Smite Makes Right

Far from Baghdad, we need a sectarian truce of our own. But are hard-believing Americans really ready for a grand compromise?

Noah Feldman, the NYU law star who co-wrote Iraq's nascent constitution, now tackles a bigger nation teetering on the brink of religious civil war: the U.S.A. Unfortunately, both conflicts will proceed on schedule, despite Feldman's imaginative analysis, presented with a clarity rare among scholars.

In Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem—and What We Should Do About It (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), Feldman explains it's not just the flash-point issues that divide us—gay marriage, abortion, stem cells, capital punishment, Terri Schiavo. More profoundly, we're split between "Values Evangelicals" and "Legal Secularists." The former aren't exclusively the Christian right, but all who think the way to unite the nation is to promote "a strong set of ideas about the best way to live one's life and [urge] the government to adopt those values." Legal Secularists include both atheists and religious people who argue that religion has no place in American government. "The conflict between the two groups now threatens to destroy a common national vision," Feldman accurately concludes.

He wants us, like Shiites and Sunnis, to cut a deal instead of each others' throats. But before he lays out the terms, he treats us to an exemplary history of the church-state problem in American history. Deftly, he shows how full of shit both sides are when they claim we either are or aren't a God-based nation.

At first, we were 95 percent Protestant, and there were no secular antireligionists. Even relative freethinkers felt that atheists couldn't be citizens, because they'd have no God-fearing reason to speak the truth under oath. (How nice to know that liars like Bush and Bolton will roast in hell!) Everybody agreed we didn't want to be like those wicked Catholics, enslaving their cash and conscience to a central authority. People feared what government would do to the individual's chosen religion, not vice versa.

And since each Protestant sect feared the rest, they hammered out a nonsectarian compromise. When public schools came along in the 1820s and the government had to codify an official American morality (unthinkable without a religious basis), the nonsectarian solution was to teach the Bible, without sectarian comment. When Ireland began exporting its Catholics to us, they complained about their kids being forced to read the Protestant King James version without a priest's guidance. From this came yet another compromise: private schools for Catholics and more Catholic-friendly public schools.

Then came Darwin and what Feldman calls "Strong Secularism," the first direct assault on Christianity. And in the opposite corner: retaliatory Christian fundamentalism. His discussion of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial makes a familiar tale fresh and strikingly applicable to the current cultural prizefight. But in fact, the Darwinites did not win (evolution teacher Scopes was convicted, even if evangelicals were ridiculed). Once-ubiquitous lecturers like Robert Ingersoll, the Billy Graham of atheists, were utterly forgotten, and traditional religionists got far smarter. Both sides regrouped for today's much bigger bout. "Strong Secularists" morphed into "Legal Secularists," who quit trying to shout down believers—a hard sell, especially after America's clash with godless Communism made atheism seem unpatriotic. Since the Holocaust and the civil-rights movement made the country's ruling elite newly sensitive to imperiled minorities, Legal Secularism was devised to protect religious minorities from the Christian majority, while insisting on the validity of all religions that know their place—outside the public square.

Legal Secularists' postwar success in driving prayer from schools and religion into the political closet also drove former religious enemies together. Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others became the new Values Evangelicals that helped propel Reagan, Bush, and Bush to power.

Feldman's solution, in light of the history he so engagingly relates, is to pitch another historic compromise. Legal Secularists should give up on banning religious language and symbolism from the public square. In with crèches, Merry Christmas, and Ten Commandments statues. But to preserve the politically sacred church-state wall, ban all state funding of religious institutions and activities. The formula is simple: When it comes to religion, "No coercion and no money."

Feldman's plan would be perfect—except for the fact that the Bush Evangetaliban is all about coercion and money. Its goal, as Esther Kaplan documents in With God on Their Side, "is not to engage your opponents in the public square, but to kneecap them, or send them into exile." The imams of the right won't stop with symbolic victories. They want gays in re-education concentration camps, teenagers in madrasas preaching Values Evangelism and Intelligent Design, All Things Considered (it could be renamed One Thing Considered) replaced by religious hate radio. They aren't kidding, and they are winning. Feldman's mistake is to think that Values Evangelicals value anything but brute power.

I have a different compromise to propose. Why try to be united? Americans, red and blue, have no common national vision and never will again. Feldman's own insightful quickie history proves our belief groups have fissioned steadily for centuries. Instead, on "values" issues, permit each municipality to declare itself red or blue, on the model of dry and booze-permitting towns. If all Florida rots into an ignorant, befouled backwater run by corrupt judges and Bush oil theocrats and overrun with pregnant teenagers who remain coke-addicted drunks until discovering Jesus at 40, like George, let them have their place for that. Red America, send us your gays, your morning-after-pill doctors, your science teachers yearning to breathe free! This country's big enough for both of us—as long as we stay divided. Meanwhile, one suspects only the blue half of America will read Feldman's book. The red half will probably burn it.

tappelo@seattleweekly.com

 
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