Stephen L. Carter

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

VTR Date: November 5, 1993

Guest: Carter, Stephen L.


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And as last time, no less a figure than the President of the United States gave us our lesson for today, when some months back, Bill Clinton told a gathering, “I bought a book on vacation called The Culture of Disbelief, and I would urge you all to read it.” Well, many Americans have done just that by now, and today we continue its exegesis with author Stephen L. Carter, the distinguished legal scholar and Yale University law professor 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.

And, Professor Cater, I think maybe the program today, I ought to begin by asking you what the connection is between these two seminal books.

CARTER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Besides the author.

CARTER: Well, you know, my view has long been that you need to take people out of boxes. You need to avoid stereotyping. You need to avoid putting people in categories that make it easy to make decisions about what they think, how they feel, before you get to know them. So my first book, in The Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, I was protesting – maybe in stronger terms than I should have – but I was protesting against the tendency of so many people across the political spectrum to lock Black people generally, and certainly Black intellectuals, into these little boxes that say, “We know everything we need to know about you, because we know you’re Black, we know your educational level. Therefore, we know all of your positions on every issue.”

Now, with The Culture of Disbelief, I’m trying to suggest that we do the same thing when confronting deeply religious people. When I tell people that I’m a Christian, I’m a committee Christian, and I also believe people should feel free to speak publicly on moral and political issues from the religious traditions, to talk about the things their religion can teach, people say, “Oh, yes, that’s that Christian Coalition stuff. Why else would he possibly be saying this?

In America we tend to use these boxes all the time to make it easier perhaps to deal with people. But we treat them as less than genuine human beings. We treat them as less than real, complex, valuable individuals we should get to know instead of casually dismissing.

HEFFNER: Well, you say we do this all the time. And certainly we do it in matters other than race and matters other than religion. Do you think it’s possible to avoid the shortcuts that the stereotypes provide?

CARTER: Oh, I hope so. I hope it is. That is, you know, people are just people. And people are individuals, and they’re all different. And the kind of relentless packaging of people that goes on in our society is very depressing. Of course people are busy. You don’t have time to get to know everyone. But you know, the problem with doing this in political debate, when you put people in little boxes like this, is that it enables you to reject their arguments without having to respond to them. This is a very alienating thing. You know, if you say to tens of millions of deeply religious American, “We don’t have to listen to you because you’re some kind of right-wing zealot,” that’s deeply alienating. It’s not the sort of thing that welcomes people into politics. What it does instead is drive them to a deep cynicism about the possibilities for liberal democracy. Cynicism that’s not justified, I think, but that we feed if we treat people in that fashion.

HEFFNER: But suppose I say to you I’m part of the, not moral majority, but part of this secular majority. There are 250 million people, a quarter of a billion people in this country. My concern is for majoritarianism. I am not concerned about “alienating,” to use your word, either those who are involved with Affirmative Action or those who are involved with profoundly religious thoughts. Aren’t we coming now to the, aren’t we paying the price of numbers in this country? Aren’t we paying the price of a kind of majoritarianism that we once trumpeted?

CARTER: I don’t think it has to be that way. That is, majoritarianism doesn’t necessarily mean I have 51 percent, therefore you and the other 49 percent are irrational fools if you oppose me. Besides, the point of political dialog, of political argument, is that arguments may have the power to persuade. So if you don’t have to listen to people because they’re in little, convenient boxes and can be tossed away, then that possibility of persuasion is lost.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you’re a good person, and you’re a rational person. You’re a reasonable person and you’re never going to say …

CARTER: I’m a religious zealot by many definitions. I’m a deeply religious person, I believe my convictions and my religious tradition has something to say to modern America.

HEFFNER: Yes, but …

CARTER: That makes me an irrational person …


CARTER: … by many definitions.

HEFFNER: You add, “By many definitions.” You surely don’t think so

CARTER: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. But there are many people in America today who take the attitude that if you want to say, “My religion says this is the answer to this moral dilemma,” that marks you as a zealot. That marks you as someone who’s dangerous to public dialog. That marks you as someone to be avoided.

HEFFNER: It’s not only religion, though, is it? It’s my philosophy, my beliefs. We don’t have those things kicking around as we used to?

CARTER: Well, maybe that’s true, although it’s funny, we don’t try to build the same kind of barriers against people who want to come and say, “My philosophy, my fundamental belief is … My moral sense tells me that this and this is the case.”

