A terrible question stalks our land, even at this moment of promise and hope: Is there any principle left by which the United States can transcend the present bitterness and divisions over religion in public life and live up to the promise of the American experiment? Race was the older and, many thought, deeper of America’s problems, but today’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as well as Barack Obama’s election shows how far we have come. Religion in public life is the next challenge.
James Madison called America’s original settlement of this contentious issue the “true remedy,” and for a long time it was certainly the most nearly perfect solution the world has seen.
Today, however, controversies over religion in public life have become the holy war front of the wider culture wars, and the American settlement is going awry. Whether it’s the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places, faith-draped monuments to our war dead or even a government-church partnership ”” as with the faith-based initiatives ”” controversy invariably rears its head at the intersection of religion and public life.