Divided by God America's Church-State Problem--and What We Should Do About It

Noah Feldman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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A Washington Post Best Book of the Year

Even before George W. Bush gained re-election through a frank appeal to religiously devout "values voters," it was clear that church-state matters in the United States had reached a crisis—one that threatens to split the country in two. With Divided by God, Noah Feldman shows that the crisis is as old as America—and looks to our nation's past to show how it might be resolved.

Today more than ever, ours is a religiously diverse society: Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist as well as Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. And yet at the same time, committed Christians are making their influence felt in politics and culture with unprecedented vigor.

What are the implications of this seemingly contradictory state of affairs? To answer the question, Feldman tells the story of the relations between religion and American government, making clear that again and again in our history, diversity has forced us to redraw the lines in the church-state divide. In vivid, dramatic chapters, he describes how we as a people have settled controversies over the Bible, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the teaching of evolution through appeals to shared values of liberty, equality, and freedom of conscience. And he proposes a brilliant solution to our current crisis—an approach that would honor our religious diversity while respecting the long-held conviction that religion and state should not mix.

Divided by God speaks to the headlines, even as it tells the story of a long-running conflict that has shaped the American people—indeed, made us who we are.


Praise for Divided by God

"Divided by God is an extraordinary book, carefully researched and well-written, with a cogent . . . conclusion. It is a window on a mind—and a nation—at important work, and it is impressive."—Carol des Lauriers Cieri, The Christian Science Monitor

"Divided by God is clearly the product of a longer period spent thinking and reading . . . He proposes a simple solution for this mess: a compromise that gives evangelicals and secularists what they want most."—The New York Times Book Review

"In his brisk, balanced history of America's debates about God's public role, Feldman pokes one hole after another in the assumptions of activists on all sides of today's religious wars."—E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post Book World

"Divided by God is audacious, clear-minded, free of cant, and reasonable. Richard Rorty once described religion as a conversation stopper. Noah Feldman proves how important it is to keep the conversation going."—Alan Wolfe, Slate

"[An] imaginative analysis, presented with a clarity rare among scholars."—Tim Appelo, Seattle Weekly

"This is as capable and persuasive a treatment of this important issue as one is likely to find."—Joseph Losos, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Mr. Feldman has done an important service simply by showing how each American generation has tried to reconcile the competing demands of private faith and public reason—so far, with a heartening degree of success."—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

"Feldman's proposal . . . is an optimistic vision of civic-mindedness and rational discussion."—Liel Leibovitz, The Jewish Week

"This is a remarkably ambitious book. It posits that ‘no question divides America more fundamentally than that of the relation between religion and government.' It then proceeds not only to retell, in sometimes fascinating detail, the history of that relationship since the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but to use that history as a srpringboard for a proposal to overcome the deep national division that now exists on the question. . . . Divided by God is . . . well worth reading and pondering. . . . Makes for marvelous reading. Feldman is a professor of law, and he writes with clarity and a solid grasp of both the law and its historical context. The foregoing summary can only suggest the richness that is contained in Feldman's forays into America's religious history."—David M. Ackerman, The Federal Lawyer

"Can't we all—fundamentalist and atheist and nonideologist—just get along? It wouldn't seem so, writes NYU law professor Feldman (After Jihad), 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."—Kirkus Reviews

"Feldman, a legal rising star and author of After Jihad (a look at democracy and Islam), turns his attention to America's battle over law and religious values in this lucid and careful study. Those Feldman calls 'legal secularists' want the state wholly cleansed of religion, while 'values evangelicals' want American government to endorse the Christianity on which they say its authority rests. Feldman thinks both positions too narrow for America's tastes and needs. Much of his volume shows how those needs have changed. James Madison and his friends, Feldman writes, hoped to 'protect religion from government, not the other way round.' Debates in the 19th century focused on public schools, whose culture of 'nonsectarian Christianity' (really Protestantism) created dilemmas for Catholics, and in the 20th century faced challenges from secularists and evangelicals—the former won in the courts until very recently; the latter, often enough, won public opinion. Feldman proposes a compromise: that government '[allow] greater space for public manifestations of religion' while preventing government from linking itself with 'religious institutions' (by funding them, for example). The 'values' controversy, as Feldman shows, concerns electoral clout, not just legal reasoning. His patient historical chapters will leave readers on all sides far more informed as matters like stem-cell research and the Supreme Court's forthcoming 10 Commandments decision take the headlines."—Publishers Weekly

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Excerpted from Divided By God by Noah Feldman. Copyright © 2005 by Noah Feldman. Published July 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

For ten days in August 2003, with an insurgency brewing and soldiers dying...

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  • Noah Feldman

  • Noah Feldman, who teaches law at New York University, has emerged as the leading expert on the relations between religion and government worldwide. He is the author of two previous books: After Jihad, which put him "into the center of an unruly brawl now raging in policy circles over what to do with the Arab world" (The New York Times Book Review); and What We Owe Iraq, which Richard Clarke called "insightful, accessible, and highly recommended." A former U.S. Supreme Court clerk, and presently a fellow at the New America Foundation, he lives in New York City.

  • Noah Feldman