The State of the Church-State Debate
Has Noah Feldman come up with a feasible compromise?
At the same time, Feldman continues, we ought to revitalize separation of church and state as the Framers understood it. To guarantee freedom of conscience, no one should be compelled to pay for a quasi-establishment of religion, such as public funding for a faith-based charity or subsidies to religious schools. Legal secularists win on questions of money, while values evangelicals win on questions of symbols.
Does Feldman's Solomonic gesture have a chance? Many reviewers of Feldman's book have concluded that it does not. Evangelicals are not going to settle for half a loaf, while secularists worry that any breaching of the wall of separation will result in its crumbling. I am not persuaded. The United States survived the 1960s and the chasm between Richard Nixon and Abbie Hoffman *. It ought to be able to get over crèches, the Ten Commandments, and school vouchers.
The problem with Feldman's compromise lies elsewhere. Offered as a non-biased solution to church-state conflicts, Feldman's proposal, like separation of church and state itself, is biased against some religions and in favor of others. It may make sense to allow symbolic displays of religion, but some religions are very symbolic while others are not. Catholics, for example, venerate statues of saints **, which conservative Protestants generally view as a form of idolatry. If your religion does not place a premium on public symbolism, you gain little when government agrees to favor those religions that do.
Along the same lines, banishing funding for religious institutions hurts those religions that are institutional more than those that are not. Mainline religions typically have strong congregations and attach importance to denominations, while evangelicalism flourishes among believers who join unaffiliated churches, switch faiths frequently, find Jesus without the help of clergy, and, in the extreme case, home-church their souls as they home-school their kids. Since government funding of religions, with the exception of vouchers, goes to institutions rather than individuals, banning such funding favors religions that downplay strong organizational ties as opposed to those, including Catholics with their hospitals and Lutherans with their social service agencies that build strong organizational ties.
The problem is not that Americans are divided by God; nearly all American religious believers are influenced by a pervasive, and unifying, American culture. The problem is that no principled solution to America's church-state problem is possible, for any legal remedy favors some and not others. Still, it is vitally important to bring history and reason to bear on these matters, which Noah Feldman has certainly done. Divided by God is audacious, clear-minded, free of cant, and reasonable. If those qualities cannot help us find better ways to live together, we really are in trouble. Richard Rorty once described religion as a conversation stopper. Noah Feldman proves how important it is to keep the conversation going.
Correction, Aug. 2, 2005: In the original version of this article, Alan Wolfe misspelled Abbie Hoffman's name. Return to the corrected sentence. Also, this piece originally claimed that Catholics "worship" statues of saints. The more accurate and inoffensive term is venerate. Return to that correction here.
Alan Wolfe, professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, is the author most recently of Does American Democracy Still Work?