July 3, 2005


NYU Law Professor Noah Feldman's article in the Sunday Times Magazine justifies a moderate position on the separation of church and state with a logic that parades a fundamental naivete and an ignorance of its own pragmatic implications. Professor Feldman is wrong wrong wrong! His argument centers on the contention that "values evangelicals" (a group in which he includes those of all religious stripes who want religion to be more a part of public life) and "legal secularists" can reach a compromise where public religious expression is liberated and public funding of religion stifled. He believes that the two groups can engage in dialogic discourse, each making arguments about public policy in its own natural manner:

A better approach would be for secularists to confront the evangelicals' arguments on their own terms, refusing to stop the conversation and instead arguing for the rightness of their beliefs about their own values. Reason can in fact engage revelation, as it has throughout the history of philosophy. The skeptic can challenge the believer to explain how he derives his views from Scripture and why the view he ascribes to God is morally attractive -- questions that most believers consider profoundly important and perfectly relevant.

This kind of exchange need not produce agreement on abortion or same-sex marriage or anything else. To the contrary, hard moral questions will remain controversial. But acknowledging a moral debate as a moral debate in which all sides deserve a say will have the effect of communicating to evangelicals that their voices count. In the long run, this approach is more likely to focus our national debates on substance instead of procedure -- on what God or reason or whatever source of values teaches about human life and intimate choices, not about whether God belongs in the conversation at all. Secularists who are confident in their views should expect to prevail on the basis of reason; evangelicals who wish to win the argument will discover that their arguments must extend beyond simple invocation of faith.

Professor Feldman's harmonistic idealism spits in the face of the evidence of bile and bitter hatred that exists between these two groups and that surrounds us every day. Their world views are irreconcilable. I am personally on the side of secularism and science, and I would never be satisfied with a compromise of this sort. Either schools must teach us that dinosaurs existed or that God fabricated and buried their "bones" to test our faith in an earth that is only several thousand years old. The advocates of each interpretation can never be convinced of the other's position. One is right, and the other is wrong. The educated can clearly see which is which.

A few years ago, I took a more ontologically relativist stance, one maintaining a denial of absolute truth. The American left can no longer afford that luxury. We have to assert a hardline position against a conservative right that will never fail to do so. There is a culture war in this country that cannot be won through compromise or sympathy with the enemy. They will continue to beat the fuck out of the muslim or athiest kid in their class until the cultural atmosphere in this country makes this impermissable. God will continue to "hate fags" until such a position is no longer tenable. If you think that such examples emanate from the fringe (and they do) then you should take some time to familiarize yourself with the public words of friends of the White House such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Their voices can be heard loudly echoeing in the halls of power. The volume must be lowered!

Disclaimer: Obviously, I am arguing from an extreme point here. I would not expect it to prevail in an unadulterated manner. Someone, however, must argue for the far left (just as those such as Professor Feldman must articulate a moderate position) so as to pull any eventual compromise as far to the left as possible. Each position serves a political function. Take this into account before you correctly label my post hard line.

Edit: Upon posting this, it occured to me that I may have been imprecise in specifying the groups to which I was referring. I want to make it clear that I am not attacking religion and do believe that their is space for discussion of belief in the national dialogue. I do not believe however, that religious fundamentalists can be engaged in reasoned discussion. I think that allowing prayer in schools, contrary to the assertion of Professor Feldman, opens the door to coercion (primarily de facto, example: violence on the playground against non-participants). If anyone doubts the ability of religious extremests to coerce and resort to violence, they are not paying attention to the news.

I'd also like to add an appeal to conservatives of a different bent. If religion is made too visible a part of public institutions. The economy will suffer. Biotechnology firms, for example, are unlikely to hire those who were taught to doubt the scientific consensus on evolution.


  1. happy fourth of july12:27 AM

    Court Ruling Upholding Limited
    Commandments Display is
    Defeat for Separation
    “Confuses the Issue” –
    Atheist Civil Rights Group
    Rally at Supreme Court Building : http://www.atheists.org/

    In America should we have both freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion?

    separation of church and state is the savior of this country. VALUES do not have to be pinned to religion of any kind.

    this is not, and will not become a christian nation. this is a place of diversity, immigration, change, variety-

    i am patriotic because i still have a little bit of hope that this country will be able to someday accept this. i am patriotic in a country that is not homogenous, in a people who are never complacent.


  2. george, I'm not sure feldman's taking a moderate position--i think he's taking a pragmatic position.

    values-based discourse is the only one his 'values evangelicals' will recognize, and his understanding that 'reason can engage revelation' is important. the reason these evangel wingnuts are able to make any headway in the main body of the population is because they are able to paint secularists as devoid of principles or values. this is something most americans cannot respect as a metaphysical approach to life. as such, any attempt at using reason becomes an attack on values.

    the point where the rubber hits the road is that feldman believes these evangelicals must be engaged in order to be defeated. the left won the culture wars of the early 90's because principally it was carried on at a plane above the common discussion--canons and political correctness--and because the left used values of equality and acceptance to defeat the values of intolerance and inequality.

    the point is, by engaging with the values evangelicals, secularists aren't trying to win over those evangelicals; they're trying to prevent them from winning the middle.

    also, i disagree with the premise that the worldviews are irreconcilable, but by refusing to engage the values evangelicals, we'll never really know if there is middle ground somewhere, will we?

    however, i disagree with feldman on two key points

    1) feldman believes that values evangelicals want to find common values that everyone can share, rather than a religion that everyone can share. i'm not sure this is entirely true. I believe that many of them disagree with the anti-establishment clause in principle. (I do not, however, retract my suggestion that such a worldview is entirely irreconcilable with a legal secularist worldview--they just will need a little work)

    2. Feldman believes that we live in "an America grown so religiously diverse that it can no longer easily be called 'Judeo-Christian.'" I'm not sure that's what values evangelicals believe.

  3. let me backtrack and say that the logical conclusion from feldman's article is that values evangelicals must be engaged rather than silenced in order to be defeated.

    feldman is obviously attempting to be neutral here--he daren't advocate the defeat of either group openly, and perhaps does not even do so privately.

  4. Andrew,

    You make convincing points about engaging "values evangelicals" (I retain the quotes so as to distance myself from Feldman's terminology) to win over the middle. I think that the degree to which the left has become obsessed with the fundamentalist fringe, however, is a danger in itself. Ten years ago, these people were rightly viewed by mainstream America as dangerous lunatics. We were able to label them (as the "religious right") rather than engage them in some sort of dialogue. Evaluations of the last election have overestimated the political pull of fundamentalist Christians, and I think that it is risky to legitimize their political voice by reaching out to them in too friendly a way. So to return to my original point of agreement: yes, a dialogue is fine, but it shouldn't be too friendly. The goal should be to expose these people (and their political proxies) as the threat to democracy that they are.