Seeking respect for religion

Monday Review

November 15, 1993|By Michiko Kakutani

THE CULTURE OF DISBELIEF: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. By Stephen L. Carter. Basic Books. 328 pages. $25.

JUST published in September, "The Culture of Disbelief," a study of religion in America by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, has already become one of those books discussed at dinner parties by people who haven't read them.

Mr. Carter has been interviewed at length on "The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour," his ideas have been debated by political columnists and his book even garnered a recommendation from President Clinton at a recent prayer breakfast.

The attention is well deserved. Though some of Mr. Carter's assertions are highly debatable, though some of his arguments are easily assailable, "The Culture of Disbelief" is a provocative and thoughtful book about an important aspect of our national life that's all too often the subject of knee-jerk thinking and reaction.

Its central premise is that the liberal establishment has spent the last two decades -- since 1973, when abortion erupted as a national issue with the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade -- trying "to banish religion" from the political stage.

"One sees a trend in our political and legal cultures," Mr. Carter writes, "toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by a rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion."

"The Culture of Disbelief" -- like the author's previous book, "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby" -- employs many arguments usually associated with conservatives. But Mr. Carter says he writes as a liberal who wants liberal politics to reclaim the religious vocabulary (and respect for religion) that has been largely ceded to the right in recent years.

He is "moderately pro-choice," he says, and he supports the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. He opposes capital punishment and defends the ban on organized prayer in public schools.

On other issues, Mr. Carter points out, he takes "positions that liberals tend to reject." He defends broad parental rights to exempt children from educational programs on religious grounds and defends participation by parochial schools in private-school voucher programs.

He also believes the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the organization that sponsors New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade, had every right, under the First Amendment, to exclude homosexuals this year.

As Mr. Carter sees it, a religion "often thumbs its nose at what the rest of the society believes is right" and "democracy needs its nose-thumbers": It needs independent moral forces that will question and resist simple (and potentially tyrannical) majoritarian rule.

Mr. Carter's complaint that religions outside "the mainline Protestant-Roman Catholic-Jewish troika" are treated with suspicion and contempt takes on added resonance in the wake of the recent conflagration over the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and his succinct deconstruction of the historical relationship between church and state in America evinces both nimble legal scholarship and plain common sense.

On other matters, Mr. Carter is less persuasive. His complaint that the liberal establishment treats religion as a "hobby" -- something akin to "building model airplanes," "something quiet, something private, something trivial" -- comes across as a grossly overstated generalization.

In fact, in his eagerness to condemn liberals' disdain for religion, he conveniently glosses over the fact that the two most recent Democratic presidents -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- are liberals and avowed Christians who regularly attend church. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, similarly, is mentioned only in passing.

Although Mr. Carter can be eloquent on our secular society's failure to appreciate the role that the mystical, the irrational and the spiritual play in human affairs, his fervor on this subject can lead to other contradictions and oversimplifications.

For instance, his suggestion that the Democrats' electoral difficulties in the 80s were due to "the relentlessly materialistic character of their campaign rhetoric" blatantly ignores such campaign realities as internal party divisions, poorly organized and less-than-charismatic candidates and the Republicans' own

ferocious (and sometimes cynical) manipulation of "family values" issues.

Such occasional lapses in "The Culture of Disbelief" may irritate the reader; they should not, however, dissuade anyone from delving into this prickly, challenging book.

Michiko Kakutani wrote this for the New York Times.

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