"Modest Expectations"?: Civic Unity, Religious Pluralism, and Conscience

By Garnett, Richard W. | Constitutional Commentary, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

"Modest Expectations"?: Civic Unity, Religious Pluralism, and Conscience


Garnett, Richard W., Constitutional Commentary


DIVIDED BY GOD: AMERICA'S CHURCH-STATE PROBLEM--AND WHAT WE SHOULD DO ABOUT IT. By Noah Feldman. (1) Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2005. Pp. 306. $25.00.

THE RIGHT TO BE WRONG: ENDING THE CULTURE WAR OVER RELIGION IN AMERICA. By Kevin Seamus Hasson. (2) Encounter Books. 2005. Pp. 176 + xii. $25.95.

America is divided, and religion is divisive. These two claims--usually asserted with both confidence and concern--are the drone notes sounding under much of what is said and written today about law, politics, religion, and culture. Contemporary America is so polarized, James Wilson quipped recently, that our country [is] deeply divided over whether our country is deeply divided." (4) We have all seen the maps and survey results that are said to reveal our "two Americas" (5): Red and Blue, Metro and Retro, (6) "United States of Canada" and "Jesusland." (7) We have all heard about the "culture wars" (8) pitting--in the words of one of our more clear-eyed social observers--"racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed cousin-marrying roadkill-eating tobacco-juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks" against "godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts." (9) In "red America," we all know, "Saturday is for NASCAR and Sunday is for church. In blue America, Saturday is for the farmers' market ... and Sunday is for The New York Times." (10)

Now, many social scientists insist that these and similar diagnoses miss the mark. (11) Two commentators noted recently that it is actually "[t]he gap between the rhetoric and the reality of American cultural division"--and not the division itself--"that is perhaps the most fundamental feature of our cultural politics." (12) Yes, in America today there are bitter conflicts, cranky bloggers, hard-fought campaigns, deep-seated preferences and prejudices, and regional contrasts. But these could reasonably be regarded not so much as skirmishes in a boiling culture war as evidence that we are human beings, living in interesting times, confronted with hard questions. Maybe the story should be that--Michael Moore and Ann Coulter notwithstanding--most Americans, in most places, are purple-ish and, in the end, agree about most things. (13)

But even if it is true that the post-Bush v. Gore "Red v. Blue" thesis has had its day, the "religion is divisive" meme continues both to spread through and shape our conversations. (14) "We are," as Justice Sourer observed not long ago, "centuries away from the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and the treatment of heretics in early Massachusetts, but the divisiveness of religion in current public life is"--he insisted--"inescapable." (15) Indeed, according to a prominent philosopher, Richard Dawkins, "[o]nly the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today." (16) Former Senator and Ambassador John Danforth (who is also an Episcopal priest) is not so harsh, but still warns that while, "[a]t its best, religion can be a uniting influence, ... in practice, nothing is more divisive." (17) Some might even think that Rev. Danforth is too sanguine, that--even "at its best"--religion is necessarily exclusionary and divisive, and that religion "by its very nature ... is incapable of producing ... unity" (18) because "political unity ... is actually antithetical to religion's entire reason for existing." (19)

Professor Noah Feldman concedes, and is concerned, that religion can be divisive and that America is Divided by God. Although, as he notes, the "overwhelming majority of Americans ... say they believe in God, ... a common understanding of how faith should inform nationhood ... no longer bring[s] Americans together" (p. 5). In fact, "no question divides Americans more fundamentally than that of the relation between religion and government" (p.

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