What Would Jefferson Do?

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

By Susan Jacoby • Metropolitan Books • 432 pages • $27.50

Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Christians and Jews
Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

By Maria Rosa Menocal • Back Bay Books • 272 pages • $26.95

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of The German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933

By Amos Elon • Metropolitan Books • 464 pages • $30.00

The Plot Against America: A Novel

By Philip Roth • Houghton Mifflin Co. • 400 pages • $26.00

Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism

By Abraham Foxman • Harper San Francisco • 320 pages • $24.95

One Electorate Under God? A Dialogue on Religion and Politics

Edited by E.J. Dionne Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain, Kayla M. Drogosz • Brookings Institution Press • 239 pages • $17.95


The United States enjoys higher levels of religious observance than any Western nation with an official church. Yet the religious right and its political allies are far from satisfied. They would like to accomplish what the Founders explicitly disavowed: to entangle the state in the promotion of religion. At a time when the United States and other Western countries are resisting Islamist holy war and attempting to convince Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere of the virtues of a pluralist democracy, the project of the religious right to inject God into government is ill-advised, if not bizarre. America's Christian fundamentalists, dubiously, have also made common cause with Israeli ultras, and zealots like Lieutenant General William Boykin have described battles with Muslims as "my god was a real God and his was an idol." This set of events is unhealthy for our democracy, ominous for religious freedom, and an engine of a messianic foreign policy.

History judges religious zealots harshly, particularly those wielding state power. The Crusades slaughtered millions in the name of Jesus. The Inquisition brought the torture and murder of millions more. After Luther, Christians did bloody battle with other Christians for another three centuries. When the Founders of the American republic wrote the Constitution, they included no reference to God and barred the states, as well as the federal government, from requiring any religious oath for public office. The First Amendment guaranteed freedom of conscience, denying Congress the power to make any law "respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The people of the original states varied in their religious tendencies, but the Founders were determined that the folly of religious war not wreck the American republic. A corollary insight was that keeping the government from regulating or requiring worship would be good for religion. American religiosity surely proves them right.

Constitutional separation, the great cause of Jefferson and Madison, reflected an Enlightenment determination both to bolster reason over faith in civic deliberation and to protect minorities from the tyranny of majorities, including religious ones. A great milestone on the road to the constitutional separation of church and state was the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, enacted in 1786. Jefferson, the moving force behind the law, wrote that it was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination." As Jefferson saw it, "Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What have been the effects of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites."

For at least two decades, the religious right, in arguments summarized in Richard John Neuhaus' 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, has contended that modern secularists and runaway courts have stripped God from the Constitution and the republic. But the record is precise: The Founders separated church from state, deliberately and after extensive, documented debate.

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In her brave book Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby lays out the history of the often lonely battle to protect religion from government, and vice versa. As Jacoby demonstrates, it was actually latter-day zealots who endeavored to insert God into the Constitution retroactively. In 1863, Protestant conservatives formed the National Reform Association to lobby Lincoln to amend the Constitution so that it would acknowledge "Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations." That effort failed, but Lincoln's secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, the most religious member of Lincoln's cabinet, successfully hectored Congress and Lincoln, who never belonged to a church, to add "In God We Trust" to the nation's coins. Chase also persuaded Lincoln to monkey with the Gettysburg Address after the fact, adding the words "under God" to its famous last sentence. Those words do not appear in Lincoln's handwritten copies of the first or second draft but were added, according to Jacoby, in three subsequent copies that Lincoln wrote for the historical record.

Let us stipulate that America's religious roots run deep and are an important source of our values as a people. E.J. Dionne Jr., a liberal Catholic, exaggerates only slightly when he writes, "[T]he history of the United States is in large part a history of religion's role as a prod to social justice, inclusion and national self-criticism." Yet many denominations have themselves been strict separationists -- out of regard for religion. Jefferson's secular republic was the fruit of a tactical alliance between freethinking Deists like himself and evangelical denominations like the Baptists. Evangelicals held that the individual Christians communicated directly with the divine, with no intermediation by a priest, much less by the state. More practically, they feared that if the United States were a Christian republic, majority denominations such as Anglicans and Calvinists would gain effective control at their expense. Most Baptists remained strict separationists for 200 years. Not until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan threw himself at fundamentalists of various faiths, did the Baptists switch camps.

