Susan Jacoby writes under a misconception. I did not advocate that all American progressives should justify their politics by referring to the Sermon on the Mount or other biblical passages that imply that God is just. Rather, my point was that Christian activists and politicians have always done so. For much of U.S. history, their faith and their rhetoric often served causes we can still applaud—the abolition of slavery, the rights of labor and women and Native Americans, opposition to militarism, and more. But since the Second World War, with the exception of the black freedom movement, evangelical zeal has mostly benefited the right.
One can respond to this fundamental aspect of our political culture by seeking to change it. Jacoby, steadfast in her secularism, would like religion to become a private matter, much as it has been in modern France, where the only permissible public identity is that of “citizen.” Or one can assume, as I do, that the United States is not, has never been, and, for the foreseeable future, is not likely to become that kind of nation. Then the question arises: what should we do about it? How can secular progressives ally with religious ones without allowing “God’s politics” to become the only legitimate kind?
In a New York Review of Books piece about Jimmy Carter’s Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis (February 9, 2006), Garry Wills pointed a way forward: “None of us,” Wills wrote, “even those who believe in the separation of church and state, professes a separation of morality and politics. Insofar as believers—the great majority of Americans—derive many if not most of their moral insights from their beliefs, they must mingle religion and politics, again without equating the two.”
Voicing alarm at the rhetoric of such fellow moralists as Jim Wallis is thus self-defeating. Wallis seeks sanction from the Bible for a living wage, while I—and perhaps Jacoby, too—would simply call it a requirement for a humane society. Unless either of us censures the other’s mode of argument, there’s no cause for alarm. And I’ve yet to meet a Christian liberal who’s intolerant of talk about social justice that doesn’t mention God.
Noah Feldman’s Divided by God only sketches out ideas for how to draw the line on the church-state question. Nothing he suggests justifies Jacoby’s fear that it would be a “recipe for civic disaster” or provide a fresh opening for anti-Semitism. When it comes to the place of religion in the state, Feldman calls for adherence to “a simple slogan: no coercion and no money.” He thus firmly opposes official school prayers and funding for church groups who proselytize as they hand out free lunches and job tips. Decades ago, there was a danger that Jewish kids would be bullied into mouthing praise of Jesus, but most public schools today avoid any discussion of religion at all—even in history c...
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