Church, State, Neutrality, Equality

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Author, journalist, and The Revealer co-founder Jeff Sharlet has written a masterful essay for The Nation that looks at issues of conscience, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state. Sharlet reviews “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality” by Martha Nussbaum, and “Founding Faith Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America” by Steven Waldman, and compares their approaches to ideas of religious equality and freedom.

“Nussbaum’s book, a fundamentally flawed but wise consideration of the subtle distinctions between “freedom” and “equality,” may help cultivate it in years to come. Meanwhile, Founding Faith–a new book by Steven Waldman, a former religion reporter–is the sort of carefully crafted crowd pleaser that trades [Roger] Williams’s liberty of conscience for the solace of centrism.”

Sharlet criticizes Beliefnet founder Steven Waldman for creating a false set of “extremes” that we need to “compromise” on to achieve harmony and peace between secularists and Christian conservatives.

“Waldman wins his centrist peace by dismissing Christian conservatives’ majoritarian bullying and secularists’ insistence on separation of church and state as “extremes” that can be reconciled by the former acknowledging pluralism and the latter accepting that separation is neither strict nor meant to be universal. Doing so, however, would require fundamentalists to give up the most important claim of their faith–its exclusivity–and secularists to ignore history. Significantly, Waldman pays only brief lip service to an essential development in American law, the principle of incorporation–the Fourteenth Amendment’s extension of the Bill of Rights to the states. Incorporation is the tidiest rebuttal to Justice Thomas’s antebellum legal dreams and Waldman’s contention that the protection of minority views as an essential function of separation is a ‘liberal fallacy.'”

In the end, both authors are criticized for minimizing the “Christian nationalist challenge” facing us, and overlooking many of the pitfalls of their respective “compromises”. But any encapsulation of this important analysis by me won’t do it full justice, I strongly recommend heading over and reading the entire thing. While I’m at it, check out Sharlet’s new book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power”, a chilling look into Christian fundamentalism’s most elite organization.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep plugging away with the “liberal fallacy” that religious minorities deserve protection under the legal and political principle of church-state separation.