While religious minorities, especially devout ones, continue to enjoy protection of their rights in the United States, the spirit of rationalism is taking a real beating. Religious dogma dictates administration policy on stem-cell research, gay rights, and the use of condoms to combat AIDS, and the White House is determined to use religious groups as sponsors of tax-funded social programs. The right detests "social engineering," except in service of the traditional family, heterosexuality, religious dogma, and worship itself. Centuries after the supposed triumph of reason and religious tolerance, the new millennium has begun with a return to religious fundamentalism and holy war.


Consider the last great period of religious tolerance before 1789 -- a full thousand years before, in fact. Its sponsors, interestingly, were Muslim. Our guide is Maria Rosa Menocal, author of the splendid Ornament of the World.

At Córdoba, in Andalusia beginning in 755, the Umayyad Muslims, under Abd al-Rahman and his descendants, built a civilization of tolerance that lasted almost 300 years. The Umayyads of al-Andalus were liberals, by far the most pluralistic and intellectually progressive regime in what the West remembers as the Dark Ages. While Visigothic Christians just to the north were sacking the remnants of Roman civilization, the Umayyads were building temples of learning, aqueducts to supply public baths with running water, and hundreds of mosques. The main library had 600,000 volumes. The caliphate at Córdoba decreed that Jews and Christians, as fellow Abrahamic "Peoples of the Book" (the Arabic word is dhimmi), should be treated with respect, if not quite civic equality. All this antedates the western Enlightenment by more than half a millennium.

Jews and Christians practiced their religious freely but "became thoroughly Arabized," Menocal writes, as Arabic was the language of government, commerce, and poetry. The yeasty culture of Arabized but freely worshipping Christians and Jews was known as mozarab, which Menocal delightfully translates as "wanna-be Arab." But this "culture of tolerance" fell apart, Menocal explains, when "more puritanical visions of [Muslim and Christian] cultures converged." Ousted by more fundamentalist Muslims, the Umayyad dynasty collapsed against a backdrop of Christian "Reconquest," and, beginning in 1095, the Crusades. The clash of two fundamentalisms "made religious-ideological warfare a reality, cultural orthodoxy a real possibility, and monochromatic identity a realizable ideal."

At Granada, the Muslim Nasrid dynasty survived until January 1492, when the last Arab ruler of al-Andalus, Boabdil, his fortress-city surrounded, literally handed over the keys to the Alhambra to Ferdinand and Isabella, who pledged in return to honor the Muslims' freedom to worship. Within a year, however, all Muslims and Jews were ordered to convert or face exile. Boabdil's ouster and ignominious departure to Morocco was known as the Moor's Last Sigh.

After the explusion, Ferdinand and Isabella, known as Spain's Catholic Kings, went on a cultural rampage of ethnic cleansing. Soon, even Muslims and Jews who had converted were considered suspect and subjected to the Inquisition. A successor, Charles V, over the objection of the town council, ordered a Catholic cathedral built inside the Great Mosque of Córdoba. This travesty must be seen to be believed. But the mosque is so immense and serene that it seems to swallow up the cathedral unmolested. At the exquisite Alhambra, Charles V turned mosques into churches and ordered construction of an incongruous Italianate palace for which his successors never found a use. This is all deeply etched in the Muslim memory of the West. In Toledo, the great synagogue built during the convivencia by Samuel Halevy was converted into a church known as the Transito, to be rescued as a Sephardic museum only in the 20th century. Halevy himself, a minister and physician to a Christian king, was executed when Jews were held responsible for the Great Plague.

Menocal writes, without bothering to underscore the obvious deadly parallel, that Iberia's "Jews understood themselves to be Andalucians and Córdobans, much as the German Jews of the late 19th Century … considered themselves Germans, or the American Jews in the second half of the twentieth century, who helped define the literary and intellectual qualities of their time, never thought twice about calling themselves Americans." Two of those three Jewish experiences did not end well.

* * *

To appreciate the tenuousness and contingency of state toleration of religious minorities, one can read Maria Menocal against Amos Elon's The Pity of It All, the definitive concise history of Jews in Germany. Elon begins with Moses Mendelssohn, who arrived in 1743 to study the Talmud with one of the few rabbis permitted in Berlin. By the 1790s, in the span of one man's lifetime, Mendelssohn became renowned as a German philosopher, and a thin stratum of Jewish intellectuals, bankers, scientists, and literary figures had become, provisionally, German. "Their overriding desire," Elon writes, "was to be complete Germans" and to embrace the quintessentially German project of bildung, or intellectual and moral self-cultivation. But this embrace, as Elon recounts, was far from reciprocal.

