Celebrating Dr. Lucinda Peach

I never met Lucinda Peach, but because I’ll be covering one of her courses at American, I’ve been doing a little research into her life and work. Dr. Peach died July 24th from complications following treatment for recurrence of breast cancer. She was 52 years old.  Her best known work, the book Legislating Morality, (review) was an account of the relationship between religion and politics that came to a head when political philosophers realized that Rawls’ work on liberalism and public justification seemed to exclude some of the most powerful kinds of rhetoric and motivation in democratic societies.

By all accounts, Dr. Peach was able to combine compassion and intelligence in a manner to which many people in my field aspire: to make curiosity political, to put passion for social justice to work in the classroom, to expose our young and largely sheltered students to society’s ills in a way that provokes thought and nurtures critical thinking. She was active in human rights scholarship and advocacy, especially the issues surrounding gender, violence, human trafficking, and sex work. She had a JD from NYU and a PhD from Indiana University in Bloomington, which i find particularly impressive because I’d love to be able to pursue a JD at some point. She perched herself at one small Archimidean point from which to allow the infinitely vulnerable and impotent activity of thinking to gain leverage, in a world where the ‘ought’ frequently scrambles for purchase on a slippery, self-satisfied ‘is.’ That’s worthy of celebration.

In Legislating Morality, Dr. Peach argues for a social self that grows into an autonomous liberal subject, following G. H. Mead’s transactional account of communal moral identity, and suggests that we ought to apply a modified Lemon test to judge religiously motivated legislation, presumptively invalidating statutes that are “alienating, exclusionary, coercive, and/or politically divisive,” unless they are narrowly tailored to achieve a secular purpose, in other words, unless they can weather a strict scrutiny test, which is usually reserved for race-based legislation, content-based restrictions on speech, and statutes with a religiously discriminatory effect. By applying the restriction to statutory intent, she expands the scope of the Lemon test radically to all those statutes where the secular justification is weak or pretextual and hides a deeply-held but hotly contested religious motivation. Thus, she would force the state to remain agnostic about metaphysical questions like the beginning of life or the membership of a marriage when it comes time to exercise the police power, rather than allow those questions to be resolved through majoritarian procedures like electoral selection of representatives. She thus offers a rights-based balancing test to what has largely emerged as a legitimacy question, but she grounds her claims in a philosophical account of moral development that is justified by the increased latitude she offers religiously-inflected deliberation. It’s one possible solution to a real conundrum in democratic institutional design: how are we to resolve conflicts in matters of conscience and moral intuition? This conundrum has since been taken up by the likes of Christopher Eberle, Stephen Macedo, Robert Talisse, and Martha Nussbaum in a tremendously productive flurry of articles and books, so in retrospect Dr. Peach’s work is quite prescient.

Second Opinions