The Religious Left and Church-State Relations

The Religious Left and Church-State Relations

The Religious Left and Church-State Relations

The Religious Left and Church-State Relations


In The Religious Left and Church-State Relations, noted constitutional law scholar Steven Shiffrin argues that the religious left, not the secular left, is best equipped to lead the battle against the religious right on questions of church and state in America today. Explaining that the chosen rhetoric of secular liberals is poorly equipped to argue against religious conservatives, Shiffrin shows that all progressives, religious and secular, must appeal to broader values promoting religious liberty. He demonstrates that the separation of church and state serves to protect religions from political manipulation while tight connections between church and state compromise the integrity of religious institutions.

Shiffrin discusses the pluralistic foundations of the religion clauses in the First Amendment and asserts that the clauses cannot be confined to the protection of liberty, equality, or equal liberty. He explores the constitutional framework of religious liberalism, applying it to controversial examples, including the Pledge of Allegiance, the government's use of religious symbols, the teaching of evolution in public schools, and school vouchers. Shiffrin examines how the approaches of secular liberalism toward church-state relations have been misguided philosophically and politically, and he illustrates why theological arguments hold an important democratic position--not in courtrooms or halls of government, but in the public dialogue. The book contends that the great issue of American religious politics is not whether religions should be supported at all, but how religions can best be strengthened and preserved.


This book has been an adventure. After spending most of my scholarly career writing about freedom of speech and press, I decided it was time to turn to the religion side of the First Amendment. I did not come to the subject unaffected by my past. I have been influenced not only by teaching about the subject for more than thirty years, but also by a checkered theological background, more than two decades of teaching and writing about other aspects of the First Amendment, and by a commitment to progressive politics. I was raised as a Catholic and left the church during college. Subsequently, I became a member of a congregationally independent Protestant church. For many years, I was an agnostic. My wife is Jewish and two of my children have been bar mitzvahed. I have spent my fair share of time in temples. When I began this project, I was a secular humanist attending an interfaith chapel and a Unitarian church. Before I finished the project, I returned to Christianity and thought about becoming a Methodist or an Episcopalian. Instead, I returned (in a sense) to Catholicism. I am very happy with my local congregation and enormously unsatisfied with the all-too-conservative leaders of the Catholic Church. I suppose I am a radical Catholic or a Catholic of conscience, the kind whom those beholden to authority deride as cafeteria Catholics.

Initially, in moving to a different part of the First Amendment, I thought I had broken sharply with the past. But the past has its grip. in writing about freedom of speech, I have inveighed against the systematizers, those who think that it is possible to build a grand theory of freedom of speech in which problems can be solved by resort to a single value or a small set of values. in my view, free speech problems involve the clash of values in too many complicated contexts to be able to hope or imagine that a single value or small set of values could emerge as a talismanic solution. After pursuing that theme for over a decade, I proceeded to argue that the social practice of dissent should receive special weight in determining the outcome of free speech cases. So flag burners are at the heart of the First Amendment; commercial advertisers are not.

Although my theological commitments have varied and my emphasis in writing about the First Amendment has moved around, I have consistently been committed to a pragmatic progressive politics. in the context of religion and the Constitution, this has always meant that I favor strong protection for the free exercise of religion and oppose tight connections between church and state. in arguing for strong protection of the free exercise of religion and opposing cozy connections between religion and . . .

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