In Divided By God, Noah Feldman examines the unique, fascinating balance the United States has pursued for well over 200 years now -- the attempt at democratic government by the people in a country made up of many religions, and many highly religious people. The novel principle enshrined to help make this a success was strong separation of church from state. The strain on the system has never been greater as polarization grows over the many hot-button topics of our day. Feldman also observes how the stakes have been raised in the last 50 years as the forces of secularism have fought a largely successful battle to remove religious symbolism from the public sphere, while at the same time the growing tide of religious conservatism has managed to forge a surprisingly close church-state relationship through government funding of religious priorities (faith-based initiatives and school vouchers, for example.)
Feldman, a law professor at New York University, delivers a timely book that attempts to move the discussion past rhetoric, by a careful examination of the history of church-state separation. The book's lively, conversational writing makes for a fascinating journey, starting with a precise analysis of exactly why our founding fathers debated and finally agreed to formally separate church and state, and then tracking the tests and challenges that separation has stood over the last two centuries. Perhaps the most refreshing current throughout is Feldman's lack of partisan bias, and his respect and understanding of the values, fears and goals that successive generations have brought to all sides of this never-ending debate.
It is that lack of partisanship that makes his conclusion all the more powerful -- a call to move beyond a battlefield where the secular and religious forces aggressively pursue their own mutually exclusive goals, and instead to seek a deeper understanding of what values we all hold in common, and to recognize the importance of engaging in constructive debate in order to find and define that commonality together. --Ed Dobeas
From Publishers Weekly
Feldman, a legal rising star and author of After Jihad (a look at democracy and Islam), turns his attention to America's battle over law and religious values in this lucid and careful study. Those Feldman calls "legal secularists" want the state wholly cleansed of religion, while "values evangelicals" want American government to endorse the Christianity on which they say its authority rests. Feldman thinks both positions too narrow for America's tastes and needs. Much of his volume shows how those needs have changed. James Madison and his friends, Feldman writes, hoped to "protect religion from government, not the other way round." Debates in the 19th century focused on public schools, whose culture of "nonsectarian Christianity" (really Protestantism) created dilemmas for Catholics, and in the 20th century faced challenges from secularists and evangelicals—the former won in the courts until very recently; the latter, often enough, won public opinion. Feldman proposes a compromise: that government "[allow] greater space for public manifestations of religion" while preventing government from linking itself with "religious institutions" (by funding them, for example). The "values" controversy, as Feldman shows, concerns electoral clout, not just legal reasoning. His patient historical chapters will leave readers on all sides far more informed as matters like stem-cell research and the Supreme Court's forthcoming 10 Commandments decision take the headlines.
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