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January|February 2006
Uncover Me By Judy Coleman
Church and Overstated By Winnifred Fallers Sullivan
Quarterback Sneak By Andy Latack

Church and Overstated

Noah Feldman has big plans for the Constitution's Establishment Clause.

By Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

NOAH FELDMAN SEEMS TO BELIEVE THAT AMERICANS are deeply divided over religion. According to his recent book, Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem—and What We Should Do About It, he sees a country split between those he calls "legal secularists," who want to keep religion out of public life, and those he terms "values evangelicals," who want religion to be a central part of it. To Feldman, a professor at New York University School of Law, legal secularists tend to be blue-state Democrats who seldom see the inside of a church. Values evangelicals, by contrast, tend to be found in the red states, overwhelmingly to vote Republican, and to want politicians to speak the language of faith and make decisions based on faith.

Feldman contends that the best hope for bridging this chasm is for both red and blue to give a little. Legal secularists, he argues, should agree to allow religious symbols and religious points of view into the public space, because doing so will make values evangelicals feel less excluded. Feldman is not very specific about the circumstances under which he would find this desirable, although he seems to think that the Supreme Court has gone too far in taking religion out of the schools. For their part, he says, values evangelicals need to accept that public funding of religious institutions and activities is inherently divisive and cannot be permitted. Again, Feldman is not too specific, but he appears to be unhappy with the results of legislation that facilitates government funding of faith-based social services.

Feldman finds support for his positions in the historical record. He believes that the Constitution permits religion to play a role in civic life, but that government should neither fund religious activities nor sanction them in a way that might trample on the rights of those who are not religious or who belong to different religious communities—"no coercion, no money," as he puts it. According to Feldman, this would mean abandoning the requirement articulated by the Supreme Court "that state action must have a secular purpose" and the idea articulated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor "that the state must not 'endorse' religion."

Feldman has made the mistake of confusing noise for numbers—that is, of assuming that the most vociferous secularists and evangelicals represent the majority. His telling of American religious history, after the founding period, focuses on the stories of these two communities, beginning with the debates over Darwin at the end of the 19th century. In fact, most Americans are neither militantly secular nor militantly religious, and there is, and always has been, fairly broad agreement about the proper role of religion in American life.

Nearly all Americans regard religion as a matter for each adult to determine for himself. Each is free to be religious or not, and to observe religion in whatever ways he chooses, as long as his conduct does not violate the law. In contrast to most of the world, religious affiliation in the United States is not a matter of race or inheritance or geography. Americans may be the most religious people in the modern West, but what unites them is neither dogma nor ritual, but rather a fierce deference to individual conscience.

It is difficult to exaggerate the effect that this individualism has had on religious life in the U.S. While each new wave of immigrants has brought with it religious orthodoxies, they have gradually been eroded by the voluntary and noncoercive nature of religious life. As the historian Sidney Mead observed almost 50 years ago, "From the beginning, the subtle magic of space began to work upon the tight little islands of transplanted authoritarians themselves, eroding their most ingeniously contrived and zealously guarded barriers of creed and logic and doctrine." The availability of space and the disestablished nature of American religion meant that first Protestant churches, and then other religious communities, fragmented over time—so that today, in the Protestant denominations alone, there are thousands of different churches.

New religious communities brought new ideas of what it meant to be religious: There were Catholics, who thought that the sacraments should structure your life as a Christian and that reading the Bible unguided by church teaching was dangerous; Jews, who thought that being religious was about the historical experience of a people and about obeying God's commandments, not about belief; Native Americans, whose religious traditions were physically located in sacred spaces, not in a pious heart; spiritual syncretists, who borrow from all traditions; and so on. Such religious beliefs have not fit easily at first with the politics of democratic liberalism, but for the most part they have been successfully integrated into American life.

The absence of a national religion, or of any form of religion sponsored by the government, has also created a situation in which clerical elites must depend on their own charisma and entrepreneurial spirit for their authority and continued employment—and in which congregations will, and sometimes do, vote with their feet. The dramatic response of American Catholics to their church's abuse scandal is a recent example: Their financial support for the official church diminished, and many started attending Protestant churches. The U.S. has created a free market in religion, which makes it virtually impossible to impose religious conformity. While the country has known religious discrimination, bigotry based on creed, like other forms of prejudice, has been progressively tamed by America's ideology of equality.

