Noah Feldman‘s carefully-reasoned essay on the church/state dilemma of American politics, excerpted from his new book, Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem — and What We Should Do About It, in today’s New York Times Magazine reveals a distillation of the Times‘ sensibility when it comes to religious conflict. That attitude is not, as conservatives would have us believe, high church and haughty, but rather plaintive: “Can’t we all get along?”
That the answer might truly be “No” never seems to occur to the Times. With credit to Feldman for going much further than most in his pursuit of a positive answer, he also doesn’t seem to reckon with the reality of religion as it is lived.
Read the whole article. It’s worth it. But remember that religion is not contained within the province of reason. Feldman’s perfectly sensible proposals for the solution of the church/state dilemma — “secularists” should accept religious symbolism in the public sphere, “values evangelicals” should recognize that public funding for religion violates the Constitution and amounts to coercion — don’t address the substance of religious life. Symbolism, to many believers, is not “symbolism”; it’s real. It can also be painfully real to non-believers.
Take the pledge example. Feldman thinks all will be solved if kids who don’t want to invoke God simply bring in an excuse from their parents, allowing them to step out into the hall for the duration. If the kid still feels bad, says Feldman, that’s an “interpretive choice” on his part, not the result of any coercion.
Yes — we imagine that is exactly what some dissident third grader’s classmates will say as they pummel him or her with snowballs and push the kid’s head down into a toilet for a swirly — “My, how we respectfully disagree with your interpretive choice!”
That’s one kind of lived religion. But Feldman’s solution is equally unaccomodating to the realities of believers who are convinced that social ills can’t be addressed in the absence of faith. Some of these people decide to work through democratic means to amend their government so that it deploys faith as a first response. And why shouldn’t they? Asking them to refrain from doing so is asking them to change their religion.
The Times Magazine isn’t normally in the business of excerpting books about religion. Karen Armstrong has never been deemed newsworthy, and neither has Richard John Neuhaus. Atheist Sam Harris’ bestselling The End of Faith was surely too controversial, as was Rod Parsley’s bestselling battlecry for theocracy, Silent No More. How about the wildly popular, quirky Christianity of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies? Nope. Or hell, if really want to know what’s going on, what about an excerpt from The Purpose-Driven Life? No way. Each of these authors, and many others, have done more to shape the debate on religious life in America than Feldman can ever hope to.
So why Feldman? Because his sober, reasonable voice, calibrated to a kind of educated, middle class populism, sounds like the Times, and the Times tends to report most on those who sound like the Times. That he’s a smart man who has devoted time and brainpower to these questions — just like Neuhaus, or Harris, or Parsley — is probably not as relevant as tone.
Can we all get along? No, not really. Do the good citizens of the Times think we can? They keep praying.