It’s dawned on me lately that I’ve seen with my own eyes more than one-fifth of all American history. That’s long enough, or should be, to get the drift, to have some sense of where those times have taken us. I was born before Brown v. Board of Education, before the civil and human rights movements of the 1960s, before the growth of environmental awareness in the 1970s, before the computer and communications revolutions that have transformed all of our lives. How could you not be an optimist when all these things have happened in the course of your lifetime? Yes there have also been assassinations and incursions and 9/11, but even among the terrible events of the last half century there were at least two—Vietnam and Watergate—that felt like history lessons, mistakes never to be repeated.
And yet, and yet. A friend who has written searchingly of his mixed-race heritage told me recently he wants to write next about the alarming re-segregation of public schools in his Deep South state. Ahead of me in the security line in the Nashville airport a couple of weeks ago were a mother and father saying a heartbreaking goodbye to their impossibly young soldier son, his distraught younger brother at their side. The level of emotion suggested he was off to Iraq or Afghanistan. A friend of long standing has suffered from Parkinson’s for a decade, and I wonder that the nation has not used its scientific and technological muscle to do everything it can to help him and those like him. And every day in the newspapers are reports about cornerstone principles of our lives as Americans that are being undermined or ignored.
One of those cornerstones, the separation of church and state, comes under careful scrutiny in this issue from Ethan Fishman, whose article “Not Compassionate, Not Conservative,” in last winter’s American Scholar, was chosen for Best American Political Writing 2007. In “Unto Caesar,” Fishman takes us back to Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson, whose ideas profoundly shaped the American ideal of religion’s place in our public life. He reminds us that the concept is intended not only to protect citizens from the sort of state religion that drove so many people to America in the first place, but also to protect religions and the religious from manipulation by government.
It’s tempting to blame the nation’s problems on one or two people in particular, or to make the blame far too general, attaching it, say, to the collective gullibility of half the voting public. Does anyone else suspect that something more intrinsic might be wrong? One person who does is the political pundit Larry J. Sabato, who is publishing a book this fall calling for a new federal Constitutional Convention, and who in this issue’s Works in Progress section offers six ways to improve upon that hallowed document. Here is optimism lightly tempered by realism, but optimism nonetheless.
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