Despite the high culture of Kant and Goethe, the German version of the Enlightenment was politically stunted. Anti-Jewish spasms, both popular and elite, punctuated the 19th century. By the 1890s, Germany was a semi-democracy, with an elected parliament and a mostly free press, but Jews were not full citizens and could not serve in the German officer corps. While America had officially separated church from state, Otto von Bismarck's cruder Kulturkampf of the 1870s limited the power of the Catholic Church but did not make free religious expression per se a constitutional right. Only under the 1919 Weimar constitution did Jews attain full civil rights, and by then it was too late. The more they embraced Weimar, Elon writes, the more it was discredited as a "Judenrepublik." Elon's contribution is to contextualize the Holocaust in Germany's earlier political and cultural history. He does not suggest that Hitler was inevitable, only that his rise was made possible by the civic illiberalism of the German experience.

In Andalucia, Jewish high civilization lasted more than three centuries; in Germany it lasted less than two. Like the Jews of Córdoba, Toledo, and Granada, the Jews of Berlin and Frankfurt could speak the language often better than the natives; they could be eminent scientists, bankers, physicians, poets, composers, and ministers to kings -- but not quite Germans. And it all could be wiped out on the whim of a new ruler.

As the third great locus of flourishing Jewish assimilation since Jews were expelled from biblical Israel, the United States has a far better entrenched tradition of cultural tolerance, as well as a Constitution built on minority rights and on separation of church and state. So far, the successful experiment has gone on longer than in Germany, shorter than in Andalucia.


Interestingly enough, the lead jacket quote for Susan Jacoby's indispensable book comes from Philip Roth. "In the best of all possible Americas," Roth writes, "every college freshman would be required to take a course called 'The History of American Secularism.' The text would be Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers, as necessary a book as could be published in the fourth year of the ministry of George W. Bush."

In his new novel, The Plot Against America, Roth imagines that Charles Lindbergh ran for president in 1940 and ousted FDR. The real Lindbergh, a folk hero for his aviation exploits, was an admirer of Hitler and an America First isolationist. Had he been elected, Roth proposes, he would have negotiated a nonaggression pact with Hitler, and American Jews would have been at risk. Roth is not out mainly to write a work of historical fiction, much less a Nazis-in-America thriller. His interests, as usual, are mainly domestic, with history as the backdrop. In a second imaginative leap even more dazzling than the first, he explores how a Lindbergh presidency would have split the American Jewish community, including Roth's own family.

And so we are transported to the Roth dinner table in 1942, where the author's family is sundered by the recurring question that has periodically vexed and divided Jews since biblical times: how to deal with a hostile ruler. Roth uses as characters his actual family. Philip at 9 is trying to comprehend it all. His father, Herman Roth, is a strict FDR man, appalled at Lindbergh. But his mother's younger sister, Beth, marries a collaborationist rabbi who opportunistically becomes Lindbergh's court Jew.

Roth imagines that President Lindbergh devises a scheme, the Office of American Absorption (OAA), to disperse Jews to remote corners of the American heartland, the implication being that Jews are insufficiently Americanized. It's a milder version of Nazism, perhaps a harbinger of the real thing. But Philip's beloved older brother, Sandy, spends a coming-of-age summer working on a Kentucky farm as part of an OAA program. He becomes a Jewish youth spokesman for the OAA, under the rabbi's patronage. When Herman forbids his elder son to have anything more to do with the Lindbergh program, the rabbi denounces the Roth family, which finds itself ordered to resettle in Kentucky, against a background of rising anti-Semitism.

The 9-year-old Philip expresses disbelief that Lindbergh, or anyone else, could question the patriotism of American Jews: "[T]hough Ireland still mattered to the Irish and Poland to the Poles and Italy to the Italians, we retained no allegiance, sentimental or otherwise, to those Old World countries that we had never been welcome in and that we had no intention of ever returning to." But these words were written in 2004, with full knowledge of everything that has happened since the 1940s. Today, many American Jews do look to another country.

