Should We Have More Faith in Society?

By Costello, Gerald M. | U.S. Catholic, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Should We Have More Faith in Society?


Costello, Gerald M., U.S. Catholic


From an author's standpoint, it's hard to imagine anything more satisfying than a presidential endorsement. That happened last year to Stephen L. Carter, a law professor at Yale University whose writings focus on social concerns, rather than spies and sex. And, the endorsement couldn't have been more explicit.

"I bought a book on vacation called The Culture of Disbelief by Stephen Carter," President Bill Clinton told a group of religious leaders at a prayer breakfast. "And I would urge you all to read it."

The presidential nod didn't quite get Carter up there with Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern as far as sales go, but it undoubtedly helped to make The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion one of the most discussed books of the year in religious, academic, and journalistic circles.

Carter's basic pitch is that even though most Americans are serious about their faith lives (nine out of ten believe in God and four out of five pray regularly), the nation's opinion-molders and the academic community--the intellectual elite--dismiss religion as a basis for public debate. Religion, in their minds, is a curious aberration, one that often goes hand in hand with extreme right-wing politics. Carter writes:

For Americans to take their reli-

gions seriously, to treat them as

ordained rather than chosen, is to

risk assignment to the lunatic fringe.

And for those who do happen to fall into the category of believers, says Carter, the role that society nonetheless expects is one of quiet conformity:

We often ask our citizens to split

their public and private selves, tell-

ing them in effect that it is fine to be

religious in private, but there is

something askew when those pri-

vate beliefs become the basis for

public action.

Overstated? Some of Carter's critics seem to think so, but for the most part, the arguments in The Culture of Disbelief are persuasive. They are intriguing, too--coming here as they do from the liberal side of the plate. Carter cites along the way his opinions on public-school prayer (against), abortion ("moderately pro-choice"), and homosexual rights (for).

As Carter points out, however, his book is less about the law than it is about attitudes. And he finds the attitudes regarding religion that he encounters among his liberal colleagues appalling.

At its heart, The Culture of Disbelife is a case for true religious freedom and for the First Amendment as it was written and intended by the Founding Fathers. Carter makes familiar points that bear repeating: freedom of religion is our first right and the amendment's free exercise clause gets far less attention than the clause that prohibits the state from establishing a religion.

Carter covers a great deal of territory in less than 300 pages of text so that in some cases the coverage of specific issues is inadequate--not that it is incorrect or poorly thought out, but it simply fails to reflect the significance of important points.

This lack of in-depth coverage is especially the case on the issue of abortion, particularly the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which is the great divide in the way the liberal establishment perceives the role of religion in public debate. Also, more could have been said about the influence of the press in shaping public attitudes toward organized religion.

Historically, religious forces and religious figures have played a key role in directing the country's future, as the words of our most treasured documents attest. Religious forces played a significant role in finally resolving the great debate over slavery, for example, when the abolition movement was firmly grounded in divinely inspired fervor.

Nor was this phenomenon limited to the distant past. Religious leadership dominated the civil-rights movement of the '50s and '60s, and a strong religious presence helped in strengthening the drive for peace in the Vietnam War. …

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