When historians get around to writing the story of American culture at the end of the twentieth century, there will be a place for Stephen L. Carter's The Culture of Disbelief, a tract for the times that played a small but significant part in the culture wars of the early 1990s. After more than a decade of haranguing from Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, et al, here was Carter, a politically moderate African-American, Bible-believing, Episcopalian Yale law professor, arguing that religion was not being given a fair shake in the country's dominant culture.
The book was widely applauded by reviewers across the country (members of the dominant culture, presumably) and quickly became a standard reference point for discussions of religion in American public life. Personal as well as analytical, it gave Christians (and other religious Americans) with no use for the religious right the impetus to stake their own claim in the public arena. The First Churchgoer himself singled it out for praise.
Now Carter is back with a sequel, the ostensible purpose of which is to address a question he did not resolve in the earlier volume, namely: If religion is to be involved in politics, what is its proper role? The answer is that religion should maintain a strong, principled voice on issues of public concern but should steer clear of political entanglements. Carter argues, with some reason, that the ability of religion to speak honestly and forthrightly is likely to be undermined by efforts to get and keep particular politicians in office--and, it seems, by attempts to pass legislation as well. "When a religion enters politics," Carter writes, "it at once finds itself bombarded with demands for compromise. The message must be softened, or hardened, or omitted altogether."
In fact, Carter is not interested in having religion play a role in politics as that art is generally understood. Rather, he wants to encourage religions--any and all of them--to offer outsiders' critiques of society, denouncing sin and injustice according to their lights and helping their adherents live lives separate from the prevailing culture. "Politics is a dirty business at its best," he writes. "Religion at its best is subversive." In this all but apocalyptic view of things, the world is a nasty and corrupting place. Carter notes that in its original seventeenth-century form the "wall of separation" between church and state was meant to keep the wilderness of secular society from impinging upon the garden of the sacred. That's what he has in mind, too.
Carter's models of religious subversion are the ancient Hebrew prophets, who, according to him, spoke truth to power but did not dabble in the latter. Such there were, but it's worth bearing in mind that Samuel and Nathan, the prophets (after Moses) we are told most about, were up to their eyeballs in what one might call electoral politics. Samuel anointed Saul king (in obedience to popular demand), then let him know that he had fallen out of divine favor. Nathan, after a career of trying to keep David on the straight and narrow, successfully arranged Solomon's succession to the throne. Outsiders may have an easier time maintaining their prophetic clarity than insiders, but that does not necessarily make them more useful citizens.
Having effectively limited the scope of religion in politics to the prophetic allocution, Carter assumes the prophet's mantle himself, inveighing against the "culture of disbelief" that he continues to believe dominates American society. He laments that "we are, all of us, subjected to a steady drumbeat, from journalists and commentators, from lawyers and activists, and sometimes even from judges, to the effect that religion has a sphere and the state has a sphere, and the purpose of the wall of separation is to keep the two apart; and thus (so it is said) it is not only wrong but potentially unconstitutional for the state to pay attention to arguments couched in religious terms." It is, he says, "a commonplace of public dialogue in our current era--at least among elites--to treat religionists working for change as presumptively fanatical, not amenable to reason."
It is in this religion-under-siege perspective that God's Name in Vain is most glaringly off the mark. No doubt there are lawyers and journalists and academics who would like to keep religion out of American public life. But Carter's wholesale claim that there is today a "fervor against religious activism in public life," made with no more than a few scraps of anecdotal evidence, is nonsense. The American elite, such as it is, has consistently supported the right of people, including conservative activists, to engage in politics from a religious perspective. In October of 1980, for example, the quintessentially liberal Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe told The New York Times, "The tradition of the intermixture of religion and politics is too ingrained in our national life to be eliminated. It is extremely important to the principle of freedom of speech that this process not stop just because some are distressed by the content of the speech or the speaker." Shortly thereafter, the Times editorialized, "Liberals further confuse the matter when they applaud the political passions of, say, Martin Luther King, but denounce Jerry Falwell's as illegal. The 'wall' that Jefferson envisioned between church and state will not stand if conceived as a barrier to political speech by religious sects."
Such assertions did not prevent Falwell and his successors from accusing their critics of prejudice. But if Carter wants to find real expressions of elite hostility to religion in politics, he should look at how the Canadian press has greeted Stockwell Day, the outspoken evangelical Protestant who this year was elected head of Canada's main opposition party. Or he might consider what Mexican journalists have had to say about the public Catholicism of their newly elected president, Vicente Fox. In the United States, the prevailing ideology is clear and unequivocal: Religion has a place in political discourse.
That is not to say that when religion surfaces there, it is (or should be) immune from criticism. If George W. Bush wants to claim Jesus as his favorite political philosopher, he can be challenged (as he was, by some cartoonists, columnists, and editorial writers) on whether his positions on the death penalty, social welfare, and the military are in accord with Jesus' teachings. If Joe Lieberman calls for a revival of faith, he can be challenged to say whether he thinks religious Americans are more moral than irreligious ones. But anyone paying attention to American society over the past few years is entitled to wonder where Carter has been living when he talks about the exclusion of religion from American culture and politics. Leave aside the increasing prominence of religion in daily newspapers and popular entertainment (including prime-time TV) and professional sports. Congress has passed, and the president has signed, legislation seeking to ensure religious liberty for Americans, to watch out for religious persecution abroad, and to make sure that so-called "faith-based" social-service providers are not excluded from programs designed to help welfare recipients get jobs. Carter claims that religion is in a uniquely disfavored position in America because it is prevented from engaging on its own behalf in public life. That couldn't be less true.
Whatever criticisms one might make of The Culture of Disbelief, at least it was a serious and thoughtful effort to look at what some considered to be, at the time anyway, a real problem. Disbelief II is a slapdash effort that fails to notice what has happened in the intervening years. It is a voice crying out in a wilderness of its own imagining. Religion, we should recognize, has other roles in public life than the prophetic denunciation. One role involves the making of distinctions between degrees of moral good and bad. Another lies in the discerning of false prophets. ¤
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