You are quite right, I think, in your interpretation of the First Amendment as requiring the state to be neutral toward all beliefs (religious or not!), not to discriminate against faith. Yet many reasonable people seem to disagree--even on the question of whether public universities should be able to subsidize religiously oriented student publications along with secular ones. (The courts did eventually decide that to withhold funds selectively from religious publications would be discriminatory.)
On the subject of religion, today's New York Times reports that the leadership body of Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has overwhelmingly approved guiding principles that encourage (although they do not mandate) the observance of traditional Jewish rites and rituals, such as resting on the Sabbath, using Hebrew in prayers, wearing a yarmulke, and keeping a kosher home. This has little personal relevance to me as a non-observant Jew, but I do find the trend interesting. Reform Judaism has long been defined as "minimalist" and more concerned with progressive social ethics than with spiritual matters. Now it appears that many Jews are drawn to more traditional religious expression, in search of alternatives to the individualism and materialism of the mainstream culture--very much in keeping with your Tocquevillian point about the role of religion in liberal democracies. At the same time, Reform Judaism retains its commitment to gender equality and inclusiveness toward gays and lesbians as well as intermarried couples. Do you think this creative combination of the modern and the traditional is the way of the future?
In other news on our last day together, there's more talk of Hillary Clinton's possible run for Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Senate seat in New York, which is apparently making some Democrats nervous. There are concerns that Hillary's candidacy will damage Al Gore's chances to win the White House--by diverting resources and attention from his campaign to hers, and by keeping alive the ghosts of the Clinton scandals. Many, including Mario Cuomo, also feel that Gore needs Mrs. Clinton to campaign actively for him and lend him the "pizzazz" he lacks. One might, I suppose, see all this grumbling as a manifestation of sexism plain and simple--a woman being expected to set aside her own ambitions for a man. On the other hand, it is ironic that Hillary Clinton's power derives entirely from her marriage to a powerful man (a marriage in which she was reduced to the humiliating and rather old-fashioned role of the betrayed-but-forgiving wife!). And some have pointed out that if she does run for the Senate, she will take this opportunity away from Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who has had much more of a "real" political career and has advanced entirely on her own merit. What's your take on all this? Do you want to see Hillary run?