Insufficient attention to this larger story of American religion means that Feldman exaggerates the importance of the Supreme Court's opinions in this area. Some of them, like those dealing with school prayer, have been touchstones in the culture wars, but in recent decades, the court's opinions about religion have moved in a direction that is consistent with the intentions of the founders and with America's core commitment to equality before the law. The direction is also appropriate in a society with a rich variety of religious practices. Although the court can be accused of muddled reasoning in many cases, the overall trend in its opinions is clear and corresponds to the realities of American religious life. The court's jurisprudence of equality has, in effect, neutralized the legal significance of differences between religions.

SINCE THE EARLY 1980s, the court has, in a series of decisions, staked out a position that is roughly as follows: Faith-based organizations may be funded by government as long as equal funding is available to nonreligious organizations that provide the same services (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris); the Constitution does not require that religiously motivated individuals be given exemptions from laws that they believe constrain their religious practices (Employment Division v. Smith); and public religious symbols are fine when what they stand for, say, diversity, does not exclude some citizens from full participation in the political process by representing only a particular tradition (Lynch v. Donnelly).

The Supreme Court no longer separates religion from civic life, as it did when it scrupulously policed government funding of parochial schools, and it no longer accommodates religion by allowing religiously motivated people to exempt themselves from state law, as it did a generation ago when it excused Amish children from public school. Instead, the court has welcomed religion to the public square, with the understanding that religion simply provides one more point of view.

The court's position is the latest step in the evolution of church-state relations in the U.S., an evolution driven by two centuries of cultural and demographic changes. Individual Americans are, first and most important, equal before the law, whether they are religious or not. While the free exercise of religion, understood as freedom of conscience, is an element of equality, religion is not recognized as a marker of legal identity. American law does not know you as a Scientologist or a Jew or a Zoroastrian. The court's opinions neutralizing religion reflect the radically disestablished nature of religion in the U.S. Religion is an entirely individual matter, legally speaking. We are on our way to achieving what the founders committed us to: religious freedom in the 18th century, Protestant sense—religious freedom that does not depend on government patronage. There are details to be sorted out, but the direction is clear and strong.

Of all the guidance that the court has provided on issues of religion, it is the support for government funding of religious organizations that seems to trouble Feldman the most. He believes that such funding should not be permitted, and he portrays it as inherently divisive. But though he claims that the historical record supports his argument, Feldman offers little in the way of evidence, perhaps because there isn't much for him to cite. The government has been providing financial support to religious organizations for more than a century, with very little protest. Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, to name two groups, have long received government contracts to provide social services, an arena in which they are key players.

To criticize the court for opening the door to the establishment of religion betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the ways that religious bias can corrupt the body politic. Generally speaking, it is done by stealth—through laws ostensibly related to taxes, families, education, or immigration—and it is usually couched in language not identifiably religious. These are political actions that can only be fought politically, not through attempts by the federal courts to sort out the religious from the nonreligious and to tell both groups what they can and cannot do.

Feldman correctly insists that religious diversity, rooted in individual conscience, is the foundation of America's religious freedom. In Madisonian terms, it is the multiplicity of sects rather than the Bill of Rights that truly protects America's religious minorities against majoritarian tyranny. But Feldman does not follow this observation to its logical conclusion—namely, that religion ought to be deconstitutionalized and, as a result, finally and thoroughly disestablished. Feldman's solution of forbidding the public financing of all religion betrays a lack of faith in the egalitarian impulses that have served to keep religious differences in check.

To regard religious freedom as principally a matter of individual conscience, as Americans do, is not a neutral position. It is a theological position because it establishes in law one very Protestant view of what religion is. To impose this view on all Americans—to give it legal force—is, in a sense, a denial of religious freedom. Many non-Americans, and some Americans, have made this point. But it may be the only way to reconcile religion and politics in a liberal democratic society with such diverse religious traditions. It is, at any rate, our way.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is a Visiting Scholar at the American Bar Foundation and is the author of The Impossibility of Religious Freedom.

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