Can’t we all—fundamentalist and atheist and nonideologist—just get along?
It wouldn’t seem so, writes NYU law professor Feldman (After Jihad, 2003), who argues that the ever-hotter war between the proponents of “values evangelism” on one hand and “legal secularism” on the other “now threatens to destroy a common national vision.” That vision includes belief in the constitutional separation of church and state; and, as Feldman observes, the battle is not strictly about religious belief as such, but about how religious belief plays out in the conduct of politics and the running of government. Separation was, Feldman suggests, the product of a simpler time, when no one opposed the idea of religious liberty and when Protestantism—the religion of 95 percent of Americans at the time of independence—was so divided that no single denomination was likely to seize control of the state; Anglicanism may have threatened for a time to do so in Virginia, but thanks to the liberty-of-conscience clauses of the Constitution—written by dissenters Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—the “national experiment with institutional separation of church and state” was able to take hold. Things are somewhat more complex now that such a large number of religious beliefs, and not just varieties of Protestantism, are current in America. Yet, Feldman suggests, the separation of church and state does not strictly mean that a city hall cannot erect a crèche, nor that a DMV employee cannot wish a motorist a Merry Christmas; the founders, he argues, “did not think that the state needed to be protected from the dangers of religious influence, nor were they especially concerned with keeping religious symbolism out of the public sphere.” Just so, that freedom does not mean that the government should necessarily be beholden to religious sensibilities—as when Sunday mail delivery was abolished, along about 1828, because clerics feared that open post offices would draw people away from church.
A reasoned, reasonable and consensus-seeking argument that is, of course, in danger of going unheard amid all the shouting.