Even before his latest book dropped on their heads, Stephen Carter must have been a source of great frustration for some of his distinguished colleagues up there at the Yale Law School. It isn’t just his out-of-step views, which are not at all the sort of positions tenure-hungry academics would dare to express at any university faculty club. More annoying by far is the popularity his expression of those views has won him with much of the American public.
A number of Mr. Carter’s books, including “The Culture of Disbelief” and “Civility,” have been widely purchased by the great unwashed. Worse yet, they’ve been respectfully discussed in the media, which apparently didn’t get the message that such commentary, especially when it comes from an openly evangelical Christian, is supposed to be politely ignored.
Now, in his new book, “God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics,” Mr. Carter argues that not only does religion have a place in the public arena, but that attempts to scour it out in the name of the Constitution are as unconstitutional as most other forms of state censorship. It’s just the sort of work, in other words, which People for the American Way and the rest of the secular thought police would presumably like to have banned.
How does Mr. Carter get away with it? How the author confesses sometimes to wondering himself does a committed Christian manage to publish such provocations and still stay on the faculty of such an elite and aggressively secular institution as Yale?
One reason, to be sure, is that Stephen Carter is a serious intellectual who writes with style and crackle. Another reason is that he’s black. And finally, even in the stifling conformity of academia, a few contrarians have traditionally been allowed to take precarious root. “One of Yale’s virtues is that it has a place for somebody like me,” Mr. Carter writes. “But not a lot of space.”
Yale and other institutions, he notes tartly, “try to recruit with an eye to what they like to call diversity.” They have lots of statistics showing how many students are black, or come from Idaho, or receive financial aid. But they never list the religions represented, even though, “If one truly wants diversity, it might be useful to look for people who are truly different and religion … is one of the forces that can make us so.”
He is not an ideologue, but Mr. Carter writes from a conservative perspective as well as a Christian one. He observes that the press, which clucks so loudly over the religious right, never notices the religious left, which has been active in politics for much longer.
When abortion-rights groups first filed suit against the Catholic Church in 1980, seeking to have the Church’s tax-exempt status revoked because of its alleged political activity on behalf of pro-life candidates, it must have come as a surprise to many of the bishops. Nobody had objected, after all, when they were protesting school segregation or the testing of nuclear weapons.
Once such official suppression starts, on the left or on the right, it can readily spin out of control. When the abortion-rights lawsuit was filed, Mr. Carter reports, “many black clergy were terrified.” Abortion wasn’t their issue, but they had traditionally been deeply involved in politics, and they saw only too clearly how the legal harassment of one church would lead to the harassment of others.
In this book, Mr. Carter makes two important and closely linked points about the relationship of religion to politics. First, having religious voices raised over political issues is healthy for a democracy, and ought to be encouraged rather than stifled. But while politics may benefit from such religious infusions, religion itself is always at risk of being diminished by politics.
This conclusion leads Mr. Carter to argue simultaneously that while government, in the form of the Internal Revenue Service, shouldn’t have the power it now clearly has to penalize religions for what is preached from their pulpits, the endorsement of candidates by religious leaders is also inappropriate. This is so not for public policy reasons, but because such activity can be corrosive to the faith which sponsors it.
In other words, however necessary politics may be to society, it can also be toxic to religion. Mr. Carter recalls Paul Weyrich’s despairing 1999 announcement that “we probably have lost the culture war,” and that Christian conservatives would be better-advised to retreat from the culture, and to insulate their families from it, than to fight to change it.
This is not a new development. In the 17th century, Roger Williams depicted the world of religious belief as a walled garden surrounded by the wilderness of everyday life. But he recognized that the wall, far from being impregnable, is constantly breached.
The relationship of religion in politics has of course been much discussed, with more sanctimony than sincerity, in the national political campaign that has just concluded. In retrospect, it’s a pity that Mr. Carter’s new book didn’t arrive a few months earlier. It might have raised the level of the dialogue.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in Maryland.