A Church-State Solution?

In the July 3rd edition of the New York Times Magazine, Noah Feldman, professor at NYU School of Law, presents what he proposes is a possible solution to America’s current church-state crisis. “A Church–State Solution” is a compelling article that should be read if not for the background information alone.

Feldman gives a brief history of church-state relations in America, and notes the emergence of two groups in the present-day. The first are what Feldman calls “values evangelicals.” This group is not limited to evangelical Christians and can include Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who are interested in “promoting a strong set of ideas about the best way to live your life and urging the government to adopt those values and encourage them whenever possible.”

Feldman labels the next group “legal secularists.” People who follow this line of thinking about church-state relations “see religion as a matter of personal belief and choice largely irrelevant to government.” They are “concerned that values derived from religion will divide us, not unite us.”

In tracing the legal history, he acknowledges what he calls the “O’Connor compromise” on church and state. In the majority of rulings dealing with church-state issues that Justice O’Connor has been involved with, she has tended to limit discussion of religious issues by government entities while favoring government spending on religious groups.

Feldman’s proposed solution is the reverse of the O’Connor compromise: “offer greater latitude for religious speech and public symbols in public debate, but also impose a stricter ban on state financing of religious institutions and activities.” This would have the effect of opening up more avenues for religious discussion, but would end government-supported initiatives like school vouchers which could be used at private religious institutions.

The proposal, if it ever had the chance of being enacted (by either congress or the courts), is tempting considering the current and coming clamor over potential Supreme Court nominees. Feldman observes:

Such a solution would both recognize religious values and respect the institutional separation of religion and government as an American value in its own right. This would mean abandoning the political argument that religion has no place in the public sphere while simultaneously insisting that government must go to great lengths to dissociate itself from supporting religious institutions. It would mean acknowledging a substantial difference between allowing religious symbols and speech in public places (so long as there is no public money involved) and spending resources to sustain religious entities like churches, mosques and temples. Public religious symbolism expressed in statues, oaths and prayers reflects citizens’ desires to see their deeply held beliefs expressed in those public situations where moral commitments are relevant: legislatures, schools and, yes, courthouses and statehouses. Religious proclamations or prayers may open sessions of Congress without costing anyone a dime.

While I’m in complete agreement on the issue of greater public discourse on matters of faith, Feldman’s proposal suffers from two assumptions that cause his overall thesis to be inadequate. The first is the assumption that the money spent by the government belongs to an entity called the government. In the United States, government is said to be for the people and by the people. Any monies that the government might use belong to the people—a notion that on the surface seems to buttress Feldman’s argument. After all, I wouldn’t want my money to be funding Islamofacist indoctrination camps or Hare Krishna sing-ins.

There is, however, a second problem at play here in Feldman’s proposal: the notion that the absence of government spending on school vouchers and the like is religiously neutral. The myth of neutrality is the perennial dilemma of pluralism—the problem being that there is no true religiously neutral position. Modern secularism, while preferring to think of itself as areligious, has by and large become antireligious.

In a sense, federal funding for many secular schools would be akin to funding violations of the free exercise clause of the first amendment. The free exercise of religion is indeed harmed when a taxpayer is forced to pay for his or her child to be taught that his or her beliefs are false.

A voucher system, where taxpayers are returned their own money so that they can support the school of their choice allows all religious education to be given an equal shot—as of now, it is typically only the wealthier segment of the population who can afford private schools.

I realize that I have offered no real solution of my own, and I commend Feldman, who appears to be coming from a different end of the political spectrum than me, for his studied assessment of this matter. While I do believe his proposal falls short in places, his advocacy for the broadening of religious discussion is noteworthy. People have had a history of making up their own minds in this country—they should be allowed to fully speak them without fear of “marginalizing” someone.

1 thought on “A Church-State Solution?”

  1. (I hope this doesn’t post twice, since the first attempt seemed to fail)

    Re ‘vouchers’ and the problem of secular vs religious schooling, etc, an even more sensible alternative to the current fuss would be to end all gov’t involvement in schooling whatsoever. No vouchers, no public schools, nothing. Nada. Zip. That would render all current disagreements moot as parents would be totally free to choose whatever schooling they wished for their children. I guarantee the cost of ‘private’ schooling would drop like a rock, as the gov’t would no longer be eating up all the money available in the form of taxes. However, that last point is a purely practical matter. More importantly, as a matter of principle, the gov’t has no business forcing any particular schooling on my children, and no business taking money from me by force to pay for what I consider to be the doubly inappropriate schooling for someone else’s kids. Double inappropriate in that they ought not to be taking the money to pay for another kid’s schooling, and they ought not to be teaching the kid what they’re teaching him (e.g. evolution, ‘alternative lifestyles’, atheism, etc).


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