I recently heard Pat Buchanan, in a public-radio roundtable on the folly of Bush's Iraq policy, declare, "The only three people in the world who wanted us to invade Baghdad were Ariel Sharon, Osama bin Laden, and Richard Perle … . I mean, you read Norman Podhoretz and he's talking about invading six or seven countries over there." Gentile offenders Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and Dick Cheney, presumably manipulated by all these court Jews, escape Buchanan's scorn. Buchanan is not considered a respectable critic. But the reckless writings about the road to Jerusalem leading through Baghdad are inviting trouble.

Roth, midway through a prepublication essay in The New York Times Book Review, explicitly disclaimed any attempt to invite parallels with the present. I don't quite believe him. For he also wrote, in the stunning conclusion of that essay:

And now Aristophanes, who surely must be God, has given us George W. Bush, a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one, and who has merely reaffirmed for me the maxim that informed the writing of all these books and that makes our lives as Americans as precarious as anyone else's: all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history.

Imagine, then, another fantasy novel about anti-Semitism: It's 2006, and George W. Bush, in his second term, decides that his tactical alliance with Israel no longer serves his purpose. It is, after all, a lightning rod for Arab hostility, and it's harder to face the wrath of 1.3 billion Muslims than 5 million American Jews. Because Iraq has gone badly, Bush wastes no time in dispatching Jewish neoconservative advisers like Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. Except for a few foreign-policy hawks, virtually nobody in the Bush inner circle is Jewish, so the usual constraints against this abrupt policy shift are almost nonexistent. The support of born-again Christians is not exactly a reliable bulwark. (Leon Wieseltier has perfectly characterized the entente between Zionists and Christian fundamentalists as "a grim comedy of mutual condescension.") In this new climate, the Christian right abandons the Jews, as it often has. The next, less reptilian versions of Buchanan start appearing regularly on talk radio and TV. The question of whether Jews and Zionists have too much influence becomes a subject for mainstream debate. It's hardly Hitler, but the gentleman's agreement that places criticism of the Israel lobby or of "Jewish influence" beyond respectable public discussion (even on otherwise lunatic right-wing -- and substantially goyish -- mass media like FOX or Rush Limbaugh) is suddenly inoperative, and American Jews, as in Roth's Lindbergh nightmare, are suddenly in harm's way.

An earlier Roth novel, Operation Shylock is built around the premise that Zionism, like Nazism, was a historical mistake and that the new Jewish project -- Roth invents an imaginary, counter-ideology called "Diasporism" -- should be to repopulate the place where Jewish civilization reached its cultural and artistic zenith: Europe. A return to Europe would save Jews from a second extermination in the far more dangerous Middle East. In Roth's 1986 novel, The Counterlife, the stand-in for the author finds British anti-Semitism insidious and Israel's anxious insecurity terrifying. On a visit to Israel, he is repeatedly disparaged as a weak, self-hating, privileged, diaspora Jew. But an Israeli journalist friend tells the Roth character, "This, you understand, was supposed to be the place where to become a normal Jew was the goal. Instead, we have become the Jewish obsessional prison par excellence! Instead, it has become the breeding ground for every brand of madness that Jewish genius can devise!" The Roth figure says at one point, "In the long run, I might be far more secure in my homeland than [Israeli Jews] in theirs."

A novelist can possibly get away with this. Journalists who raise such questions find themselves rebuked and often marginalized, and mainstream politicians who question the basic thrust of America's Israel policy are dispatched from office before they know what hit them.

Roth, of course, has never been solicitous of the Jewish establishment, beginning with the pained embarrassment that his early works caused. At a time when Jews were trying, with dignity, both to assimilate as good Americans and to honor their culture and the tragedy of the Holocaust, Roth was telling awkward family secrets about pompous rabbis, conniving Jewish GIs, and his own obsession with luscious shiksas. Today, Roth is genuinely worried about anti-Semitism in America -- but hardly in the same way that the Jewish establishment is.


