Separation Anxiety: A Review Essay on Noah Feldman's 'Divided By God'
34 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2007
This article is a review essay on Noah Feldman's 2005 book, Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem, and What We Should Do About It.
Divided by God is mostly a history. But it is a history with a trajectory, leading to Feldman's view of the current standoff and his proposal for reframing the American dispensation of church and state. The stand-off, as Feldman sees it, is not only between two legal positions, but two movements. On the one side are legal secularists, who insist on a strict separation between government and religion. On the other side are values evangelicals, who want to allow the government to finance the good work of religious institutions and to engage in more religious expression itself. Feldman's proposal is to give a bit to both sides - to tighten limits on the government's financial aid to religion, while loosening limits on non-coercive religious expression by government.
As my essay details, I have doubts about both Feldman's diagnosis and his prescription. The formulation of his proposal strikes me as unclear in crucial ways, and in any event unlikely to produce the peace that Feldman believes it will. More fundamentally, Feldman pays too little attention to the religious undergirding of what he calls legal secularism, as well as the secular forces and sensibilities contributing to what he calls values evangelicalism. Ultimately, any path out of the current debate would require a more complete integration of these complicated cross-currents than Feldman provides. In important ways, Feldman is eminently reasonable, but maybe too reasonable to appreciate fully the radical, indeed theologically radical, meaning embedded in the Establishment Clause.
Nevertheless, Feldman has written a lucid and intelligent book. Together with his earlier work, it is a vital contribution to the ongoing consideration of the role of religion in the contemporary nation-state.
Keywords: religion and law, church-state, establishment clause, first amendment, theology, American history, postmodernism, identity politics, neoconservatism, evangelicalism, secularism, liberalism
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