Battleground: One Mother's Crusade, The Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of Our Classrooms. By Stephen Bates. New York: Poseidon Press. 1993. Pp. 365. $24.
Sometimes I think the environment in which we operate is entirely too
secular. Th[e] fact that we have freedom of religion doesn't mean we
need to try to have freedom from religion. It doesn't mean that those of
us who have faith shouldn't frankly admit that we are animated by that
faith, that we try to live by it -- and that it does affect what we feel, what
we think, and what we do.(1)
In reviewing Stephen Carter's The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion,(2) one is also reviewing a cultural event. How many books, for example, are personally endorsed by the President of the United States?(3) Surely no recent book written by a law professor has received more reviews and been more the subject of discussion in the general media than has Professor Carter's.(4) He has received respectful, even lavish, praise from across the political and cultural spectrum.(5)
Carter mounts a vigorous attack on those who would "trivialize" religious faith by confining it, like a dotty old relative, to the attic of our public household. "[O]ur public culture," Carter argues, "more and more prefers religion as something without political significance, less an independent moral force than a quietly irrelevant moralizer, never heard, rarely seen" (p. 9). As a consequence, insists Carter, the surrounding political order treats one's focus on religion as a constitutive aspect of one's life merely as a "hobby,"(6) Similar, presumably, to the interest of the avid philatelist or the builder of model airplanes (p. 22), rather than recognizing it as deeply constitutive of one's very identity. To describe something as a hobby, says Carter, is to label it as "something quiet, something private, something trivial -- and not really a fit activity for intelligent, public-spirited adults" (p. 22). All can enjoy their pursuits in "private" while having the good grace and common sense to refrain from more than casual reference to their obsessions when encountering in the civic, heterogeneous, "public square"(7) those of one's fellow citizens who do not share one's own religious commitments. In the name of his fellow religious believers,(8) Carter objects to the marginalization purportedly imposed upon them.
I say "purportedly" because, as Oliver Thomas, an official of the Baptist Joint Committee, has written, a contemporary observer of the political scene could quite easily describe "a public square that is not only well clothed in the garb of religion but perhaps a bit overdressed."(9) Thomas invokes, among other things, the 1988 candidacies of Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson, both ordained ministers; certainly no one could accuse God, at least as a referent, of being absent from the 1992 political campaign. As illustrated by the prefatory quotation to this review, President Clinton is scarcely unwilling to evoke his own religious beliefs in public, as is also true of Vice-President Gore.(10) As Michael Kinsley suggests,(11) it remains suicidal for any politician to suggest that she has no belief in God and finds the idea of prayer to be a childlike reversion to magical thinking.
Carter rather casually dismisses all such arguments:
In truth, the seeming ubiquity of religious language in our public debates
can itself be a form of trivialization -- both because our politicians are
expected to repeat largely meaningless religious incantations and because
of the modem tendency among committed advocates across the political
spectrum to treat Holy Scripture like a dictionary of familiar quotations,
combing through the pages to find the ammunition needed to win political
arguments. [p. 45] One does not know, of course, whether Carter would apply these same strictures to Clinton and Gore. If so, his critique is powerful indeed -- and President Clinton might wish to have his recent Yale Law School portrait retouched;(12) if not, this raises the obvious question as to how one distinguishes the trivial from the authentic -- or at least nontrivial -- invocation of religious themes beyond one's liking for the politicians in question and for the policies they espouse.