In one of several recent books about the new anti-Semitism, Never Again?, the Anti-Defamation League's indefatigable Abe Foxman recounts the worldwide upsurge of anti-Jewish violence. He cites multiple causes, from the intifada to the Internet, including the religious right, though he applauds the Christian right's embrace of Israel. Forty percent of Europeans and 24 percent of Americans, Foxman reports, now agree with the statement that "Jews have too much power" in business and finance. Tellingly, 53 percent of Europeans associate the upsurge in violence against Jews with "anti-Israel sentiment." The rising anti-Semitism that Foxman describes is real. Yet he can't bring himself to consider whether Israel's behavior, and the Israel-right-or-wrong mentality that the Sharon government promotes among diaspora Jews, might be contributing causes of anti-Jewish feeling. Instead, he insists tautologically, "What some call anti-Zionism is, in reality, anti-Semitism, always, everywhere, and for all time." If Foxman's circular reasoning is true, nobody but a bigot may criticize the actions of the Sharon government, no matter how much its policies isolate Israel or put the Jews of Israel and the diaspora at risk.

I recently spoke at a liberal Jewish congregation. Over the temple entrance hung a huge banner, "We Stand with Israel." What does that mean? The biblical Israel? The worldwide children of Israel? The survival of the modern Israeli state? The Sharon West-Bank policy? Or all of the above, neatly conflated?

The slogan is promoted by United Jewish Communities, a partner organization of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee, which is to say the government of Israel. Nearly every mainstream American Jewish group has participated in "We Stand with Israel" rallies, ads, and kindred campaigns. But isn't this a little incautious? As Susan Jacoby observes, the charge of dual loyalty was historically leveled mainly against American Catholics, often with good reason, given the hierarchy's determination to impose papal doctrine on U.S. public policy. Until recently, strict-separationist Protestants were particularly worried about Catholic efforts to win tax support for parochial schools. Lately, many Protestant fundamentalist denominations have discovered the joys of ecumenical breaches of the wall between church and state, and one no longer hears the charge of Catholic dual loyalty. But go to far-right Web sites and you will certainly hear of Jewish dual loyalty. And while the Catholic hierarchy certainly knows how to work Congress and the White House, when did you ever see throngs of Catholics marching behind a banner reading "We Stand with Rome"?

Discussing the case of Larry Franklin, the Pentagon official reported to have passed classified secrets to the Israelis, Nathan Guttman writes in Ha'aretz, "When the next person gets up and tries to claim that Israeli interests are dictating American foreign policy, American Jewish community leaders won't be able to settle for charging groundless anti-Semitism. They will instead be called on to provide an explanation as to what representatives of the pro-Israel lobby were doing in Franklin's office, an office that dealt, among other things, with formulating the plans for the war in Iraq."

Israel's expansionism into biblical Judea and Samaria is partly geopolitical, but it is also substantially theological. However, though Jewish neocons played a role in the formulation of America's Iraq policy, the prime offenders were Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice -- neither Jews nor neocons. Moreover, American liberal Jewish leaders took great risks to make it politically safe for Bill Clinton to apply pressure to both the Israelis and the Palestinians to pursue a peace settlement that entailed a substantial Israeli withdrawal. Yet as the United States bogs down in Iraq and as the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate becomes more dire, questions about Israel's policy toward Palestine and America's policy toward Israel will be asked, and not always politely.

The road to durable peace in Jerusalem, it turns out, is not exactly leading through Baghdad. The architects of American expansion in the Muslim Middle East make two contradictory arguments. First, they contend, Islamic countries are capable of Western-style democracy, which implies that their people will take an active part in shaping their governments. But secondly, they insist, the indignity of America's occupation of Iraq, the proclamations of Christianity on the march, the alliance with corrupt and hated regimes such as the Saudis, and the ongoing wound of Israeli disruption of Arab daily life in Gaza and the West Bank have only trivial effects in turning ordinary Arabs against the United States. Both things cannot possibly be true.

Indeed, the Muslim states with some semblance of civil society, as well as the ones that Jeanne Kirkpatrick might term acceptably authoritarian, have one thing in common: All threw off earlier local despots and/or Western colonialism in their own local, unique ways. That describes Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, as well as Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan. The others are still either kingdoms or theocracies, or both. Not one, with the very partial exception of the Philippines, grew into a democracy thanks to Western occupation and tutelage, much less American missionary zeal.


So who, if anyone, will restrain the forces of religious certitude in the United States? Lately the idea of a resurgent "faith-based" left has become a holy grail, as it were, for faltering progressives. Social justice is part of the tradition of every great faith, and we surely need a stronger religious left. But there is something naive about the way many religious progressives engage the religious right.

