By Stephen L. Carter
Basic, 288 pp.
This should be the Stephen Carter Moment. For the past decade, the Yale law professor has been our most eloquent critic of strict separation of church and state. With vigor, he has championed the injection of religiosity into the public square. In his seminal 1993 book, "The Culture of Disbelief," he decried the secularization of American life, the "trend in our political and legal cultures, toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by a rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion."
Since "Culture of Disbelief" appeared, the trend Carter objected to has been largely bucked. To review the most obvious evidence: This campaign season, candidates of all stripes have lined up to profess their faith. Both Bush and Gore have announced that churches are their preferred instruments for implementing social policy. And as Jeffery Rosen put in The New York Times, "The Supreme Court is on the verge of replacing the principle of strict separation with a very different constitutional principle that demands equal treatment for religion." In nearly all matters of law and politics--consider especially the issue of school vouchers for religious schools--it seems the defenders of strict separationism are on the defensive.
So, you would imagine that Carter would be wearing an enormous smile. You'd be wrong. In "God's Name in Vain," his new meditation on religion and politics, he seems rather down in the dumps. On one hand, he frets that religious leaders, especially evangelical and black ministers, have become too much a part of the public sphere, wedded to vacuous political parties, too willing to compromise principles. On the other hand, he continues to fear that the state, especially the courts, hinders religious observance.
When "The Culture of Disbelief" first appeared, it created quite a stir. President Clinton devoured the book and recommended it to friends. The nightly news shows ran profiles of Carter, the rare scholar whose footprints can be seen in our culture's most important debates. He deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness, even when he produces a relatively minor work such as "God's Name in Vain."
But the book has little new to add to the debate Carter has done so much to shape. Christians, especially evangelicals, are increasingly suspicious of politics. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, has begun to doubt the value of aligning with the political right. Recently, even conservative activist Paul Weyrich, the man who in the 1970s made the original covenant between conservative politicians and conservative Christians, has suggested that evangelicals abandon their electoral efforts. These calls for retreat from the public square are entirely understandable. Organized religion, with its stark distinction between good and evil (and its IRS-protected status), doesn't lend itself to the dirty world of politics.
Carter simply repeats these old qualms about religions descent from the garden into the wilderness. He writes: "If history has taught us anything, it is that religions that fall too deeply in love with the art of politics lose their souls-very fast." But, he never systematically answers the question: Is it worth it? As he tirelessly points out, religious movements have been a tremendous force for good in American life. Not just the civil rights movement, but the other great American social reform movements--the abolitionists and the progressive reformers of the early 20th century--were born and reared in the churches. And perhaps religiously grounded social movements are bound to follow the path of all political insurgencies. Once they exert their influence on the debate, once the major parties usurp their ideas, these movements inevitably lose luster. As historian Richard Hofstadter once put it, they sting, and then they die.
Carter attempts to propose an alternative to the soul-sapping business of electioneering. His suggestions: People of faith should protest against war; they should orchestrate economic boycotts; they should become more "contemplative." All these ideas are worthy, to some extent, but one expects less pedestrian advice from Carter. And to pose the obvious question to Carter: Is this a robust-enough political program to challenge the culture of disbelief?
The second half of the book is stronger and more provocative. Carter explains the need for a new jurisprudence that goes to greater lengths to accommodate religion--a legal framework that rarely, very rarely, would allow the state to interfere in the business of religion. Here he dwells on interesting questions: Can the army force a Jewish soldier to take off his skullcap? Should animal right ordinances apply to practitioners of Santeria? His answer in both cases is, of course, a resolute no.
Fair enough. But Carter seems to duck the harder questions about school prayers and school vouchers, with which the courts now struggle. In addition, Carter's argument leads him into a not-so-minor contradiction. After spending much of the book complaining about society's movement toward multiculturalism and relativism, he defends his argument by asserting the importance of religious diversity.
One wishes Carter had set his mind to answering the hard questions. After decades of secularization, the tide has been turned. But how far should it be turned? Clearly, there's a need for a new jurisprudence, a new frontier separating the church from the state. In other words, it is the Stephen Carter Moment. We need Stephen Carter.