Carter can probably save much of his thesis if he simply restricts it to the particular culture of the academy rather than offering it as a depiction of American culture at large, assuming there is any such thing. It is hard to gainsay the general secularism of the academy -- particularly the elite legal academy within which Carter has chosen to spend his own life. It is relatively rare to find even a thoroughly mainstream Episcopalian academic like Carter, let alone an "out" evangelical Christian who is more sympathetic to the claims of "creation science" than to those of Darwinian evolutionism.(13)
Carter's thesis and overall approach are in several important respects similar to Michael Perry's, especially as developed in Perry's recent Love and Power.(14) First, both criticize those liberals -- including Carter's Yale colleague Bruce Ackerman -- who would limit participation in public debate to those willing to obey "a set of conversational rules that require the individual whose religious tradition makes demands on his or her moral conscience to reformulate that conscience -- to destroy a vital aspect of the self" (p. 229). This self-destruction results from expressing any public claim in a secularized language that, by definition, omits reference to any religious foundation for that claim. Carter notes Perry's own insistence that acceptance of any such exclusion of explicitly religious convictions and the language in which they are expressed "would be to bracket -- indeed, to annihilate --" essential aspects of one's very self.(15) Instead of offensively requiring any such bracketing, liberals, according to Carter, must "develop a politics that accepts whatever form of dialogue a member of the public offers. Epistemic diversity, like diversity of other kinds, should be cherished, not ignored, and certainly not abolished" (p. 230). Indeed, he points out, correctly, I believe, that liberals who are wont to praise multiculturalism and diversity in most contexts are often hesitant to extend the same welcome to those who speak, and act in accordance with, the language of traditional religion.(16)
It is worth noting, though, that Carter, like Perry, in fact seems most comfortable when writing in the standard voice of the liberal academic, even as he calls for greater toleration of epistemic diversity. Indeed, one of the striking aspects of Carter's book is that not one of its substantive arguments, at least in regard to the issues of conventional politics, is made in what might be termed a specifically religious voice. As Emily Fowler Hartigan well points out, Carter's book is about the importance of religious language rather than written in any such language.(17) There is almost no resonance in The Culture of Disbelief of the "confessional"(18) voice found in the writing of fellow Christians like Milner Ball,(19) Thomas Shaffer,(20) or Hartigan herself(21) Carter does refer to his own religiosity and comment on the importance of school prayer for his children,(22) and at one point he suggests that he had engaged in "prayerful consideration" of the "will of God" in regard to the controversy over the ordination of women within the Episcopal Church.(23) Otherwise, there is not a single paragraph in The Culture of Disbelief that would be out of place in the writings of secular, accommodationist liberals like myself and my colleague Douglas Laycock. Carter, says Hartigan, "asks for the public to embrace the previously personalized religious sphere, but does not [himself] demonstrate what he advocates space for."(24) Whatever Carter's defense of religious devotion, he does not "give ... witness to its role in his own life,"(25) at least insofar as his discussion of public policy is concerned.
The closest he comes to anything that might be labeled "witness" is in a dramatic response to an assertion by Justice Douglas in his dissenting opinion in Wisconsin v. Yoder.(26) Douglas asserted that, "[w]hile the parents, absent dissent, normally speak for the entire family, the education of child is a matter on which the child will often have decided views."(27) Thus, argued Douglas, the state should ascertain the specific desires of the children in question rather than defer to their parents' desires that they receive religiously based education. "It is," said Douglas, "the student's judgment, not his parents', that is essential .... "(28) Carter not only describes Douglas's views as "eccentric" but also, more importantly, goes on to say that if "the state should somehow undertake to learn whether our children really want to attend a religious school," then "I am quite sure that my family, and many others too, will pick up and leave the United States, for no nation that strips away the right of parents to raise their children in their religion is worthy of allegiance" (p. 192). No one can miss Carter's passion on the point, but his very invocation of the language of rights -- rather, say, than the God-commanded duty to raise his children in the one true path -- reveals how very much the basic language of his argument is thoroughly mainstream.
Thus, for better or worse, and regardless of whether one agrees with Carter concerning each and every particular about public policy,(29) he does not speak in a voice that is basically challenging, or even "defamiliarizing,"(30) to any but the most antireligious secularist. For me, this is for the better; it surely makes his arguments accessible to a far wider audience than might otherwise be the case. Still, this only reinforces Hartigan's observation that the ironic function, albeit surely not the purpose, of Carter's book may be to reinforce...