HEFFNER: Of course, as you suggest in our last program, perhaps that’s because there are very few groups of people who have the same philosophy who have exercised the same power and have had the same kind of impact upon our society as people who have been clothed in religious garb or who claim to pronounce their philosophy as religious persons.

CARTER: Yes, the “claim” part is very important …

HEFFNER: Uh huh.

CARTER: … because even though I’m a great respecter, obviously, of religion, of religions (plural) and of religious belief and religious rhetoric in public life, I don’t think that anyone who utters the word “God is necessarily thereby engaged in religious advocacy, or certainly advocacy from a particular religious tradition. Someone may just be manipulating these symbols. You see, I do think it’s true that there’s a great pressure, largely from a lot of people on the left, in the trivialization direction for religion, to treat religion as something unimportant in public affairs. But there’s also a trivializing force from the right. And the trivializing force from the right is the force that says, “These are symbols you can manipulate. If you say the right words in the right order, the religious automatons will march out and vote the right way.” Too many politicians, it seems to me, use the symbols of religion that way. And that’s just as trivializing and, to me as a religious person, just as offensive as a lot of the rhetoric on the left about “religion being dangerous, or being something that has no place in public affairs.”

HEFFNER: You, in the last program, last time, you were talking about the impact, or the line that was drawn in part by Roe v.Wade. And I wonder what you anticipate will happen further in the continuing struggle over abortion, because it’s not going to stop.

CARTER: No, it’s not going to stop.

HEFFNER: I mean, what do you really think the impact will be upon your concern upon that as a habit?

CARTER: I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what the future is in the abortion struggle. For myself, I tend to describe myself as moderately pro-choice. What I mean by that is I frankly find the arguments of both sides very compelling. That is, the pro-choice argument about the importance of reserving to women this fundamental right to choose whether to ear a child seems to me, in a sense, unassailable. But the pro-life position that calls us to examine the possibility that humanity is at stake here, that seems to be a very sensible position as well. It’s precisely because I find the positions equipoise that I think the government should hesitate the position. I think government has taken a position that brings it out on the pro-choice side. But that’s my balance. It’s not clear what society’s balance on this issue is. There’s not a strong majority – there’s no majority – in American society right now for either the extreme pro-life position of no abortions, or the extreme pro-choice position of all abortions available on demand. That is, while there are majorities who think that abortion for the most part should remain a woman’s unfettered choice, there are also majorities who favor such things as waiting periods, there are majorities in favor of such things as parental consent rules for minors. Now, a lot of people at both ends of the abortion spectrum don’t want to compromise on issues like that. But I think the future lies in that compromise direction, because that’s where most Americans are right now, and they’ve been there for 20 years.

HEFFNER: But that compromise in the center can’t possibly satisfy the group that has identified religious concerns with the anti-abortionists.

CARTER: That’s right, it can’t. But you know, my argument that the religious voice should be taken seriously in public affairs is not the same as an argument that just because it’s religious it should be privileged or it should win. I think a useful contrast is between today’s pro-life movement and yesterday’s Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement clearly was openly awash in religious rhetoric. Martin Luter King called for people to march on the ballot boxes until we elected representatives who “feared God.” If Pat Robertson said that, there would have been an explosion. But Martin Luther King said it. What was the difference?

The difference was that the Civil Rights Movement involved a religious rhetoric that somehow transcended religious difference, a religious rhetoric that could touch the hearts of religious believers from a variety of traditions, and of non-believers. A religious rhetoric that somehow, in spite of being openly religious, was able to touch that spot in the human heart where suddenly, without detailed argument, we just know right from wrong. The pro-life movement has not succeeded in finding a rhetoric like that, in finding a rhetoric that can touch the hearts of the great majority of Americans in just that way. And if they don’t find that rhetoric, they are going to fail, like every other political movement that can’t touch a majority ultimately fails.

So my claim is not that religious voices have to win. Only they should have a chance to make their argument. Because who knows, it might be persuasive.

HEFFNER: You know, in The Culture of Disbelief, that point, that beautiful point that you just made is so clear and so touching. And I would think would be so convincing, overwhelming, that no one could read you and understand no matter how many points you write and say so wonderfully well, I want the voice heard. I want the voice heard not for its own sake, but for our sake. And it’s strange there should be those who do not hear you saying that still.

