Religion and politics used to be the two great taboos of polite conversation. Today politics is everywhere, right down to the Fox and CNN ubiquitous at the gym. But religion remains a special case. The mainstream news media—television in particular, which is where many Americans get the bulk of their information—treads lightly when it touches it at all, afraid of giving offense or oversimplifying and reaping the consequences. Talking heads pontificating about Islam as a source of terror is not a discussion of religion. Evangelicals almost never appear on mainstream TV, not even Fox. I can't think of the last time I saw a rabbi or an imam on TV, except maybe after a terror attack being asked to disclaim responsibility. It's rare to find religion on the airwaves, except on religious channels.
But books are a different story. The breadth, depth, and occasionally even length of the book affords the chance to take on complex religious subjects with a nuance and richness lacking in other media. And the bookstore shelves reflect this reality. Somehow there is no taboo on reading about religion, and religion books sell, even when they are slighted by reviewers.
The reason for the persistence of books on religion comes from the history of reading itself in the Western world. The first printed book was the Bible, and for generations the Bible was used as a reader in schools, including public ones. So perhaps it should not be surprising that in our majority-Protestant country, religious reading remains central. Our book groups (long may they prosper!) are, in a sense, secular Bible-study circles, and we look to our literature to provide the meaning that has always been associated with faith.
We are no longer primarily a Protestant country, however. Catholics and Jews, and now Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others have brought their own approaches—and their own sacred scriptures—to increase our religious diversity. That diversity requires us to engage both of the old taboo topics at once, religion and its relation to our politics. Here, too, the bookshelves are full of new offerings.
Jim Wallis's God's Politics (Harper San Francisco, Jan. 2005) takes the bull by the horns, challenging the Left to wrest religion back from the Right. The forthcoming How the Republicans Stole Christmas: The Republican Party's Declared Monopoly on Religion and What Democrats Can Do to Take It Back by Bill Press (Doubleday, Oct.) promises to add another voice on that topic. Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers (Metropolitan Books, 2004) found an audience, although (or maybe because) its hagiographic tone in praise of secularism might have been thought better suited to a religious tome. Meanwhile, Marci Hamilton, in one of Cambridge University Press's rare forays into the general trade, argues in God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law that religion has gotten away with murder in letting its adherents avoid the law on religious grounds—an argument calculated to anger fundamentalists and civil libertarians alike.
Newspapers and magazines continue to provide a more thorough and consistent coverage of religion than television, but my own contributions to the debates, After Jihad (FSG, 2003) and Divided by God (FSG, July) could never have been sustained in an article alone. The first focused on Islam and democracy—not a suitable topic for a glib sound bite, either in the U.S. or in Iraq. The essay version of Divided by God, published in the New York Times Sunday magazine (July 3), managed to pique readers' interest. But to give the history of church and state in America even in 8,000 words is hopeless. For that I needed a book.
Getting the public interested in religion, then, is no problem. The challenge is for books to help shape our national conversation. Publishers and booksellers, so much less dependent on the fickle whims of advertisers than other media, are the best hope for this crucial conversation to happen. Reading may be for many an essential path to religious experience. But we have to live together in public. Religious diversity is too important a feature of our nation and our world to be limited to TV sound-bites—or to the privacy of one's own favorite reading nook.
Noah Feldman is a professor at the NYU School of Law and Fellow of the New America Foundation.