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Topics in Law and Literature: Religious Freedom in U.S. Law and Literature

ENGL 266.601
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Pre-1900 Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major

This course will examine American literature dealing with the influence of religion on U.S. law, as well as key legislation and court cases about religious freedom. In a landmark decision of 1824 upholding the constitutionality of laws against blasphemy, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that if blasphemy were not outlawed, oaths in court would have no force: “The accused on his trial might argue that the book by which he was sworn, so far from being holy writ, was a pack of lies, containing as little truth as Robinson Crusoe.” Despite the chief justice’s unflattering opinion of Robinson Crusoe, his statement reflects sustained engagement between law and literature in shaping American notions of religious freedom. Both law and literature have responded to ongoing contests over what practices legitimately deserve protection as “freedom of religion” and what kinds of faith can legitimately shape U.S. law.  How do novels like The Scarlet Letter that present Puritan New England as an oppressive theocracy challenge or contribute to the meaning of religious freedom espoused by the nation’s courts?  What do legal efforts to secure religious freedom in the United States share with representations of freedom in literature, and how do they inform each other? Among the writers we may consider are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain.