Whether in the form of Christmas trees in town squares or prayer in school, fierce disputes over the separation of church and state have long bedeviled this country. Both decried and celebrated, this principle is considered by many, for right or wrong, a defining aspect of American national identity.
Nearly all discussions regarding the role of religion in American life build on two dominant assumptions: first, the separation of church and state is a constitutional principle that promotes democracy and equally protects the religious freedom of all Americans, especially religious outgroups; and second, this principle emerges as a uniquely American contribution to political theory.
In Please Don't Wish Me a Merry Christmas, Stephen M. Feldman challenges both these assumptions. He argues that the separation of church and state primarily manifests and reinforces Christian domination in American society. Furthermore, Feldman reveals that the separation of church and state did not first arise in the United States. Rather, it has slowly evolved as a political and religious development through western history, beginning with the initial appearance of Christianity as it contentiously separated from Judaism.
In tracing the historical roots of the separation of church and state within the Western world, Feldman begins with the Roman Empire and names Augustine as the first political theorist to suggest the idea. Feldman next examines how the roles of church and state variously merged and divided throughout history, during the Crusades, the Italian Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the British Civil War and Restoration, the early North American colonies, nineteenth-century America, and up to the present day. In challenging the dominant story of the separation of church and state, Feldman interprets the development of Christian social power vis-a-vis the state and religious minorities, particularly the prototypical religious outgroup, Jews.
About the Author
Stephen M. Feldman is Jerry W. Housel/Carl F. Arnold Distinguished Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Wyoming. His previous titles include Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas: A Critical History of the Separation of Church and State (NYU Press, 1997) and Law and Religion: A Critical Anthology (NYU Press, 2000).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is not a book about Christmas. Instead, it is a radical re-evaluation of the separation of church and state. Feldman, professor of law and political science at the University of Tulsa, opens with a personal account of his effort to end Christmas ob-servances at the public school his daughter attended. (Feldman is Jewish.) It failed, as such efforts by non-Christians usually do. What ever happened to the separation of church and state? The rest of the book is Feldman's an-swer, and it is lacerating. '[T]he dominant story of the separation of church and state is woefully simplistic and seri-ously misleading,' Feldman declares (p. 8). He charges that church-state separation is neither as uniquely American nor as benign to religious minorities as commonly supposed. Since separa-tion is a tale told by the Christian majority, we should not be surprised when it turns out to benefit that majority most of all: '[C]onstitutional discourse furnishes a façade of governmental neutrality and indi-vidual religious freedom, but behind that legitimating façade, Christian cul-tural imperialism pulses through the social body of America' (p. 272). If this rhetoric sounds postmodern, it is. Feldman declares himself a postmodernist, at least concerning historical, social and textual analysis. (Does he consider science a unique and valid way of knowing? He doesn't say, and in any case that sort of postmodernism is irrelevant to his topic.) Early on, Feldman serves up four pages of dense Foucaultian rhetoric, describing his book as a 'critical social narrative' primarily concerned with interpreting power relationships. There-after he lessens the postmodern jargon and launches a cogent, accessible -- though surely contro-versial -- analysis of church-state separation. I closed the book convinced that Feldman is onto something. There were just too many times when, peering through the lens of his interpretations, I watched seemingly contradic-tory elements in today's church-state environment start to make new, if terrible, kinds of sense. Feldman organizes his material historically. He finds the earliest roots of church-state sepa-ration in the New Testament proscription against coercing the conversion of Jews. (A meaning-ful commitment to Christ had to be voluntary.) Christians responded by dividing their world in two. The secular, or carnal, realm belonged to the Jews, while the heavenly realm was reserved for Chris-tians. This division would also become a well-spring of anti-Semitism throughout the two mil-lennia that followed. (Feldman's zeal in presenting examples of this sometimes verges on the tiresome.) The next element was the idea of religious toleration, which emerged after the Thirty Years War, 'not be-cause of a principled theological or political commitment to toleration, but rather because harsh experience had re-vealed that neither side ¿ could crush the other' (p. 73). In time Jews, too, could enjoy the benefits of toleration, but only as, at best, the 'incidental beneficiaries of ... Christian stalemates' (p. 98). Feldman traces the beginnings of American church-state separation to the Puritans, whose idea of 'freedom of conscience' was both limited and rooted in Christianity: Conscience was meant to be 'free' only in order to accept Christ. Things were no better during the American Revolution: If 'Madison could have seen America from a Jewish viewpoint (highly unlikely),' he would have recognized that 'America was hegemonically Protestant' (p. 160). Indeed, by the 19th century, Protestantism was the de facto national religion. Legal establishment was unneces-sary. When Jewish and Roman Catholic immigration swelled in the late 19th and early 20th cen-tury, Protestantism needed new responses. To Feldman the Social Gospel, Progressive, and Common School movements all sought to preserve Protestantism by imposing Anglo-Saxon val-ues (and if possible, Protestantism itself) on immigrants. American Jews met this pressure by be-comi