Smite makes right

Noah Feldman, who co-wrote Iraq’s nascent constitution, now tackles a bigger nation teetering on the brink of religious civil war: the United States. Unfortunately, both conflicts will proceed on schedule, despite the New York University law star’s imaginative analysis, presented with a clarity that is rare among scholars.

In Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem—and What We Should Do About It, Feldman explains that it’s not just the flash-point issues that divide us—gay marriage, abortion and capital punishment. More profoundly, we’re split between “values evangelicals” and “legal secularists.” The former aren’t exclusively the Christian right, but all who think the way to unite the nation is to promote “a strong set of ideas about the best way to live one’s life and [urge] the government to adopt those values.” Legal secularists include both atheists and religious people who argue that religion has no place in American government. “The conflict between the two groups now threatens to destroy a common national vision,” Feldman accurately concludes.

He wants us, like Shiites and Sunnis, to cut a deal instead of each other’s throats. But before he lays out the terms, he treats us to an exemplary history of the church-state problem in American history.

At first, we were 95-percent Protestant. When public schools came along in the 1820s, and the government had to codify an official American morality (unthinkable without a religious basis), the nonsectarian solution was to teach the Bible, without sectarian comment. When Ireland began exporting its Catholics to us, they complained about their kids being forced to read the Protestant King James version without a priest’s guidance. From this came yet another compromise: private schools for Catholics and more Catholic-friendly public schools.

Then came Charles Darwin and what Feldman calls “strong secularism” and the first direct assault on Christianity. And in the opposite corner: retaliatory Christian fundamentalism. His discussion of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial makes a familiar tale fresh and strikingly applicable to the current cultural prizefight.

Both sides regrouped for today’s much bigger bout. “Strong secularists” morphed into “legal secularists,” who quit trying to shout down believers—a hard sell after America’s clash with godless Communism made atheism seem unpatriotic. Since the Holocaust and the civil-rights movement made the country’s ruling elite newly sensitive, legal secularism was devised to protect religious minorities from the Christian majority, while insisting on the validity of all religions that know their place—outside the public square.

Legal secularists’ postwar success in driving prayer from schools and religion into the political closet also drove former religious enemies together. Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews and others became the new “values evangelicals” that helped propel Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush to power.

Feldman’s solution, in light of the history he so engagingly relates, is to pitch another historic compromise. Legal secularists should give up on banning religious language and symbolism from the public square. In with crèches, “merry Christmas” and Ten Commandments statues. But to preserve the politically sacred church-state wall, ban all state funding of religious institutions and activities. The formula is simple: When it comes to religion, “No coercion and no money.”

Feldman’s plan would be perfect—except for the fact that the Bush Evangetaliban is all about coercion and money. Its goal, as Esther Kaplan documents in With God on Their Side, “is not to engage your opponents in the public square, but to kneecap them, or send them into exile.” The imams of the right won’t stop with symbolic victories. They want gays in re-education concentration camps, teenagers in madrases preaching values evangelism and intelligent design, All Things Considered (it could be renamed One Thing Considered) replaced by religious hate radio. They aren’t kidding, and they are winning. Feldman’s mistake is to think that values evangelicals value anything but brute power.