Stephen L. Carter

The Culture of Disbelief: America’s Culture of Disbelief, Part I

VTR Date: November 5, 1993

Guest: Carter, Stephen L.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Stephen Carter, Part I
VTR: 11/5/93
“America’s Culture of Disbelief”

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And, as an author who was, and who plans to be again someday soon, and who delighted no end at seeing my Documentary History of the United States on Harry Truman’s desk when the former president went home again to Missouri in 1953, I tell you, I just can’t imagine a nicer sound, for an author, than that of the President of the United States saying about one’s latest creature, “I bought a book on vacation called The Culture of Disbelief by Stephen Carter, and I would urge you all to read it.”

Indeed, I did read it. I did read Basic Books’ The Culture of Disbelief, partly because of Bill Clinton’s further comment about the book: “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that those of us who have faith shouldn’t frankly admit that we are animated by that faith.” And partly too because I so much admire the book’s author, Yale law professor, Stephen L. Carter, the distinguished legal scholar who joined me here on The Open Mind two years ago to discuss his other provocatively personal Basic Book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby.

Now, since this program is meant to be somewhat of an exegesis of The Culture of Disbelief, I suspect there is no way better to being than with its title.

And, Professor Carter, I welcome you, and turn to The Culture of Disbelief, and ask you to explain it.

CARTER: We live in America in a strangely contradictory society. On the one hand, as most surveys indicate, we are the most religious nation in the Western world. But at the same time, our popular culture, our political culture, and our legal culture create a strange pressure on believers to keep their religion out of public debate, to somehow split off from their selves the religious part of their personalities, as though that’s an inferior way of knowing the world, something that will pollute the pure water of our politics. My view is that we make a mistake this way. We play into stereotypes. Stereotypes that say deeply religious people are irrational. Stereotypes that say deeply religious people are part of the right wing. We should be fighting those stereotypes and welcoming people into political debate and moral debate based on whatever language, whatever traditions most deeply move them.

HEFFNER: You mean this is your own personal multicultural approach to religion?

CARTER: Well, there are a lot of analogies between the multiculturalism movement, I suppose, and what I’m talking about. America is a nation that guarantees religious freedom. I think that means we have to truly value religion. We can be a pluralistically religious society and protect everyone’s right to religious faith, and at the same time recognize that religious traditions have been vitally important contributors to the progress of American society. That’s a progress we shouldn’t lose, shouldn’t forget. Everyone talks about the religious voice in the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s accurate. People talk about religious voice in the abolitionist movement, and that’s accurate. But in fact, almost every successful social movement in America before the 1970’s was either founded in religious communities or openly awash in religious language. This was true of the women’s suffrage movement, this was true of the early labor movement, many of the early business regulatory movements. One after another, when you look at American history, what you see is the deep and, I would say, often positive influence of open and unashamed expressions of religious feeling.

HEFFNER: What happened?

CARTER: There are different theories about what happened. My own view is that Roe versus Wade happened. That is, after the abortion decision of 1973, 20 years ago, a number of liberals, most perhaps, became worried because they would look around, and more and more the religious voice once one saw in public affairs was the voice of the pro-life or anti-abortion movement. And I think in the last 20 years, as that voice has grown louder, and I would say often more strident, we have come up with this uneasy and inaccurate equation. An equation that says if you are one of those people who wants to talk in public about what your religious faith teaches about morality, you must also be one of those people who wants to ban abortion or do any of a series of other things that for many liberals are understandably very troubling.

HEFFNER: Let me understand this. You feel that before Roe v. Wade, the notion of God as a hobby really didn’t play such a prominent role in this country?

CARTER: I think before the 1960’s, 1970’s – I don’t want to pick a single traditional moment – but I think that if you go back for most of American history, certainly the first century and a half, century and 60 or 70 years of American history, even though people might disagree about religions – one person would have one view; one would have another – that no one took the view, or hardly anyone took the view that there was something wrong when religious people said publicly , “We think the right way to resolve this moral controversy is X, Y or Z. And the reason we think that is because that’s what our religious tradition teaches.” That didn’t become some sort of foreign language to many Americans until the last couple of decades.

HEFFNER: But you know, as I read The Culture of Disbelief, I couldn’t help but think, well, the old expression “There are no atheists in foxholes,” I couldn’t help but think, as an historian, that it was World War I, it was the change form the 19th Century and all that had gone before to the new industrial America, and then to World War I and what came afterwards, thinking about the breakdown of morals and manners and religion in the 1920’s, don’t you really feel this is something that goes back considerably much further than Roe v. Wade?

