Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Noah Feldman's New York Times Magazine cover story "A Church-State Solution" doesn't seem to have attracted a lot of blog attention, although it's still among the ten most e-mailed articles at the Times as I write this.

Does this mean bloggers are smarter than everyone else who's online? Maybe. The article is a mess -- Feldman seems to lack a basic understanding of what proponents of church-state separation believe, and he arrives at recommendations that would please no one and that don't have a snowball's chance in hell of being implemented.

Here's how Feldman summarizes the belief in separation of church and state:

Legal secularists counter that we can maintain our national unity only if we treat religion as a personal, private matter, separate from concerns of citizenship.

...Er, that's not right. Religion doesn't have to stay personal or private -- secularists just don't want it to be the law of the land. Feldman doesn't grasp this basic point, so he goes on to say this:

So long as all citizens have the same right to speak and act free of coercion, no adult should feel threatened or excluded by the symbolic or political speech of others, however much he may disagree with it. If many congressmen say that their faith requires intervening to save Terri Schiavo, that is not a violation of the rules of political debate. The secular congresswoman who thinks Schiavo should have the right to die in peace can express her contrary view and explain why it is that she believes a rational and legal analysis of the situation requires it. She may lose the vote, but she is not excluded from the process or from the body that votes against her, any more than a Republican would be ''excluded'' from a committee controlled by Democrats.

Who the hell thinks that it's "a violation of the rules of political debate" for members of Congress to cite their own religious beliefs in debating the Schiavo case? Who thinks that a speech invoking God on the floor of the House or Senate acts to exclude a member of Congress who invokes law or reason rather than God? This is just silly. Members of Congress are free to invoke whatever motivates them. In the Schiavo case, it wasn't the invocation of religion per se that upset liberals, it was the stated goal -- to allow James Dobson, in effect, to overturn settled Florida law, as adjudicated by the Florida courts.

Liberals don't object when conservatives invoke the Bible in advocating aid to Africa; we don't object when Catholics in Massachusetts oppose the death penalty on religious grounds. We oppose the religiously based political positions we disagree with, and we don't oppose the ones we agree with. We're funny that way.

Not that any of this matters, because Feldman advocates restrictions on "faith-based" funding that no religious conservative would tolerate. He believes we should

impose a stricter ban on state financing of religious institutions and activities.

By which he means this:

...charitable choice, which permits billions of dollars in federal money to support faith-based organizations, should not be a vehicle for allowing government to pay for programs that treat alcoholics by counseling them to accept Christ. Schools that teach that Shariah (or Jewish rabbinic law or canon law) is the ultimate source of values should not be supported by tuition vouchers.

... government money, even when nominally available equally to all, inevitably creates political competition between religious groups over how and where scarce money will be spent. Zero-sum appropriations drive zero-sum politics. A tuition voucher is never priced out of thin air: its amount is set by a political process that favors some schools (for example, Catholic schools that already have infrastructures and support from a centralized church) at the expense of others.

Feldman actually believes religious conservatives might accept this. (Hey, Noah, wanna buy a bridge?) He thinks this is consistent with what religious conservatives believe, even if they don't know it yet:

Values evangelicals must also change their ways and give something up -- by reconsidering their position in favor of state support for religious institutions. The reason they should be prepared to do so is that such state support actually undercuts, rather than promotes, the cohesive national identity that evangelicals have wanted to restore or recreate. When filtered through vouchers distributed by the government and directed by individual choice, state financial aid for religious institutions like schools or charities does not encourage common values; it creates conflict and division.

Religious conservatives want a "cohesive national identity"? Well, yeah, sure -- they want a cohesive national identity in which full citizenship is nominally available to all, but in which the dominant strain of Christianity so thoroughly suffuses the law that secularism can have no real influence on law-making (or on education or charity, for that matter). The religious right doesn't want national cohesion by consensus, but rather by acquiescence.

But there'll always be naifs like Feldman who think compromise is possible when the religious right is involved. In the early '90s it was Roger Rosenblatt, who argued for mutual concessions on abortion (an agreement by both sides to "permit but discourage") in a book called Life Itself. A Democratic president was subsequently elected whose stated goal on abortion was, essentially, "permit but discourage"; peace and harmony did not follow. More recently, Matt Miller asked "Can't we all get along?" in a book titled The 2% Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love; love did not follow. Feldman's article is the basis of a forthcoming book, Divided by God; it's certain to receive lovely reviews on its quick journey to the remainder tables.

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