Sunday, July 10, 2005

E.J. Dionne Jr. reviews "Divided By God"

That Reasonable professor and journalist offers a comprehensive review of Noah Feldman's new book, DIVIDED BY GOD: America's Church-State Problem --And What We Should Do About It. Get the review here. Now, I'm a little suspicious when a Reasonable guy like Dionne Jr. gets excited about something. In this case, however, either he's getting foolish or I'm so tired that I'm getting Reasonable. Scratch that. I'm not that excited, but I'm not afraid, either. Here's what Jr. found:
The good news, as Noah Feldman argues in this indispensable book, is that the United States has struggled with the question of religious freedom in almost every generation because Americans have always believed so powerfully in "the principle of the liberty of conscience." Contrary to frequent claims by the most ardent partisans in today's debates -- Feldman labels those we consider as being on the right of this debate as "values evangelicals" and those on the left as "legal secularists" -- there is no straight line through American history on church-state questions. We have seen a good deal of incoherence and inconsistency, a fair bit of hypocrisy and a huge amount of contention. We have muddled through in a way that has allowed Americans to believe in and worship God as they choose to -- and to reject faith altogether if they are so inclined. This is a huge achievement that every generation is obligated to preserve and defend. But Feldman does an enormous service by showing that this was accomplished more by messy compromise than by metaphysical precision. And it's comforting to learn that political opportunism on religious questions is not unique to our moment.
Not that he doesn't get his cheap shots in at those Fools that happen to vote Republican:
Secular liberals may believe that the state constitutional bans on government aid to religious schools -- the so-called Blaine Amendments, named after the 1884 Republican presidential nominee, James G. Blaine -- were motivated primarily by a concern for religious freedom. Feldman shows convincingly that these amendments were a political ploy. They were specifically directed against the schools of the Roman Catholic minority and designed to produce electoral gains in a country that was divided, as it is now, roughly 50-50 between the two major parties. Republicans were trying to put Democrats, who enjoyed broad support from Catholics, in a tough spot. If Democrats supported the amendments to appeal to the Protestant majority, they risked alienating their Catholic supporters. If they went with the Catholic minority, they risked alienating the Protestants. "The unscrupulousness of this strategy of driving a wedge between Democratic-leaning Protestants and Catholics seems not to have disturbed Republican politicians," Feldman writes.
However, he does provide a hint of sting to those Reasonable secularists that look to carve up Religion in the public square"
Feldman does especially well in tracing the rise of secularism at the end of the 19th century and the rise of fundamentalism at the beginning of the 20th. We easily forget the vigor of atheist agitation and the popularity in the 1870s and '80s of such anti-religious lecturers as Robert G. Ingersoll, who declared: "We are explaining more every day. We are understanding more every day; consequently your God is growing smaller every day."
He did his job well overall. I may check this book out. Read the whole thing. See if his review motivates you, as well.