CARTER: A lot of people don’t hear that. I still get letters all the time, you know, from people who say that the problem is, “You must be a stalking horse for the religious right characters. Why else would you write this book?” It’s been ironic, in a way. When I wrote the book I expected to catch a lot of flack from the left and to be more welcomed, whether I wanted to be or not, on the right. But the opposite has been more true. The book has generally received positive responses by liberals and people in the center, and a lot of conservatives, especially conservative activist, have been quite angry, and It’s only been written about this in and some of them have been, kind of send me letters telling me exactly why it is that they’re angry.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Let me ask you, you mention the role that religion played in the Civil Rights Movement. You were talking then about a Black involvement with religion, right?


HEFFNER: What is the level of that involvement, or what is becoming to the level of that involvement today in our lives generally, in other aspects of American life?

CARTER: In a survey a few years ago, it concluded that by some measures the Black community in the United States is the most religious community in the world. That may be slightly overstated, but I do think that a story that is constantly missed in America is just how deeply religious the Black community in America really is. It’s no accident that the Civil Rights Movement had its foundation in the churches. It’s no accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were religious leaders. It’s no accident that the non-violent wing of the Civil Rights Movement was led by the Southern Christian leadership conference. The deep, deep ties to religious institutions in the Black community are fundamental to understanding that community. And even people who have broken away from, say, Christianity, the fastest growing religion in America right now is Islam. And that growth is largely in the Black community. It’s something that one has to understand, I think, to understand the motivations and the lives of the majority of Black people in America.

HEFFNER: How do you explain the role that Islam is playing now in Black life?

CARTER: I don’t know. I mean, I’m not a sociologist. I can’t offer some of the sharp critiques or analyses that perhaps some people would. I would say this, though, I think that there are brands of Islam, more militant and fiery brands that respond to a great anger and frustration, alienation, that thousands, hundreds of thousands of African-American young people are feeling. And it’s very attractive. There are a lot of people who see their traditional Black Christian churches as some kind of cop-out. In the way that Islam is seen as more pre for a lot of people it’s also, I think, deeply tied to the notion of Afrocentrism and it’s seen as a more genuinely Black experience for a lot of people. I’m sorry people choose Islam sometimes for reasons of anger and frustration, but I’m very ecumenical. I think there are many, many paths to God. And this seems a perfectly reasonable one to me. Like any religion, it has extremists, it has people who can go overboard. But that’s not all of Islam.

CARTER: How do you react, personally, to the notion that Christianity did not sufficiently, and presumable does not sufficiently serve the Black community?

CARTER: Oh, I don’t think it’s true. I just don’t think that’s true. Even though there are many paths to God, as I say, I think that the role of the Christian Church in the Black community has been tremendously important, not only in such obvious and well-known roles as the Civil Rights Movement, but also in the transmission of values from one generation to the next. It’s been an important part of holding together communities that in other circumstances would have disintegrated. One of the terribly tragic things now, you talk to a lot of inner-city ministers, and what they talk about is their inability to get young people, especially young men who a generation ago would have been in the church, now it’s impossible to get a lot of those men into, those young men into the church.

HEFFNER: You say “A Generation ago.” But that’s you mean more than a generation ago, don’t you? I mean, let’s not forget how long we have been in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement itself.

CARTER: Thirty years ago. Let’s say 30 years ago, you could have gotten these young men, these young ppl with all of their anger, into the churches and not necessarily out on the streets. I think that this is beyond the Black community. I think that in the nation generally one of the major functions of religious institutions has always been to transmit values from one generation to the next. And one of the things we’re losing in America today is the ability in a coherent way to transmit values. It doesn’t have to be religious institutions that do it, but it’s hard to look around American society today and say, “Who else is going about the business of transmitting values from one generation to the next?” People are terrified of the schools teaching values, and with all respect, you can’t rely on the mass media to teach values. It’s not their job. So one has to wonder, where are the strong, positive values for young people going to come from. I think that may be one reason you see a lot ob baby boomers, as they have children, as their children get older, going back to church, going back to church for just that reason. That this is a place where their children can find a moral center that they might not be able to find anywhere else in society.

HEFFNER: Do you think that will change what it is you have been describing in The Culture of Disbelief? Do you think we will move away from a culture of disbelief, therefore to a culture of belief?

CARTER: Oh, I hope so. And I hope so in the sense that we will evolve into a culture that is more welcoming to the religious voice than the one we have now. I wouldn’t want to see a culture where, say, you had only a few religions, or everyone believed exactly the same things. I wouldn’t want to lose that wonderful pluralism. Because out of that pluralism and diversity the new moral resistance comes that can form a new consensus for change somewhere down the road. But I do think that the movement – it is a slight one but a steady one – of some younger people back to the churches is a good thing.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me that you, as a conservative person, don’t think you would describe yourself as …

CARTER: I don’t describe myself that way. Some people call me conservative.

