One Nation, but So Many Different Ideas about God under the Same God ; How to Separate State from Church in the US Today

Article excerpt

In August 2004, even as insurgency was stirring in Iraq, a rebellion of a different variety was erupting in Montgomery, Ala.

The previous winter, Judge Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, had moved a 2-1/2-ton block of granite to the rotunda of the Montgomery courthouse and had it inscribed with the Ten Commandments. When ordered by federal courts to remove the monument, the judge refused. TV cameras turned up and public controversy raged.

It's a debate that rages on, despite recent US Supreme Court rulings that religious displays in public places are illegal unless their motive is clearly secular.

Noah Feldman uses the scene at the Montgomery courthouse to set the stage for his new book, "Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem and What We Should Do About It."

Despite the title, this New York University law professor takes great care to note that Americans are not divided by God, or even by religious beliefs and affiliations. It is rather, he says, the relationship between religion and government that confounds them at every turn. It is an evolving equation with significant consequences.

"The stakes of that debate," he writes, "extend beyond statutes to billions of dollars in government funding: basic moral questions of life, death, and family; and the recurrent challenge of what it means for Americans to belong to a nation."

To help resolve the controversy, Feldman asks readers to rethink the relationship between church and state in the US.

But first he walks them through American history, making it clear what a great and novel experiment was launched in the United States: The country's founders crafted the constitutional principle of separation not because religion wasn't important, but because it was so very important.

"Divided by God" is an extraordinary book, carefully researched and well-written, with a cogent, if narrowly drawn, conclusion. It is a window on a mind - and a nation - at important work, and it is impressive.

Feldman brings strong credentials to his topic. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Cambridge, Mass., and he attended an Orthodox Jewish school. That helped frame his perspective.

"I always felt lucky because I had a foot in both camps. I had a foot in religion ... and a foot in Northeastern secular liberalism," he told Publishers Weekly, "I always believed there was more in common among these world views than either was prepared or able to recognize."

Feldman graduated from Harvard, earned a doctorate in Islamic thought as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and earned a law degree from Yale, after which he clerked at the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, and the US Supreme Court.

He began teaching law at New York University two weeks before 9/ 11, when his fairly obscure doctorate and fluency in Arabic made him a hot commodity. His previous book, "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy," was considered brilliant by many, and in 2003, he was asked to advise the Iraqis on their constitution.

Clearly, Feldman knows his way around divisive church/state issues here and abroad, but it is his search for commonality that distinguishes this book. …