One Nation Under God?
As Senator Dianne Feinstein wrapped up her opening remarks during the hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts, she offered an apparent plea for preserving a robust separation of church and state.
“During the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and even today,” the California Democrat said, “millions of innocent people have been killed or tortured because of their religion.” Next Feinstein invoked the Holocaust: “A week ago, I was walking up the Danube River in Budapest when I saw on the shore 60 pairs of shoes covered in copper,” she said. “During World War II, it turned out that Hungarian fascists and Nazi soldiers forced thousands of Jews, including men, women and children, to remove their shoes before shooting them and letting their bodies float down the Danube.”
With her time running down, she quickly concluded, “These shoes represent a powerful symbol of how religion has been used in catastrophic ways historically.”
Some conservative commentators dismissed Feinstein’s riff as an incoherent and illegitimate attempt to frighten Americans into opposing Roberts. Whatever her political motivations, Feinstein was certainly reflecting the sincere and deeply rooted anxieties of many American Jews regarding the place of religion in American society.
Polls consistently show that the Jewish community is significantly more liberal than other religious and ethnic groups, particularly when it comes to maintaining a strict separation of church and state. For many Jews, this is a position firmly rooted in the belief that the unprecedented political and cultural assimilation of Jews into American public life is inextricably linked to the Supreme Court’s embrace of secularism â€” and equally grounded in the corresponding fear that this success is severely threatened by any attempt to lower the church-state wall. In fact, it could be argued that the Jewish community has invested more energy in constructing and maintaining the church-state wall than any other religious group.
As a result, American Jews are unlikely to embrace proposals for altering the current legal landscape. Which brings us to Noah Feldman’s new book, “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem â€” and What We Should Do About It” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)….