One nation, but so many different ideas about God under the same God

How to separate state from church in the US today

In August 2003, even as insurgency was stirring in Iraq, a rebellion of a different variety was erupting in Montgomery, Ala. [Editor's note: The original version stated the wrong year for the start of the Iraq insurgency.]

The previous winter, Judge Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, had moved a 2-1/2-ton block of granite to the rotunda of the Montgomery courthouse and had it inscribed with the Ten Commandments. When ordered by federal courts to remove the monument, the judge refused. TV cameras turned up and public controversy raged.

It's a debate that rages on, despite recent US Supreme Court rulings that religious displays in public places are illegal unless their motive is clearly secular.

Noah Feldman uses the scene at the Montgomery courthouse to set the stage for his new book, "Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem and What We Should Do About It."

Despite the title, this New York University law professor takes great care to note that Americans are not divided by God, or even by religious beliefs and affiliations. It is rather, he says, the relationship between religion and government that confounds them at every turn. It is an evolving equation with significant consequences.

"The stakes of that debate," he writes, "extend beyond statutes to billions of dollars in government funding: basic moral questions of life, death, and family; and the recurrent challenge of what it means for Americans to belong to a nation."

To help resolve the controversy, Feldman asks readers to rethink the relationship between church and state in the US.

But first he walks them through American history, making it clear what a great and novel experiment was launched in the United States: The country's founders crafted the constitutional principle of separation not because religion wasn't important, but because it was so very important.

"Divided by God" is an extraordinary book, carefully researched and well-written, with a cogent, if narrowly drawn, conclusion. It is a window on a mind - and a nation - at important work, and it is impressive.

Feldman brings strong credentials to his topic. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Cambridge, Mass., and he attended an Orthodox Jewish school. That helped frame his perspective.

"I always felt lucky because I had a foot in both camps. I had a foot in religion ... and a foot in Northeastern secular liberalism," he told Publishers Weekly, "I always believed there was more in common among these world views than either was prepared or able to recognize."

Feldman graduated from Harvard, earned a doctorate in Islamic thought as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and earned a law degree from Yale, after which he clerked at the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, and the US Supreme Court.

He began teaching law at New York University two weeks before 9/11, when his fairly obscure doctorate and fluency in Arabic made him a hot commodity. His previous book, "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy," was considered brilliant by many, and in 2003, he was asked to advise the Iraqis on their constitution.

Clearly, Feldman knows his way around divisive church/state issues here and abroad, but it is his search for commonality that distinguishes this book. As he maps out US history, he shows how the country has recast itself to create unity around every influx of religious diversity.

He highlights the events that led to adjustments in the church/state equation: a growing religious diversity, the rise of science, changing political alliances, and considerable legal maneuvering.

Of our present-day stalemate, he asks, "Is there a third way that could produce reconciliation between Republican and Democrat, red and blue, evangelicals and secularists? ... I want to point us toward a solution that draws on the best of what we have done in the past, while rejecting our not-insignificant mistakes."

In Feldman's view, Americans must preserve religious liberty while maintaining an institutional separation between church and state. His way is to "offer greater latitude for public religious discourse and religious symbolism, and at the same time insist on a stricter ban on state funding of religious institutions and activities."

Feldman's simple rule is: no money, no coercion. Cash, he notes, is concrete and finite and subject to divisive competition, while speech and symbols are not. Yet one can't help observing that when religious symbols are inscribed on a 2-1/2-ton block of granite and installed in a courthouse rotunda, they become concrete and finite in a hurry.

While Feldman argues that citizens should not be threatened by the display of symbols or speech that they disagree with, it seems counterintuitive to assert that display does not imply endorsement.

Still, his formulation appears to stand squarely on the Founders' intent, and represents a reasonable compromise between two viewpoints. "Secularists must accept the fact that religious values form an important source of political beliefs and identities for the majority of Americans," he writes, "while evangelicals need to acknowledge that separating the institutions of government from those of religion is essential for avoiding outright political-religious conflict."

Feldman comes out on the opposite side of recent court rulings. According to his vision, funding religious schools through public vouchers would be wrong (because money is involved), while displaying the Ten Commandments at a courthouse would be permitted (because no coercion is believed to be involved.)

Yet the law as it now stands was determined by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's swing vote and she has left the US Supreme Court, leaving open the possibility of redrawing these arguments. Suddenly the ground is fertile indeed for this account of constitutional history, and this recommendation for the future.

As Feldman says, no matter how we are divided by our religious beliefs, the work of unity, of reconciling diversity, goes on and we must "welcome it as it comes."

Carol des Lauriers Cieri is a writer and editor in Lincolnville, Maine.

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