HEFFNER: I didn’t stereotype.

CARTER: Some people call me a liberal. I see myself as an extreme moderate. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: An extreme moderate. I have to think about that one. But it’s interesting to me that you have, a couple of times now, talked about down the road building protest.

CARTER: Resistance.

HEFFNER: resistance.


HEFFNER: How do you come by that? I mean, why does that please you? What is there? Is this the juxtaposition of ideas, idea-against-ideas ethic?

CARTER: You know, government is a tremendously powerful shaper of feelings, passions, ideas, and meanings, as I say in the book. That is, what we think of the world is largely shaped by government. The way that you keep a government, whether it’s a democratic government or some other kind, from becoming a totalitarian force, is you develop other institutions that can provide other competing meanings. That helps reduce the level of government authority. And in our history, one of the most important of those institutions has been the religious institution. I value the ability of the religious institution to stand up and resist and say, “No. We have a different meaning that we want to present.” Because otherwise where are you going to come from? You don’t have other institutions that deal with the ultimate questions. And if you don’t have institutions that deal with the ultimate questions, you won’t have people who think they’ve found the ultimate answers, and are therefore willing to proclaim that different vision, that disobedience, publicly in a way that may resonate with their fellow citizens and lead to successful social change.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you friends in the academy say just precisely that that is their, if not their function, at least that is what they do in large part?

CARTER: That is what they do sometimes. And that’s an important role for the academy to play. But you know, the academy today, like a lot of religions, has been largely seduced by power, y the notion that we aren’t just here teaching and talking; we’re movers and shakers. We move in the councils of government. We go through the revolving door, we serve on commissions, we do this and that and the other thing. And this is always the danger for someone who is supposed to be the resister. See, that’s the danger when religious groups, instead of becoming resisters, instead of meaning to influence government, get to run things in stead. Then they can’t resist anymore because they’re dictating the meaning. That was the inquisition. The inquisition came about when the church gave up the right to die for what it believed in exchange for the right to kill for what it believed. At that point, you’re no longer the resister; you’re the oppressor.

HEFFNER: And the academy today? Are you suggesting that the academy and organized religion are …

CARTER: All I’m suggesting that the academy today, is that the role of resistance is a tremendously important one and is played there, and that’s a good thing. But it is also the case that too many people in the academy are, in my judgment, seduced by the notion that, “Well, what I’m really angling for is this future job in this administration,” or, “The way I’ve got to be listened to really counts inside the beltway is to write this way instead of writing what I really believe.” The glory of the religions at their best is their willingness to proclaim openly, unashamedly, what they really believe. And if you don’t like it, you can say, “I disagree,” and we can have a knock-down, drag-out argument. And that’s fine, but there’s always the possibility that one will listen and be persuaded. And that’s great.

HEFFNER: Well, this is not a function of the secularization of America; this is the function of the role of the marketplace in America and of our increasing feeling that if I have mine, if I’m all right, Jack, the devil really can take the hindmost.

CARTER: It’s a very dangerous feeling. I wouldn’t be so quick to say that secularization and the role of the marketplace don’t have a lot in common. I would simply say that what’s vitally important as we go through our largely self-interested lives is that we not lose sight of the possibility that those who are spending the time contemplating the “ultimate questions, “ as I call them, as Paul Tillich called them, really, will have something valuable to teach.

HEFFNER: In, say, you refer to Tillich’s referring to them as “ultimate questions.” If they were ultimate or moral questions rather than religious questions, wouldn’t there have been something about us in the twilight of the 20th Century that would be more willing to embrace them than religious questions?

CARTER: I think that people who mare their arguments and say, “This si a moral argument,” are certainly more accepted than people who say, “This is a religious argument.” But I just don’t see the evidence that communities of moral contemplation, if you can put it that way, have provided, can provide the same kind of deep, resistive spark that you can get from a religious community that not only is considering questions in different ways, but even in some sense, sometimes, for a moment, acknowledges a different sovereign. That willingness to resist comes in part from the very deep belief that, “Yes, I’m an American citizen. I respect and am loyal to my government. But right now I am about God’s work in the world. And that means that I am willing to resist the demands that my fellow citizens make on me.”

HEFFNER: Professor Carter, I don’t know whether in the courtroom you were a litigator, but you sure know how to sum up the right way at the very right moment, because that’s the end of the program.

CARTER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

CARTER: Thanks once more for inviting me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today and our intriguing guest, 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.”