Religion’s Divisiveness in America: A Conversation with Peter Irons

D.J. Grothe

A noted constitutional scholar, historian, and lawyer, Peter Irons is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Among his many award-winning books is the best-selling May It Please the Court and A People’s History of the Supreme Court. He recently discussed his new critically acclaimed book, God On Trial: Dispatches from America’s Religious Battlefields, with D.J. Grothe, an associate editor of Free Inquiry.


Free Inquiry: Your book has been enthusiastically endorsed by people on both sides of the church-state issue—by Barry Lynn of Ameri-cans United for Separation of Church and State and also by Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, Pat Robertson’s Christian-conservative version of the American Civil Liberties Union. Did you write God on Trial just to give both sides in this culture war over religion in our society a fair shake?

Peter Irons: I firmly believe in separation of church and state. But what I set out to do in the book—and the reason both Barry Lynn and Jay Sekulow said very nice things about it—is that, knowing how this issue divides Americans right down the middle, I wanted to give both sides a chance to speak their pieces and explain their views. I visited all the communities in which these six cases involving religion in the public sphere started, and I talked to the people who brought the challenges to these religious symbols and practices, and also the people who defended them.

FI: You aren’t just recounting the legal issues but also the stories behind them. What motivated the people who brought their cases forward?

Irons: Ever since our country was first settled by the Puritans, there have been divisions over religion. This is partly due to the fact that the country was settled by people supposedly seeking religious freedom, but, in fact, denying that religious freedom to the people who dissented from their Puritan religious views. Even today, this country is divided by people who consider this a “Christian nation” and those who believe it to be a secular nation.

FI: You say that religion is so divisive, yet you dedicate the book to your friends in the United Methodist Church. Are you religious yourself?

Irons: I live in a very small town in Northern California, and I was raised a Unitarian. Unitarians really believe in tolerance and a noncreedal view of religion. But, here in my hometown, I attend the Methodist church, partly because the people are very nice and tolerant of me. I am the only non-Christian in their pews. But, at the same time, I also dedicated the book to one of the people who brought forward a case I write about, Philip Paulson, a very militant atheist. So, on both sides of these church-state issues, there are people whom I admire.

On the other hand, there are people in many of these communities I write about whom I don’t admire. They are not tolerant, particularly of those who would challenge the majority’s religious views and practices.

FI: Your book details recent church-state cases, and you were personally involved in one of them.

Irons: Yes. I represented Philip Paul-son and Howard Kreisner in the Mount Soledad Cross case, which involved the public display of a massive forty-foot cross that has overlooked San Diego since the fifties at taxpayer expense. I dropped out of the case in 1998, because I was getting threats.

FI: You actually feared for your safety?

Irons: I had two young daughters at the time, and we were concerned that someone might actually harm them. I turned the case over to another attorney. What this case showed was that people can get so upset when someone challenges what they think of as their right to have their religious symbols and practices in public places—whether a park, a courthouse, or a school—that they really become very intolerant and resort to threats of violence toward their fellow citizens.


To hear the rest of D.J. Grothe’s talk with Peter Irons, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.

D.J. Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.


A noted constitutional scholar, historian, and lawyer, Peter Irons is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Among his many award-winning books is the best-selling May It Please the Court and A People’s History of the Supreme Court. He recently discussed his new critically acclaimed book, God On Trial: …

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