For starters, the shared Orwellian language is troubling. If we mean "religious," let's say religious. The treacly phrase "faith-based" was coined by the right as a warm and fuzzy euphemism to camouflage the effort to enlist the state in the army of God. It diverts attention from the real debate about the proper nexus between government and religion, and evokes instead the faithful individual congregant. Worse, some on the religious left see those on the religious right as sometime allies in a shared struggle to resist creeping secularism. But there's an iron law of religious zealotry: Breach the church-state wall and a zealot whose beliefs are more dogmatic and dangerous than yours will seize the opening.

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E.J. Dionne Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Kalya Drogosz recently published an edited collection, which grew out of the Pew Forum Dialogues on Religion & Public Life, with the slightly alarming title One Electorate Under God? (One is grateful for that question mark, though it seems almost an afterthought.) The best part is the opening dialogue between former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, in the role of liberal Catholic secularist, and Congressman Mark Souder, a conservative Republican evangelical from Indiana. Cuomo, knowing too well the dogmatism of his own church, makes a heroic defense of personal and constitutional strict separation. "The question for the religious public official," he says, "is not, 'Do I have the right to try to make public law match my religious belief?' but 'Should I try?'" [itals original] Cuomo adds that during his tenure as governor of New York, the Catholic ban on birth-control devices was reaffirmed by the pope. However, as a public official sworn to serve the entire community, Cuomo could not let Catholic doctrine dictate public policy.

Souder is having none of it. "To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do. Either I am a Christian or I am not. Either I reflect His glory or I do not." What a great brief for strict separation! As the Founders appreciated, anyone who believes he is getting revealed truth is beyond logical argument and evidence. Why would you compromise if you had the word directly from God?

To paraphrase Souder, either you get Jefferson or you don't. Leon Wieseltier, no stranger to religion, wrote, after observing Michael Newdow's surprisingly persuasive Supreme Court appearance in his legal efforts to have "Under God" stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance, "It is never long before one nation under God gives way to one God under a nation." The Souders of the world will not be appeased until they tear down the church-state wall, and they must be resisted, not constructively engaged.

With a few exceptions like Martha Minow and Rabbi David Novak, the liberals in the Dionne volume are depressingly polite to their far more dogmatic conservative counterparts, and their common ground is mostly a welcoming of religious teaching into the public square. Novak observes, trenchantly, "The State should be the beneficiary of … prior moral convictions, not their benefactor nor their origin." But little is said about the plain extremism of Bush and the religious right, or the value of maintaining strict separation in a secular republic -- for the sake of religious liberty. My friend Alan Wolfe, a liberal who heads a center for religion and American public life at the Jesuit- sponsored Boston College, writes, astonishingly: "When, to take one prominent example, a judge constructs a 5,000-pound monument of the Ten Commandments and puts it in a courtroom, his in-your-face assertions of his religious convictions clearly violate the rights of others and should not be permitted. But when politicians bring their religious convictions to bear on whether they favor limiting research into stem cells or support public assistance to faith-based charities, we ought to respect them for elevating the seriousness of our public conversation even if we disagree with the positions they take."

I appreciate the tightrope that Wolfe walks, but has the bar of civic discourse been so lowered that politicians who would subordinate science to dogma are now praised not just as a lesser evil but as welcome partners in dialogue?


Ecumenism is no substitute for a secular Constitution. Al Gore thought he had the perfect antidote to the Christian right in Joe Lieberman. In the 2000 campaign, Lieberman did his bit to weaken the wall between church and state, declaring, "[I]n recent years we have gone far beyond what the Framers intended in separating [church and state] and constructed a discomfort zone for even discussing our faith in public settings -- ironically making religion one of the few socially acceptable targets of intolerance." That would surely be news to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, not to mention George W. Bush.

What of the claim that religion has been banished from the public square? As Michael Kinsley wrote in a skeptical review of another influential volume bemoaning secularism, Stephen Carter's 1992 book The Culture of Disbelief, "[D]oes anybody really think it is harder to stand up in public … and say, 'I believe in God,' than it is to stand up and say, 'I don't'?"

