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The voice of religion in public debate


Title: "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion"

Author: Stephen L. Carter

Publisher: Basic Books

Length, price: 328 pages, $25 Stephen Carter's timing is impeccable. In 1991, the 38-year-old Yale Law School professor published "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby," a book in which he explored his ambivalent feelings about benefiting from affirmative action programs.

In that book, he also called for the inclusion of black conservatives in mainstream discussions of black issues. The book would have been Clarence Thomas' public introduction as a leading black conservative who opposed quotas and affirmative action programs. Instead, Mr. Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court delivered the book to a wide and unanticipated audience.

President Clinton's praise for Mr. Carter's latest book, "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion," has produced similar results. After reading the book, the president declared that "the people of faith in this country ought to be able to say that religion shapes their approach to public debate without someone saying, 'Oh, you're a right-winger.' "

Those words echo Mr. Carter's well-reasoned and quietly presented thesis, affirming that religion is entitled to claim an important place in the public square of political discourse. He asserts that in its purest form, religion acts as an independent and moral voice, reining in tyranny and keeping democracy exercised. He writes that the Founding Founders' purpose was to preserve "religious groups as autonomous moral and political forces, intermediate institutions, separate heads of sovereignty vital to preventing majoritarian tyranny . . . independent power bases that exist in large part in order to resist the state."

He observes that such resistance, which maintained a necessary tension between policies and values, was the basis of a number of progressive social movements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The civil rights movement was unabashedly religious in temperament and strategy, and anti-Vietnam War activists included well-known clergy who "freely invoked God's name."

Americans are a religious people, 80 percent of whom pray regularly and believe that God created human beings. However, for the past 20 years, religion has been relegated to the status of a "hobby, something done in privacy, something that mature, public-spirited adults do not use as the basis for politics." He links the change to the abortion debate.

The 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade was a political wake-up call for Christian fundamentalists and Roman Catholics who decided "the secular world was on the verge of destroying the tight religious cocoons in which they had bound their communities." Traditional religious protest was transferred to the nascent pro-life movement. It was at that point, Mr. Carter says, that liberals abandoned religious symbols and quashed religiously oriented political expression.

After that, he writes, the "religious argument has seemed largely a captive of the right, whereas the left, which once gloried in the idea that God stands for social progress, has more and more shied away from it . . . religiously devout people have come to see their natural home in the Republican Party." But Mr. Carter makes a significant contribution to Democratic strategy when he asserts that the "frankly religious appeals" that characterized the 1992 Republican National Convention trivialized rather than advanced religiously expressed politics.

Mr. Carter's analysis of America's complicated judicial relationship with religion is not as comprehensive as his sociological evaluations. He gives only passing notice to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and the book should have acknowledged the broad coalition of religious groups that put together a seminal piece of public policy.

The RFRA was developed after the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the state of Oregon's claim of a compelling interest in restricting the ritual use of peyote in Native American practice. But Mr. Carter does engage his readers in a lively and insightful discussion of the case. He correctly concludes that the court's decision did not sort out church and state interests, but created "a clear separation of church and self, a world in which . . TC religious practices at variance with official state policy are properly made subject to the coercive authority of the state."

He further explains that although "there is nothing wrong with the metaphor of a wall of separation [in deciding church/state issues], the wall has to have a few doors in it." Nevertheless he is unequivocal in his support for the First Amendment's ban on government-sponsored religion. He objects to prayer in public school as well as to displays of creches on public property.

Although "The Culture of Disbelief" is mostly successful in demonstrating that religion need not be incompatible with religious values, its triumph is in articulating the mind of "politics of meaning" which the Clintons, as well as the rest of the country, has been searching for.

Ms. Bolton-Fasman is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

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