America's Church-State Problem --

And What We Should Do About It

By Noah Feldman

Farrar Straus Giroux. 306 pp. $25

So how peculiar is America's struggle over religion's public role? Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued twin 5-to-4 rulings declaring it was constitutionally okay for Texas to display the Ten Commandments in a 22-acre park at the state capitol but not constitutionally okay for two county courthouses in Kentucky to display the very same commandments. Texas, the Court divined, used the commandments as part of a "historical" exhibit, whereas the Kentucky counties meant "to emphasize and celebrate the religious message" of the commandments. Got that?

And when these cases were argued, Justice Antonin Scalia couldn't resist pointing out that the very court deciding when government could legitimately invoke religion routinely begins its sessions with: "God save the United States and this honorable court." On these issues, you might add: God save us all.

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.

In his brisk, balanced history of America's debates about God's public role, Feldman pokes one hole after another in the assumptions of activists on all sides of today's religious wars. Contemporary religious conservatives seem to think that Christian rules and assumptions pervaded everything about the early republic. They probably don't know (I didn't until I read Feldman) that when the Post Office was established Congress "legislated for seven-day mail delivery without anyone initially raising the problem of Sabbath violation." It was not until 1828, "with national religious consciousness growing," that religious leaders began complaining that post offices, "which doubled as gathering places in small towns, were diverting the faithful from attending church on Sunday." The debate went on for 84 years. Sunday delivery was finally stopped in 1912. And while partisans of religion like to think our founders did their work in a profoundly religious time, in their era "church attendance was low, at least by today's standards," and there "was no national movement devoted to promoting the role of religion in public life."

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.

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." But pure secularism and atheism didn't sell well in America. The atheists and agnostics eventually joined forces with a larger group of liberals to create a more moderate "legal secularism." It did not deny God or religion but simply insisted that religion was a private matter that should be separated entirely from government.

We also forget that Protestant fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, less than a century old, and arose, as Feldman says, "not as a direct response to secularism itself, but as a response to liberal developments in Christian theology that were themselves influenced by the scientific worldview." In describing the Scopes "monkey" trial over whether the state of Tennessee could ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools, Feldman is admirably fair to evolution's opponents. Liberals would do well to recall that progressive impulses fed opposition to both "survival-of- the-fittest social Darwinism" and "the new 'science' of eugenics." Each, says Feldman, "could be made to reflect the dark underside of secularism's elitist character, since social Darwinism seemed to justify the accumulation of wealth by a favored few, and eugenics explicitly favored the breeding of a genetically superior master class."

Still, fundamentalism all by itself was destined to fail as a political movement. Thus the invention of the broader idea that Feldman labels "values evangelicalism." The values evangelicals conceded that the United States could not have a state religion -- to do so would violate the First Amendment. Therefore, they insisted that they were not trying to impose their faith but merely trying to promote a set of values that were good for the country.

Feldman, who describes himself as someone "raised and educated in a modern Orthodox Jewish milieu," also persuasively demonstrates that the idea of a "Judeo-Christian" America was a convenient post-World War II creation -- and an indication of how far values evangelicals would go to create broad alliances. The notion "depended on no historical reality and essentially co-opted a vague idea of Jewishness into a familiar array of symbols and ideas that had in the past been identified as unapologetically Christian." Flawed as an intellectual construct -- Rep. Barney Frank said he would understand what was meant by "Judeo-Christian" when he met one -- the idea, Feldman argues, "signaled a remarkable openness on the part of the long-established Christian majority." The "Judeo-Christian" notion may well be invoked in politics for sectarian Christian purposes, but it sure beats anti-Semitism.

For its history alone, this book should be read by all interested in today's church-state debates. But Feldman does not simply tell a compelling story. He also offers a proposal for bringing peace, or at least a truce, to the current round of religious warfare. "We want to acknowledge the centrality of religion to many citizens' values while keeping religion and government in some important sense distinct," Feldman writes. He proposes a deal between the legal secularists and the values evangelicals. He would "offer greater latitude for public religious discourse and religious symbolism, and at the same time insist on a stricter ban on state funding of religious institutions and activities." His solution, he insists, "would both recognize religious values and respect the institutional separation of religion and government as an American value in its own right." He summarizes his view as "no coercion and no money."

I admire the respectful spirit of the Feldman Compromise. Surely liberals must accept that "religious values form an important source of religious beliefs and identities for the majority of Americans." Religious people have a right to form their political conclusions on the basis of their religious values, and to voice those views in the public debate. He is also right that evangelicals "need to acknowledge that separating the institutions of government from those of religion is essential for avoiding outright political-religious conflict."

But Feldman's solution is easier said than carried out. As the Supreme Court's messy Ten Commandments decisions showed, giving broader latitude for "religious symbolism" can easily conflict with "the institutional separation of religion and government." Feldman would put roadblocks in the way of President Bush's efforts to expand federal financing of faith-based groups. But how, exactly, would the "no money" principle affect government funding for health care provided in religious hospitals or long-standing cooperative ventures between government and religious social service organizations? What does Feldman's solution have to say about the problems at the Air Force Academy, where "religious discourse" by officers higher up in the chain of command had deleterious effects on the religious liberty of cadets who did not share the faith of the brass?

Feldman needs to work out in far more detail than he has here the implications of his theory. I hope he does. In an arena so contested and contentious, it's a blessing to have an honest voice stating uncomfortable truths, to wit: "It is appealing to think that, deep down, we all agree on what really matters. Only we don't -- and we have to come to terms with that fact of disagreement while still engaging in a common national project." Amen. *

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the co-editor of "What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment?" and "One Electorate Under God?"

The Supreme Court ruled that the monument honoring the Ten Commandments on the Texas Capitol grounds didn't cross the line of separation between church and state.