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An Interview with Steven D. Smith, Author of “The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity”

Steven D. Smith, winner of the 2022 Religious Liberty Initiative Scholarship Award, is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, co-executive director of the Institute for Law and Religion, and the co-executive director of the Institute for Law and Philosophy at the University of San Diego. He is the author of numerous books, including Fictions, Lies, and the Authority of Law (Notre Dame Press, 2021). The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity (October 2023), as part of the Catholic Ideas for a Secular World series. He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

That’s hard to say, because I’ve been reading and writing about conscience and religious freedom pretty much from the beginning of my academic career, four decades ago. But this particular formulation of the questions goes back maybe four or five years.

Certainly, these are unprecedented times in the United States, Europe, and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era?

Yes, these are unprecedented times; I would say confused and unmoored times. We seem to be living in what one historian calls a “fulcrum period,” in which one age is coming to an end and another is emerging. I sense this, and I think a lot of people do. The book is in a way an effort to understand and account for this unmoored condition, and I hope that readers will find my account illuminating with respect to this condition that so many people feel.

How did you research this book?

As with most of my writing, the book builds on things I’ve been studying for years, but I also had to do more intensive research into specific matters—in particular the lives of the main protagonists: Thomas More, James Madison, and William Brennan.

What did you learn while writing it?

Well, I suppose I learned a lot of specific things about some of the subjects, and some of these specific things are pretty interesting. For instance, that William Brennan married his wife Marjorie secretly before going off to Harvard Law School because he didn’t want his father to know, and when the couple decided to have a public wedding three years later they were embarrassed when a priest inadvertently produced the certificate for the earlier wedding. 

But as to the larger themes, I’m hesitant to say what I “learned” because that sounds like I came to some settled understanding, whereas in fact I think these are hard questions that one continues to ponder.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I’m not sure if it is different, exactly. As I recall, when I began I wasn’t sure how gloomy the last sections would be, so that sort of evolved with the writing. (And it is still evolving, in my own mind anyway.)

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

Wow, there are so many influences that I hardly know how to answer. But I might say that probably the most important single book that has influenced my thinking on these subjects (even though the influence on this particular book is pretty indirect) is Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which I read during my first year of law teaching, decades ago.

What is your writing schedule like?

I don’t really have a set schedule, because the writing has to be squeezed in among so many other things—teaching, family, church commitments, . . . watching sports on tv—that vary from week to week and month to month.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

Authors and books are all different, so it would be difficult to advise. One thing I would tentatively suggest, though, is that it is good to write and research simultaneously. I think some people assume you should do all the research first and then write it up. But I find that the writing shapes the research and vice versa, so it’s good to be doing both together.

Who would you like to read your book and why?

Maybe it’s unrealistic, but I always try to write my books in a way that will be engaging both to scholars and to educated people generally; and I hope that this will be particularly true of this book because the ideas are explored not just in the abstract but in connection with some fascinating historical figures—More, Madison, and Brennan. Thomas More in particular was a truly remarkable man who lived in times that in some ways were like our own—in the sense that he realized that the world he loved and that had prevailed for the last thousand years was coming to an end. So More is the first of my three protagonists, but in a sense he presides over the whole thing, and the book comes back to More in the end.

But I do also think that my interpretations of these figures are a little different than the standard ones, so I would be pleased if specialists on More and Madison in particular would engage with those interpretations.

What book or project are you working on next?

The process of publishing academic books is an extended one, and the reality is that if a book is published in year 5, the author had probably pretty much finished it in year 3 and is now working on some different project. That’s true with me, so at the moment I’m reading quite a lot about “providentialism” and civil religion in American history.

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