Communications to give a deeper look into the major themes in his book.

Lesnick_ReligionLegalThoughtPractice.jpgPenn Law (PL): Please tell us about the book.
Howard Lesnick (Lesnick): The book shows how the similarities between religions and the differences within any one religion are more important than the reverse. It poses four questions to the reader: Where moral imperatives come from? How do the answers found in religion and in law interact? How does the fact that a moral norm is grounded in religion affect our thinking about it? What is the significance of the differences (and similarities) between religious and secular sources of moral norms?
Rather than leaping immediately into public life and public policy and law, the book starts with an attempt to look seriously at the relations between religion and moral judgments – including the reasons why many people resist religiously-grounded morality. It also explores the differing scope that moral judgments tend to be given, in some traditions based broadly on a single factor - such as one’s intention - to the exclusion of other motivating factors, while others are typically very fact-specific (in the way the common law is).
In addition, the book explores what different faith traditions mean by “revelation,” “divine inspiration,” and most fundamentally, “God.” It emphasizes the enduring importance of addressing explicitly differing religious outlooks on the question, how we know the will of God and what is the extent and the source of the authority of the Scriptures. And it emphasizes the importance of care in moving from moral and legal of public-policy issues.
PL: How did you approach the selection of collected articles and writings?
Lesnick: Carefully edited, they address or manifest attitudes toward a wide range of questions that bear on the subjects described - not to persuade one of the correctness of own reactions, but hopefully to trigger the reader’s own engagement with their claims, and maybe to see problems where there previously seemed to be an obvious answer, and to see common sense, good reasonable ideas in thinking that previously were just plain wrong.
PL: Why do these conceptions matter, and what value is there in understanding these similarities and differences?
Lesnick: I think it’s important not to oversimplify one’s own, others’, or all religions, and to perceive and understand both commonalities and differences, especially to understand the fact and bases of differences in the extent to which one can move from the moral standing of certain acts to considerations the appropriateness of legal control or regulation. That’s why the first sentence of the preface says the book seeks to understand religious perspectives and to articulate the relevant themes accurately, empathically, and in some depth. My goal is to enable readers with widely varying responses to the call of religion to understand their own responses more fully, and to realize differing beliefs and practices of others does not entail validating or endorsing them.
A former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan, Lesnick has served since 1978 as Impartial Umpire under the AFL-CIO Internal Disputes Plan. He is a founder and past president of the Society of American Law Teachers and has participated in litigation, training, and consultative work related to the legal problems of the poor. He has worked to develop methods by which law students, teachers, and practitioners can integrate their work with their aspirations and values, and was the 2030 recipient of an AALS Award for outstanding contributions to public service.
His more recent scholarship has focused on ethical responsibility in law, religion and morality, and moral education, including many articles and, in addition to Religion in Legal Thought and Practice (Cambridge, 2010) and, with Prof. J.F. Goodman, The Moral Stake in Education: Contested Premises and Practices (Longman, 2001), which examines the meaning of morality and virtue, and the controversies over the ways in which it can be taught, and Listening for God: Religion and Moral Discernment, which asks where moral imperatives come from, and how the answers found in religion and in law affect one another.