The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion
by Stephen L. Carter
Basic Books, 328 pages, $25
Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter's first book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, opened with the arresting observation that “To be black and an intellectual in America is to live in a box.” The labels on that box read: “Handle with care or be accused of racism,” or “Do not presume the individual inside is qualified for his academic position,” or possibly “Caution: black neoconservative, probably a nut case.” