By Zachary Karabell, Truthdig. Posted December 29, 2007.
Is separation of church and state a myth in America?
One of the bedrock assumptions of our society is that we have, after centuries of struggle, finally achieved an enviable balance that allows individuals to have their own religious beliefs but does not permit religion to dictate public life and thereby enflame passions and generate deadly conflict. That balance was hardly easy to create, and only after many years of two steps forward and one step back did we in the West finally -- supposedly -- arrive at the right formula. But arrive we did, says Mark Lilla in "The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West," his provocative, passionate essay on what he calls "the Great Separation."
With the rise of a virulent strain of radical fundamentalism in the Muslim world, that separation is being assailed, and we seem bewildered that anyone could argue against it. Lilla, however, contends that it is not the fundamentalists -- Muslim, Christian and Jewish -- who are seeing the world askew; it is Western culture and its defenders. "We must remind ourselves," he writes, "that we are living in an experiment, that we are the exceptions. We have little reason to expect other civilizations to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique theological-political crisis within Christendom." In short, Lilla believes that we> have gotten one thing utterly wrong: We are not us. We are them. We are not the rule; we are the exception.