One nation under God?

Noah Feldman analyzes the religious-secular divide that is shaping America's political climate.

September 26, 2005 18:22


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Noah Feldman's scholarship tends to run in tandem with the most pressing issues of the day. The NYU law professor's first two volumes, After Jihad and What We Owe Iraq, focused on the Muslim world at a time when many in the West were just becoming aware of how much they didn't know about Islam. After Jihad questioned whether democracy had a chance in the Islamic world. In his latest book, Divided by God, Feldman turns his attention inward and asks whether secular democracy can succeed in the United States. The book couldn't have appeared at a more appropriate time. The election of 2004 and its aftermath polarized the United States. Much has been made, in the previous months and years, of the red state/blue state divide, with the reds standing for fundamentalist Christianity and the blues for extreme secularism. While both characterizations are laden with stereotypes, the divide in America today could not be more real. Though many factors separate the "reds" from the "blues," probably the most prominent is their differing attitude toward religion. The prominence of religion, while never exactly taking a back seat in America's collective conscience, has certainly come to the fore in recent months and years. It can be seen in George W. Bush's drive to promote "faith-based initiatives," allowing government money to fund church-, synagogue- and mosque-sponsored social welfare programs; in the "Justice Sunday" evangelical rallies, attended by many prominent politicians (including the House of Representatives Majority Leader, Tom Delay), in which the idea that America is a "Christian Country" is intoned repeatedly; and in the drive to nominate a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe vs. Wade, the sine qua non of the religious right. In this new America, those on the secular Left often feel beleaguered. The "reds" control both houses of Congress, as well as the White House and, if all goes smoothly, the Supreme Court as well. Looking solely at the facts, then, it would make sense that left-leaning secular liberals often feel victimized and alienated. And they do. What is perhaps more surprising, though, is that right-wing conservatives often feel alienated and victimized as well. Feldman, a good sociologist as well as a good lawyer, recognizes this. He explains a fact that should come as no surprise to any casual student of recent legal history: that when "legal secularists" (his more provocative term for blue-state liberals) realized they couldn't win battles at the polls, they took their issues to the courts. There, free from the control of religious conservatives, they appealed to the Constitution as a harbinger of religious liberty and diversity. For their part, religious conservatives (Feldman terms them "values evangelicals") claimed that America has always been a religious nation and, moreover, a Christian one. To divorce government from religion would be, the values evangelicals argue, not only morally reprehensible but also un-American. Feldman uses his book to argue persuasively that both groups are wrong. Religion has always been important and, indeed, necessary to the American experiment, but it has never been its heart or moving force. Instead, Feldman argues, religion has historically been a valuable national symbol, one that served to unify the country, but that had no political bite or potentially hegemonic ramifications. The first two-thirds of the book consist of a historical journey through America's past, from its founding until the present, looked at through the lens of its unique religious experiment. America was the first sovereign nation to officially separate religion from the state. While this may not seem like a huge feat today, Feldman explains that "In England and on the European continent, in Catholic and Protestant countries, it had long been assumed that a close relationship between established religion and government was necessary to maintain social order and national cohesion." Thus, the founders were taking a huge risk when they decided to abandon government rooted in religion, but, as Feldman explains, the risk was a necessary one. The 13 colonies of the revolution may have all been predominantly Christian (there was a small Jewish minority), but their particular forms of Christianity ranged the spectrum, from Catholic Maryland to Quaker Pennsylvania to Protestant New England. If the nation was to unite, it would have to be under a banner that excluded none of these sects, one in which religious persuasion was secondary to nationality. Religion was still important to the founders, but religious activities and events were mostly symbolic, having no place in creating policy. Interestingly, Feldman credibly advances a theory that the legal secularists were buoyed in their efforts to fully secularize America (which occurred largely in the 1950s and 60s), by the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, Feldman posits, many Americans were weary of declaring themselves a Christian nation when they saw where the advance of a single religion had led in Germany. Conceiving of themselves as a secular nation seemed, for the first time in America's history, the morally appropriate thing to do. However, starting in the 1970s, the values evangelicals began to fight back, arguing that religion has been part of the fabric of political life since the founding of the nation, and that one should not "legislate from the bench" to remove it. This leads directly to the heated situation Americans find themselves in today. Feldman then unsurprisingly advocates that the portrait he has painted of the American past should be used as a guideline for the American future. "I suggest", he writes, "that we should permit and tolerate symbolic invocation of religious values and inclusive displays of religion while rigorously protecting the financial and organizational separation of religious institutions from institutions of government." In both his grand analysis and the pointed conclusions he draws, Feldman is most certainly correct.

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