Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1994
Volume 5, Number 2

The Trivialization of Religion

A Review of Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Joseph Allegretti
Yossem Professor of Legal Ethics

Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter recently has become something of a media celebrity. His book The Culture of Disbelief has been discussed and praised by everyone from Newsweek to America to Charlie Rose to President Bill Clinton.

Carter's book is an extended attack upon the trivialization of religion in American public life. His argument in a nutshell is that religion has no privileged place in debates about public policy, but neither should it be uniquely disadvantaged. Yet this is precisely what is happening in American culture today, argues Carter. Liberal democracy has no place for religion in politics, for it envisions religion as a private, personal matter, "like building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet, something private, something trivial--and not really a fit activity for intelligent, public-spirited adults."

Such a view has the natural result of excluding most religious arguments and many devout believers from participation in the public realm. Following Tocqueville, Carter makes the important point that religion is crucial to the maintenance of democracy. Religious associations are mediators between government and citizens, independent centers of power that "actually promote freedom and reduce the likelihood of democratic tyranny by splitting the allegiance of citizens and pressing on their members points of view that are often radically different from the preferences of the state." In short, religion by its very existence denies the ultimate authority of the state or of any human institution, a truth that is vitally important for the survival of liberal democracy.

After making the case for the important role religion should play in political discourse, Carter looks at the way in which American politics often marginalizes religion by demanding that public debates be limited to arguments that all persons--despite their differing backgrounds and religious beliefs--can accept. The result is to require religious people to bracket their deepest values when they enter the public arena. Religious believers, says Carter, must "remake themselves" before they are allowed to participate in public policy debates.

Yet things were not always this way. In the 1960s the civil rights and antiwar movements were heavily influenced by religious values and rhetoric, which politicians were eager to adopt as their own. What changed all this? The reason for the change, Carter argues persuasively, is Roe v. Wade. Until Roe, religious appeals were usually associated with liberal causes, while after Roe religion in the public sphere became increasingly identified with a conservative agenda. Carter surmises--and he is no conservative--that the religious voice is often excluded from public debate today because it is associated with the right rather than the left.

Much of Carter's book consists of a careful, nuanced look at the First Amendment and the Supreme Court cases interpreting it. Carter argues that the Court has been insufficiently protective of religious rights. While he is a supporter of the separation of church and state, he counsels wisely that "the wall has to have a few doors in it." Carter opposes what is sometimes called the "strict separation" of church and state in favor of the "accommodation" of religion, which seeks to carve out a place far religious belief and conduct in a secular society. He is particularly concerned about the status of religious groups outside of the Protestant-Catholic-Jewish mainstream. His fear is that the First Amendment will be interpreted to protect only those mainline groups that least need protecting.

Carter has something to say about a wide variety of other issues, including Christmas displays maintained at public expense on public property (he opposes such displays because the government is placing its stamp of approval on the symbol of a particular religion), creationism in the public schools (he rejects creationism on scientific grounds but evinces considerable sympathy for the religious families resisting secularism), and abortion (he rejects the claim that pro-life advocates are guilty of trying to impose their morality upon others, because "there is no escape from the imposition of morality. A pro-life statute enforces a moral regime on pregnant women; a pro-choice statute enforces a moral regime on fetuses").

Always Carter's argument is careful, precise, respectful of opponents--lawyerly in the best sense of the word.

Above all he demonstrates a rare capacity to separate causes from personalities. He opposes much of the agenda of the religious right, but only because he believes it is bad public policy, not because he thinks religious arguments have no place in the public arena. As he says of the 1992 Republican Convention, "What was wrong . . . was not the effort to link the name of God to secular political ends. What was wrong was the choice of secular ends to which the name of God was linked." It is the religious right's platform not its religiosity that he opposes.

Sometimes Carter seems to shy away from his own argument, as if he is uncomfortable about where the logic of his position is taking him. This is particularly evident in his treatment of tax vouchers. He argues that if a tax voucher system is ever established, parents who choose to send their children to religious schools should be included along with all other parents. Yet he does not come out in favor of vouchers, even though his strong support for religious autonomy and religious accommodation would seem to point in that direction. As reservations he cites the fear that subsidies might lead to increased racial segregation (yet he mentions data showing that religious schools are more integrated than public schools) and the worry that a voucher system would leave the public schools with only the worst and least-disciplined students (but he admits that the wealthy can already send their children to private schools, and that a voucher system would merely give poorer parents an option that the middle-class already possesses).

This is a small shortcoming, however, in a quite remarkable book. There may not be a lot that is new here--most of Carter's arguments have been made before--but no one has so effectively marshaled the arguments and presented them so persuasively.

While anyone could benefit from reading the book, it is clearly aimed at those who believe that religion should be kept out of the public arena. Religion to Stephen Carter is no mere hobby; it is serious stuff, the most serious stuff in life, and so it must be afforded its rightful place not only in the private realm of home and family but in the public realm of politics and public discourse as well.