E.J. Dionne, Jr.: The New Book that Shows that America Has Always Had to Straddle Religious Divisions

Roundup: Talking About History

E.J. Dionne, in the Washington Post, in the course of a review of Noah Feldman's America's Church-State Problem -- And What We Should Do About It (7-10-05):

... 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. Contemporary religious conservatives seem to think that Christian rules and assumptions pervaded everything about the early republic. They probably don't know (I didn't until I read Feldman) that when the Post Office was established Congress "legislated for seven-day mail delivery without anyone initially raising the problem of Sabbath violation." It was not until 1828, "with national religious consciousness growing," that religious leaders began complaining that post offices, "which doubled as gathering places in small towns, were diverting the faithful from attending church on Sunday." The debate went on for 84 years. Sunday delivery was finally stopped in 1912. And while partisans of religion like to think our founders did their work in a profoundly religious time, in their era "church attendance was low, at least by today's standards," and there "was no national movement devoted to promoting the role of religion in public life."

Secular liberals may believe that the state constitutional bans on government aid to religious schools -- the so-called Blaine Amendments, named after the 1884 Republican presidential nominee, James G. Blaine -- were motivated primarily by a concern for religious freedom. Feldman shows convincingly that these amendments were a political ploy. They were specifically directed against the schools of the Roman Catholic minority and designed to produce electoral gains in a country that was divided, as it is now, roughly 50-50 between the two major parties.
Republicans were trying to put Democrats, who enjoyed broad support from Catholics, in a tough spot. If Democrats supported the amendments to appeal to the Protestant majority, they risked alienating their Catholic supporters. If they went with the Catholic minority, they risked alienating the Protestants. "The unscrupulousness of this strategy of driving a wedge between Democratic-leaning Protestants and Catholics seems not to have disturbed Republican politicians," Feldman writes.

Feldman does especially well in tracing the rise of secularism at the end of the 19th century and the rise of fundamentalism at the beginning of the 20th. We easily forget the vigor of atheist agitation and the popularity in the 1870s and '80s of such anti-religious lecturers as Robert G. Ingersoll, who declared: "We are explaining more every day. We are understanding more every day; consequently your God is growing smaller every day." But pure secularism and atheism didn't sell well in America. The atheists and agnostics eventually joined forces with a larger group of liberals to create a more moderate "legal secularism."
It did not deny God or religion but simply insisted that religion was a private matter that should be separated entirely from government.

We also forget that Protestant fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, less than a century old, and arose, as Feldman says, "not as a direct response to secularism itself, but as a response to liberal developments in Christian theology that were themselves influenced by the scientific worldview." In describing the Scopes "monkey" trial over whether the state of Tennessee could ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools, Feldman is admirably fair to evolution's opponents.
Liberals would do well to recall that progressive impulses fed opposition to both "survival-of- the-fittest social Darwinism" and "the new 'science' of eugenics." Each, says Feldman, "could be made to reflect the dark underside of secularism's elitist character, since social Darwinism seemed to justify the accumulation of wealth by a favored few, and eugenics explicitly favored the breeding of a genetically superior master class."...

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