Monday, July 4, 2011

"Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem and What We Should Do About It"

Noah Feldman, Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem and What We Should Do About It (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)

Feldman's 2005 book is a concise, readable history of the relationship between church and state in American politics. Although Feldman skims past some of the legal intricacies that might interest legal scholars, on the whole this is a well-researched synthesis of various facets of American constitutional and religious history. It would serve as an excellent introduction for lay-persons or as a refresher for experts. In terms of original insights, Feldman persuasively argues that modern American politics in this area can be viewed as a struggle between two groups with very different ideological committments: "values evangelicals" who seek to ground civic life in a (non-particularist) understanding of religiously-shared values, and "legal secularists" who endeavour to remove religious considerations from public life. Feldman classes church-state issues in two different categories: those involving the allocation of public funds for religious purposes, and those involving purely symbolic government endorsement of religion. Through an analysis of Supreme Court caselaw, he shows that government funding issues have received increasingly favorable treatment by the courts, while a fairly strong condemnation remains of religious endorsement. According to Feldman, this is exactly the opposite situation envisioned by the Framers, who were extremely concerned about taxpayers' consciences but unconcerned with non-coercive endorsement. Thus, in order to put an end to our seemingly never-ending battle between values evangelicals and legal secularists, Feldman suggests that the former should denounce government funding initiatives and the latter should accept non-coercive government endorsement of religious symbols and precepts. Although I find this solution somewhat naive and impractical given the respective sides' entrenched committments, Feldman's book is a worthy contribution to the field.

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