CARTER: Well, I would separate two things. One point, the point that you just suggested, is when religion began to lose its hold over a lot of Americans as the most important force in their lives. And that would be tied not only to the post-war period and the various social upheavals of that era, but also to the wave of immigration. Because there’s a period, of course, in American history when people talked about religion, what they meant was a kind of American-style Protestantism. And a lot of Americans in the 19th Century, even some of the framers of the Constitution, saw Catholicism and Judaism as these foreign, un-American religions. Well, that was a terrible thing. That was a terrible thing. And to the extent that the vision of America as ruled by one religion was upset in the early 20th Century, it’s good that it was upset. It’s good that we’re past that. But even then, even in the 1920’s and ’30’s and ’40’s, it was still the case that political activists, whatever their stripe, were quite unashamed of making public religious appeals. And the sense that there’s something shameful or almost un-American about making a public religious appeal for your position, that’s a fairly recent phenomenon in our history.

HEFFNER: But, you know, you started off the program by saying something that I won’t challenge – I don’t know enough to challenge it – but I question. It doesn’t quite ring true. And that is, and though I’ve heard it said at this table many times, we are the most religious people in the world.

CARTER: By many measures. In the Western world. In the Western, or the industrialized world is all we’re talking about. If you measure such things as the proportion of people who say they believe in God, or who believe that God created them specially, things like that, much higher levels than many other countries in the world.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you this: Are you willing to take as the criterion of whether we are religious people my saying I believe in God? Or his saying, or her saying that?

CARTER: I like to think of religion as going deeper than that, of course. That is, religion for me, the essence of what makes religion so special, and so different from other parts of human endeavor, is the way that communities of believers seek a common knowledge or common understanding about the ultimate questions, about the most important questions confronting them. It may be issues relating to life and death. Maybe questions of other kinds. The reason that’s a wonderful and important phenomenon, and one that we as a democracy ought to cherish, is that it’s out of that search, that search for meaning, meaning that may be different from the meaning that the rest of the world, the rest of the society accepts, it’s out of that search that resistance comes, the willingness to stand up to the government and say, “We think you’re wrong.” The abolitionist movement is exactly like that. What you saw was a nation imposing a vision of enslaved Africans as inferior, sometimes as inhuman, certainly as being in the bottom of the hierarchy. And that abolitionists, out of religious fervor, saying, “We have a different vision of reality. And the fact that you’re the majority, and we’re a religious minority, is not going to make us stop, because we answer to a higher sovereign.” That’s a good and valuable kind of challenge that we ought to cherish, we ought to nurture. Not because the people doing the challenging will always be right. Sometimes they’ll be wrong. Sometimes they’ll be dangerous. But we need to nurture it because sometimes they will be right.

HEFFNER: But you seem to be saying that in our press and in our politics, although I’m aware of the fact that in your subtitle, How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, you didn’t say “American Law, Politics, and Press” and …

CARTER: No, I’m not a big media-basher. I’m really not.

HEFFNER: Do you have to be a basher to put the press in there?

CARTER: No, you don’t have to be a basher. I think there is a lot of media bashing that goes on. You see some religious figures, I saw someone on television the other night, complaining there’s a media conspiracy against Christianity, someone was saying, trying to raise money for some appeal on the basis. I think that kind of rhetoric is a little bit silly. But I do think that sometimes the media covers religion in ways that do a disservice to the deep feelings of tens of millions of Americans. It’s kind of sad to me that the media is much more fascinated by clergy misconduct, Jimmy Swaggert or the problems of child abuse by some Catholic priests. These are serious problems, but a notion that that’s a more fascinating story than the genuine, positive, affirming function that religions serve in the lives of tens of millions of people everyday, that’s a little bit troubling to me.

Also, the religious-right phenomenon is another example of this. Every blockade of an abortion clinic gets enormous coverage from television. Understandably, it’s a nice picture. You can show the image on television. Something like the sanctuary movement. Here you have what’s described as a left-wing religious activism. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people involved in it. Shielding Central American refugees so they won’t be returned to oppressive governments. Relatively little national media coverage in the 1980’s when it was going on at the same time and with the same fervor, and sometimes with many more people involved than, say, Operation Rescue.

HEFFNER: But, of course, what I keep wondering about is the level, the role that nostalgia plays, or the past plays in your formulation here. I mean, you’re saying American law and American politics trivialize something that you see as very much present in our lives: religious devotion. My only question is, it’s, I mean, you don’t have to go very far to see the trivialization process take place. My only question is: To what degree does that religious devotion really exist, and whether our law and our politics – and I would add, our press – aren’t all reflecting what has happened to our culture, what has happened to the role that religion plays aside from politics, our politics and our law?

