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

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Divided by God: America's Church-State P

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

Some of America’s most rancorous debates are over the separation of church and state. Should the government have the authority to pick certain religions and/or religious beliefs for favoritism, endorsement, or promotion? Should the government remain strictly neutral between religions and between religion and non-religion, not taking sides in any religious disputes? These questions lie behind many political, social, and religious disagreements.


Title: Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem - and What We Should Do About It
Author: Noah Feldman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374281319

• Attempts to address church/state problems from a new perspective and with new solutions

• Simplistic, superficial analysis of the arguments in the current debates
• So-called solutions would solve nothing, create new problems

• Analysis of the history of church/state relations in America
• Describes the debates over the separation of church and state today
• Suggests solutions in an effort to further the cause of national unity

Book Review

The current battle lines have become hardened, so if there if any solution is possible, it will probably require thinking “outside the box” and producing genuinely new ideas. That’s the goal of Noah Feldman’s *Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem.

Feldman’s project is defined by the idea the Americans are divided over religion and his simplistic analysis is that there are just two sides: values evangelicals who promote a set of religious values which they believe should be adopted by everyone and endorsed by the government; and legal secularists who believe that the state should remain secular, which is to say neutral on matters of religion — neither endorsing nor denying any particular religious doctrines.

Feldman argues that he doesn’t really agree with either side and most of the book is spent critiquing both sides’ positions. Against the values evangelicals, he argues that America’s founders didn’t share their religious beliefs and never intended the government to endorse their religion. Against the secularists, he argues that America’s founders were not themselves secularists and intended the separation of church and state to primarily protect religion rather than the state.

Throughout this, Feldman has some good points to make. Everyone sees in America’s founders what they want to see, people who look far too much like people today rather than people of the 18th century.Feldman's solution, however, is as flawed as it is interesting, mistaken as it is bold.

Feldman accurately points out that in the past, people were more concerned with keeping government money out of religion rather than religious symbols out of government; today, though, lots of government money flows to religious groups while religious symbols are being removed. He suggests that we reverse course: stop worrying about religious symbols in government but more strictly enforce bans on preventing government money from going to religious groups.

The problems with this are numerous. First, modern government is more expansive than it was in the early 20th century, much less the 18th century, so it’s hard to see how to keep government money from going to things like literacy programs run by religious organizations — and Feldman offers no solutions on how to do this. Is it legitimate to provide fire and police protections to churches under Feldman’s proposal? No clear answers are provided.

Second, religious symbols in government are not free — the government will have some costs, even if small, in maintaining them. Allowing such symbols discriminates in favor of those religions which are symbol-heavy and against those in which symbols play little role.

Divided by God: America's Church-State P

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

Symbols matter to religious people — they are often much more than “just” symbols, yet Feldman doesn’t seem to recognize this.

Upon what basis will the government even be able to decide which symbols to include and which not to? If we abandon the principle that laws must have a secular purpose, upon what basis can we keep the government from endorsing one religion over others in laws, school curriculums, etc.? How is religion being protected by the separation of church and state when some religions are actively disfavored by the state?

Third, how will we reduce religious conflict by allowing the state to get involved in religion? The state will not be able to avoid favoring some religions over others, some religious beliefs over others, and this will inevitably lead to some religious beliefs having their status increased while others will feel slighted because their relative status has decreased. Social status matters to people, especially *relative status. Why should the government cause problems by making religion a subject of social status?

» Continue: National Unity and Religion

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