Supreme Court decisions from the late 1940s through the early 1970s did limit tax support for education in sectarian institutions. These decisions were rooted in a Jeffersonian concern for religious minorities. But for at least three decades, the Court has been reversing ground, allowing a variety of public subsidies for religious instruction and permitting religious displays in public squares. The Lubavitchers recently ran a full-page ad in The New York Times announcing their sukkah in New York City's Bryant Park. Public crèches are now commonplace. (Ironically, the Court has sometimes limited protections of non-Christian religious minorities, denying an Air Force psychologist the right to wear a yarmulke in deference to military discipline, and denying the Native American Church the right to use peyote in traditional ceremonies.) In two landmark decisions, the Rehnquist Court in 2000 struck down earlier limitations on state subsidy of educational materials in sectarian schools (Mitchell v. Helms), and in 2002, the Court upheld the Ohio school-voucher program, even though 96 percent of the students were attending church-affiliated schools. And the Court has permitted substantial religious operation of government-subsidized social services, as long as there is no explicit proselytizing in the subsidized program.

These decisions, far from appeasing those on the religious right, only whet their appetite. Souder asserts, "[T]he posting in the schoolroom of the Ten Commandments (as long as other expressions are also not posted) and a Bible on a teacher's desk are not indications of state-sponsored religion." But how can they not be? And which Bible, and what other posted expressions? There is no practical way of promoting faith without promoting particular faiths. George W. Bush declared, preposterously, that faith-based initiatives can arise "from Muslims, Mormons, and good people of no faith at all." Imagine an atheist applying to the Office of Faith-Based Services.

Granted, a few liberal intellectuals are explicitly hostile to religion itself. Coupled with the general irreverence of the popular culture, that fact plays into the religious right's sense of itself as a beleaguered minority and creates problems for Democrats in what could once be called, with no disrespect, the Bible Belt. And yet it is possible and necessary, with Jefferson and Madison, to welcome the constructive role of both religious and secular wellsprings of social reform while also resisting the efforts by religious zealots to tear down the church-state wall on the premise that their policy preferences reflect God's will. Sadly, too, as Jacoby notes, the preponderance of clerical influence in the American republic has often been reactionary. Despite the prominent contribution of radical Christians such as William Lloyd Garrison in the anti-slavery movement and the prophetic role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil-rights movement, the vast majority of Protestant preachers defended slavery as the Lord's plan, just as they defended racial segregation right through the 1960s and acclaimed the wiping out or forced conversion of heathen Native Americans. Most established religions disparaged and suppressed the struggle for women's emancipation, as official Catholic doctrine still does. The majority of American reform movements were, in fact, predominantly secular. The most important of these, the labor movement, sings "Solidarity Forever" to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," but the lyrics are words of earthly struggle and brotherhood.

One of the great popular orators of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll, a figure all but lost to American history, declared on the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that the Founders "did away forever with the theological idea of government." As Jacoby ruefully notes, he spoke too soon. "The guarded voice of twentieth-century secularists," she writes, "presented a sharp contrast to the more forthright nineteenth-century freethinkers, who, at a time when ever fewer Americans agreed with them, sought to persuade their countrymen that it was possible to work for the betterment of mankind without acknowledging the authority of God."

* * *

Five centuries after the Spanish Inquisition expelled the Moors, Madrileños awakened on March 11, 2004, to learn that several commuter trains had been bombed and nearly 200 people killed. The perpetrators turned out to be Islamic militants, mostly from Morocco, the site of Boabdil's exile. In recent years, some 300,000 Muslims have returned to Spain. A new mosque was recently consecrated in Granada, within sight of the Alhambra. Unlike America, with its religious diversity and assimilation of immigrants, Europe's Muslim communities tend to dwell in separate, hermetic worlds, whether in France, Germany, or Spain. Spanish police had little purchase on the terrorist cells, whose members moved easily in the Moroccan barrios of Madrid. By contrast, not one of the September 11 terrorists was a permanent immigrant to America; all had to be imported for the deed. America's tradition of pluralism and its assimilationist tolerance based on a secular constitution are a little-appreciated source of our security as a nation.

What most differentiates America from the Islamist nations that we are trying to convert to Western-style democracy is that they are theocracies while we respect civic rights and religious pluralism. If we hope to rekindle the more outward-looking brand of Islam lost at Cordoba, we need to proceed by example. And if there is to be a clash of civilizations, let it be our pluralism versus their dogmatism, not a clash of dogmas. The last thing America needs, either in its domestic civic life or in its foreign policy, is a new Crusade.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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