CARTER: It’s a fair question. That is, I wouldn’t want to suggest that there was this period in American history when everything was rosy for the relationship of religion to government or to politics, or of religions to each other. But I do think that there was a time in our history when religion as a genuine facet of human personality, as something that could be a part of someone’s motivation without marking them as neurotic, was more respected than today. Now, I’m not talking about respect, I’m not talking about agreement. You can disagree with someone’s religious argument as forcefully as you want without having to engage in theological terms. If someone is pro-choice, and they hear a pro-life religious argument disagree vehemently, that’s great. But my point is that it’s important to respect the religious voice enough to disagree with it, as against treating it as something that can be just dismissed from the conversation because, “Well, that’s religiously motivated. I don’t even have to pay attention to it.”

HEFFNER: Well, of course, I guess the point I would raise is whether the religious voice, as you call it, is heard sufficiently in our country for there to be the kind of widespread concern that you wish there were.

CARTER: It’s a fair question. I think that there’s a lot of the religious voice out there, but an imbalance is developing. That is, nowadays when people think of the religious voice, they think of the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan, and so on. Filling the air with the kind of terribly divisive rhetoric that tends to give religious rhetoric in public life a bad name. That voice is becoming more dominant. That voice is, for more and more people, the image of the religious voice in public affairs. Not a day goes by since this book has been published when I don’t get a letter from someone who says, “Carter, I haven’t read your book, but I’ve heard about it. And what you don’t understand is, the reason we’re against this religious talk in public is because all those religious people want to do is oppose this and this and this on the rest of us.” They write those letters because that’s the voice that we mostly hear. Now, is that because that’s the only voice the media is covering? Or is that for some other reason? I think there’s a combination. Because it’s also true that as we developed this image, this stereotype, I would say, of the religious voice as being part of the right-wing rhetoric, people who might be liberals or moderates, or even moderate conservatives, who would like to make appeals, public appeals in religious terms, they feel driven maybe to edit themselves, maybe not to say things they want to say because they don’t want to be associated with what we call the religious right. So there’s a terrible negative synergy going on where more and more we hear this one voice dominating the public conversation about the role of religion in politics. People who might have competing visions, because that voice is so powerful, people who might have competing visions decide they shouldn’t speak at all lest they be associated with that other voice. And so the other voice becomes more dominant. And so that negative synergy is exactly what I’m trying to break up.

HEFFNER: Well, I suppose the ’92 Republican Convention, along with Elmer Gantry, probably …

CARTER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … a half-century before or more, probably did the worst along the lines that you’re talking about. What do you think President Carter contributed to this whole blind-siding that you’re referring to?

CARTER: You know, the election of President Carter in ’76 was a fascinating event in a lot of ways, because he had this coalition that included a lot of Southern Baptists who were sort of routinely seen as lock-step Republican voters. I don’t know it’s any accident that the last two Democratic presidents to be elected were both very openly religious Southerners. This is not to say that Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were not religious people. They may well have been. It’s rather that somehow, there’s something I think about Jimmy Carter and about Bill Clinton that made millions of Americans feel this is someone with whom I’d have a comfort level if I sat down and want to talk about religion or about things spiritual, even about things deeply moving and deeply moral, that somehow this is someone who would be comfortable in that kind of conversation. That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that the Democratic Party would nominate for president someone who has that kind of comfort. To me, that’s a symbol that maybe from the liberal side of the equation there’s some softening of the kinds of positions that I talk about in the book. There’s some sign, although it’s a little bit shakier, that there’s a softening on the conservative side of the equation as well. There are some conservatives, some Republicans who have set out with the Republican Majority Coalition, I think it’s called, to try to distance their party from the particular wing of the party that controlled the agenda and the rhetoric of the 1992 convention.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’ll work?

CARTER: Politics isn’t my thing. I don’t know. People never thought the Democratic Leadership Council would be able to, in effect, rescue the Democratic Party from its own left wing. But it was successful in doing that, and elected a president. Will the Republican Party do it successfully? I think if it doesn’t do that successfully, if the Republican Party continues to play to what is worst, in my judgment, what is worst in American religious rhetoric, then I think it’s going to find, I think, some of its support slipping at the polls.

HEFFNER: I’m not going to hold my breath until that happens.

