by Rodney Jay Blackman. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2010. 480pp. Paper. $45.00. ISBN: 9781594605130.

Reviewed by John E. Finn, Department of Government, Wesleyan University. Email: Jfinn [at]


This is an odd book. Its central thesis is that the kinds of destructive fanaticism represented by the attacks on the United States on 9/11, and which have characterized political movements as diverse as those associated with Hitler, Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, as well as various forms of religious fanaticism, have been avoided in the United States by virtue of “the institutional and other restraints created by the Constitution, Bill of Rights and post-Civil War Amendments” of the U.S. Constitution (p. 305). The founders, Blackman argues, sought to create institutions that check the inevitable tendency of human beings to abuse power, especially in service of utopian ends. “By contrast, there was no institutional restraint when Christian or Islamic leaders persecuted minorities, or when Robespierre, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin or Mao held power” (p. 305).

The book begins with a straightforward account of its thesis and some of the possible objections to it, including the obvious retort that its understanding and conceptualization of fanaticism is so broad – encompassing not only various forms of secular fanaticism but diverse religious forms as well – that it lacks any real meaning. Additionally, one might argue that the United States has its own long and not entirely successful experience with fanaticism, as evidenced in part by the Civil War. Unfortunately, these criticisms do not get as much attention as they warrant. Blackman’s response to the Civil War objection, for example, is simply to conclude that “the failure of our constitutional system to peaceably resolve the conflict … was not due to the failure of the system, but rather would have occurred regardless of the system. Sometimes human conflicts involve such fundamental issues and positions so passionately held that no governmental system, even one generally workable, can peaceably resolve them” (p. 22). One might reply that in the other cases of fanaticism Blackman addresses, the failure likewise was not of constitutional mechanisms, for in all of these cases the passions stirred would have besieged such restraints. Or, put another way, the successes of the United States Constitution and its institutional limits is simply a function of the relative absence of fanaticism itself; when fanaticism has thrived in the United States, it has overwhelmed the same constitutional limitations Blackman lauds.

The bulk of the book is taken up by historical treatments of the American, French, Nazi, Soviet, and Chinese revolutions. Each was chosen because it represents a case of fanaticism, defined too broadly as “willingness to kill people because of who they are rather than what they’ve done” (p. 9). (Blackman’s failure to address any of the rich [*359] literature on the concept of fanaticism is a significant flaw.) These chapters are idiosyncratic historical accounts developed in support of the thesis; they cover no new ground. The chapter on the American revolution, for example, amounts to little more than cheerleading for the founders and, to a lesser extent, the Supreme Court. Each of the other chapters begins and ends with a basic assessment of why, in contrast to the successful American revolution, these other revolutions must be considered failures. And in general the explanation is the same: In each case revolutionary leaders sought to promote a utopian vision that required the concentration of power in service of that vision, whereas in the United States, the founders had more modest goals and more sanguine views about human nature.

The final part of the book takes up religious fanaticism, but it follows the formula of broad and sweeping treatments, here of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Blackman notes that a “central question for Americans who are not themselves caught up in religious fanaticism is whether there is good reason to fear domestic strains” of religious fanaticism (p. 203).

If the basic thesis is that constitutional restraints have inhibited fanaticism in the United States, then is the corollary that constitutional restraints in Germany would have prevented the rise of National Socialism (if so, then how do we explain the fall of Weimar?) or in the other cases Blackman addresses? Put this simply, Blackman's thesis is implausible, if not fantastical. And indeed, in explaining the failure of Weimar, Blackman invokes several factors -- the legacy of Germany's defeat in the First World War, world-wide depression, Hitler's effectiveness as speaker and tactician, and a few others -- that reach beyond constitutional design and which suggest a more sophisticated account of why fanaticism succeeds or sputters.

The more sophisticated, or nuanced, claim is that the United States has not succumbed to fanaticism because it has developed a political and civic culture that inhibits the development of fanatical elements. That culture is partly a consequence of constitutional design and architecture, but, echoing Dahl (2002), the culture also goes a long way toward explaining constitutional success. In this version, successful constitutional design does not prevent fanaticism so much as it helps to create a culture in which such fanaticism cannot thrive or remains marginalized.

Of course, turning that thesis into an argument requires several more steps, one of which is to demonstrate how, precisely, specific elements of constitutional structure accomplish the suppression of fanaticism. Or one might argue that elements of constitutional design that work against the centralization or accumulation of power in a single hand or branch impede fanaticism by making it less likely that such elements will accrue enough power or influence to advance their revolutionary or utopian ideals.

The latter claim seems less persuasive: Checks and balances, and other constitutional limitations on the accumulation of power, might be dismissed as mere parchment barriers, even in the United States, but for their grounding in a civic culture that regards [*360] them as valuable and insists upon some measure of fidelity to them by political actors. As Blackman notes, but only in passing, "Of course, in order for the constitutional framework to have any long term impact, its values had to become internalized in the thinking processes and emotional attachments of a large part of the American elite (particularly lawyers, journalists and publishers) and take root among a significant portion of the population at large" (p. 61). For the most part, Blackman does not provide us with the kind of close historical or empirical study that might help to explain how, why, and when regimes can instill that kind of fidelity.

Blackman's failure to follow up on this observation is a major omission. Exploring the connection between constitution and culture more fully would strengthen and make more nuanced the argument that constitutional designs and rules can mitigate the tendency to fanaticism. The notable exception is Blackman’s interesting discussion of the establishment clause and state financing of religious schools. In the latter part of the book, Blackman claims that judicial decisions, ZELMAN v. SIMMONS-HARRIS (2002) in particular, upholding state funding of parochial schools are mistaken because they increase the possibility that some citizens will be instructed in norms and values that are intolerant and which increase the possibility of fanaticism. ZELMAN, Blackman concludes, was a mistake because it might “increase the risk of religious divisiveness, ignorance, intolerance, and violence” (p. 203). It might do so, he argues, by leading to a significant increase the number of students educated in private schools, where in turn they may be exposed to illiberal values.

What distinguishes ZELMAN, wrongly decided in Blackman’s estimation, from PIERCE v. SOCIETY OF SISTERS (1925), correctly decided? If private or parochial education threatens constitutional government by creating spaces where young citizens may be instructed in values hostile to or incompatible with values that bulwark civil peace, then should not parochial schools be shuttered generally? Blackman responds that “it is one thing for parochial schools to have the right to exist … and another thing for government to fund these schools. If the government winds up funding religious education for a large segment of our youth, the government will be encouraging the centrifugal forces weakening the glue holding our society together” (p. 210), and this may put some children at “risk of being vilified or terrorized by others who may have learned contempt for members of other religions in their government funded parochial schools. So far that has not happened. But it could.” If the problem is that other students may be terrorized by students who have learned intolerance in private or parochial schools, then why does it matter if those schools received some measure of public funding? In either case the threat to others – and to domestic tranquility – is similar, though there may be small differences in degree. But in both cases the threat seems fairly remote, especially if, as Blackman argues, other principles of the constitutional order do so much to inhibit to prevent fanatics from coming to power in the United States. One wonders why Blackman does not challenge PIERCE directly as [*361] endangering those principles. Simply invoking the free exercise clause as support for PIERCE, as Blackman does, overlooks important questions about the limits of free exercise generally and about the purposes of the religion clauses more generally. Fully illuminating the connection between constitutional design and constitutional culture could provide the missing connection.

Dahl, Robert. 2002. HOW DEMOCRATIC IS THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION? 2d ed. New Haven:Yale University Press.

PIERCE v. SOCIETY OF SISTERS 268 U.S. 510 (1925).
ZELMAN v. SIMMONS-HARRIS, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).

© Copyright 2011 by the author, John E. Finn.