What started (and continued) as some good natured trash talk with writer and former top Norquist aide Jim Rowen developed into a conversation about the relationship between religion and politics. The death of Jerry Falwell seems like a good excuse for further bloviation.
Social and religious conservatives are known for acting as if they are fighting against a tide of secularism, but there are all sorts of signs that the other side is on the defensive. Two recent publishing trends (and a guy who spends what I do with Amazon and Borders is going to know these things) are warnings against imminent theocracy and insistent apologetics that this God-thing has to be false, false, false! Atheism and secularism (not the same things) have gone all evangelical on us.
There is a sense, I suppose, in which both sides can be right. Secularism, if not a de facto atheism, has been the predominant public posture of the educated elite and still is. So those who oppose the naked public square still feel like they have a lot of heavy lifting to do.
But there have been inroads made among what Justice Scalia called the "law-profession culture" (similar to the reigning sensibilities in universities and editorial boards). Those opposing a secular society have developed their own countervailing intelligentsia and, among the great herd, this God-fellow just won't go away.
So secularists feel harried as well.
I think there are at least two reasons for this.
The first is the utter poverty of arguments for a uniformly secular public discourse such as John Rawls' concept of "public reason." The argument that people ought to put their bedrock principles and way of seeing the world in a desk drawer before they venture outside is intellectually bankrupt and impossible in practice.
The second is the way in which our Establishment Clause jurisprudence has devoured itself. Put simply (but not overly so), we have tried to enforce governmental neutrality between religion and irreligion. We do not want, as Justice O'Connor argued, anyone to feel like a disfavored member of the political community.
That might work if government did no more than it did in 1787. But as it becomes involved in educating children (and taking that education past the basic 3 Rs) and trying to solve a variety of social problems, it injects itself into areas of life in which, according to many, there can be no exclusion of faith. To tell such people that all views are welcome but theirs is not neutral and certainly causes them to feel disfavored. To read a recent and scintillating exposition of this, see Richard M. Esenberg, You Cannot Lose If You Choose Not to Play: Toward a More Modest Establishment Clause, 12 Roger Williams L.Rev. 1 (2006)
But make sure you have some coffee first.
Obviously there is much more to it than this (S & S is a general interest blog) and the debate is nowhere near over. As Marquette lawprof Scott Idleman recently said (I paraphrase) the only things that are certain in life are death, taxes and disputes over the religion clauses of the First Amendment.