Washington. -- Is religion back in vogue? The very popularity of a new book that says it is not tells me that maybe it is.
"The Culture of Disbelief," by Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter, has attracted a surprisingly brisk amount of attention by exploring the ambivalent relationship we modern Americans have with religion.
"In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them," he writes.
Mr. Carter makes a good point. Fond of our traditions that separate the state from our churches, synagogues and temples, we Americans are simultaneously reverent of religion and embarrassed by it, especially in our political and social activism.
If the first lady wears a simple little cross around her neck, as Hillary Clinton did at some inaugural events, someone inevitably raises questions as to its appropriateness, as one television commentator did, in a moment I think sounded particularly silly. The Constitution says only that the state shall not infringe on religious practices. The state does not have to be hostile to religion.
But that ambivalence may be wavering these days back toward the church. President Clinton carried Mr. Carter's book around with him on vacation, contributing handsomely to its sales. Hillary Clinton has held chats with Michael Lerner, publisher of Tikkun, the Jewish-oriented liberal monthly, on his faith-linked "politics of meaning." Princeton's Cornell West, son of a black preacher, in his best-selling "Race Matters," decries the new "nihilism" that has reduced the reverence some inner-city youths have for life, including their own lives.
Responding to the rising intensity and irrationality of crime in poor black communities, Jesse Jackson is using his formidable attention-grabbing skills to enlist black churches the way he has buttonholed politicians and business executives in the past.
Calling his program "Reclaim Our Youth," Mr. Jackson has been asking black churches of various cities to attack the root causes of crime and violence -- hopelessness, family disunity, poor performing schools and lackluster values -- even if it steps on familiar toes and risks charges of "blaming the victim."
"Three hundred and sixty-two blacks under the age of 21 have been killed by other blacks in New York City this year," he said Monday at a church in New York's Harlem. "More than 300 in New Orleans. Around the country there is this rage of violence, not born of poverty and neglect as much as driven by drugs and guns and perverse values."
A week earlier, Mr. Jackson spoke just as passionately at the District of Columbia funeral of 4-year- old Launice Janae Smith, who was killed by a stray bullet at a playground.
He has spoken many times before about how often his fellow African-Americans hold themselves back more effectively than racism or lynchings ever did.
"We have lost more lives to dope than we ever did to the rope," he has preached.
His new program calls on black community churches to help distribute cards that pledge parents to take their children to school, meet their teachers, read their children's report cards and turn off their televisions at home for at least three hours every night.
For those of us who have become seasoned veterans at covering Mr. Jackson, his new plan sounds a lot like some of his old ones, particularly Operation PUSH for Excellence, which works through schools to enlist parents, teachers and students in a similar battle for educational excellence.
Unfortunately, PUSH for Excellence sounds better than it has performed. Some schools show more improvements than others, depending on who joins and runs the program.
I think the most encouraging turn in his new program is its enlistment of black churches, the historical fountainhead of black culture, music, values, moral codes and community cohesion. From its very beginnings, the black church has been the spawning ground for black leadership, civil-rights activism and political organizing.
Rooted perhaps more firmly in the Old Testament liberation theology of Moses than in the Christian traditions of the New Testament, the black church gave spiritual sanctuary to our ancestors during slavery and helped hold together the information networks that helped many to escape through the Underground Railroad.
Yet, in modern times it seems to many of us who were raised in it to have turned inward, holding on to its traditional flock more than it has reached out to help save its communities. Why not enlist this formidable institution, with its excellent record of grass-roots community action, to reach poor folks who need help the most?
Black community churches have a long-established record of working with government to sponsor non- exclusionary day care and low-income housing developments. Perhaps the time has come to enlist them in the cause of fortifying the values that lead young people to illiteracy, poverty, hopelessness, violence and crime.
It's worth a try. I don't think the church will replace concerted, targeted government action or private-sector economic development, but it will help.
Besides, as we used to say in Sunday school, the Lord helps those who help themselves.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.