CARTER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But I do want to ask you, I mean, the question that comes up in The Culture of Disbelief time again was, of course, foreshortened in the op-ed piece you did in The New York Times in August ’93, you raised two questions, and I want to ask them of you. What precisely does it mean to be an American and religious? What is the proper scope of the influence of the religious self on the public self? And maybe let me focus on that second question. What, in your estimation, is the proper role?

CARTER: A lot of people, you see this a lot today in the writings of legal philosophers, political philosophers. You see it a lot in the word of some politicians and political activists. A lot of people have a view that even if you’re a deeply religious person, when you come out to argue in public about a moral issue, a political issue, you should leave your religious self at home. You should split that self off and talk in some different, perhaps more secular, language. And I understand the concern that drives that. People are worried, if people can talk in religious terms in politics, that we would just have noise, and people talking past each other. I understand the worry; I disagree with it. I think that it’s an unrealistic picture of the deeply religious personality to imagine splitting out of the self what may be most vital, what might do the most to give meaning to someone’s life. You just can’t ask that. So if you want a truly inclusionary politics, you have to welcome people into politics as they are, not tell them to make themselves over into someone else. Say, “You, as you are, come and speak in the language that’s most comfortable for you. And if we disagree with you, you’ll lose.”

HEFFNER: Yes, but you start off with the, you describe the fact that we start off with the notion that the bringing God in, bringing religion in as something beyond a hobby is, in itself, a negative thing. It’s not something that can be easily accepted.

CARTER: We’ve got to overcome that. We have to be able to draw the distinction between two responses to someone who’s bringing religion into public debate. One response, the bad response, is, “Since you’re talking about God, we can and should ignore you.” The better response is, “Okay, I’ve heard your argument. I disagree.” Now, the reason this distinction is crucial is that if you can’t make that distinction then you cannot distinguish Pat Robertson from Martin Luther King. Both of them brought religious rhetoric into public, and a lot of people, a lot of people who are involved in the so-called religious right point to the Civil Rights Movement and say, “That’s where we got it from. We are their inheritors.” Now, I would disagree that they are the inheritors of the Civil Rights Movement. But, you know, if it’s fundamentally wrong to bring religious dialog into public debate, then maybe they are the inheritors, because they’re the only people around doing that in a conscious way.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, you know, then I go to your chapter … You’re great at titles as well as chapters, but you’re really a terrific phrase-maker … when you write, “God as a hobby,” you’re writing about the perception that secular America has too frequently of those people who embrace religion. Don’t you have to deal with the notion too that God is a hobby for so many Americans.

CARTER: For many Americans, maybe God is a hobby, or something that’s not important. But for tens of millions of Americans the relationship to God and to the ultimate is crucial. Let me give you an example not drawn from our politics, but from our law. Let me tell you very briefly about a case. There was a case a few years ago in the Supreme Court that involved roughly the following facts: The Forest Service wanted to build a road and allow logging in a particular area that was sacred to several Indian tribes. Now, the tribes brought a lawsuit under the First Amendment. And they said, “If you allow logging in this area, our religion will be destroyed. We cannot practice our religion if you take away these trees and build that road.” It went all the way to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court said, “That’s too bad.” The Supreme Court said, in effect, “Yes, this will be devastating to your religion, but you lost in democratic politics. You lose.” Now, the subtitle there, or the sub, the message there, the subtext is, “This is not very important. This is just a religion. There’s a lot of religions out there. If this one is devastated, you can pick another one.” It really does treat religion as just this thing you choose, you put it on each day or each year like you try on a new suit of clothes.

HEFFNER: How could a secular society feel otherwise? How could a legal system feel otherwise?

CARTER: It’s not a matter of how a secular society feels. It’s a matter of how a society that has a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of religion feels. If we’re not willing to make, to carve out some small exceptions for religions that are not powerful enough to protect themselves, what we’ll end up with is a First Amendment that protects only powerful, mainstream religions, mainstream Protestantism, Judaism, and Catholicism, that are going to be unthreatened by state action because they’re powerful enough to protect themselves. But the sparkling diversity of religious life out there in the margins will be snuffed out.

HEFFNER: Now, we have 30 seconds left. Let me ask you in that time whether you think you have just described the future.

CARTER: I hope not. I’m a little optimistic in that, but I worry a lot.

HEFFNER: You worry a lot because you don’t see countervailing pressures at this point?

CARTER: I worry because we still tend too often to treat religion as an unimportant part of human personality that can easily be changed, and that’s wrong.

HEFFNER: Stephen Carter, I appreciate so much your joining me today. And as the president said, a terrific book, The Culture of Disbelief. Join me again, please stay where you are.

CARTER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time too. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”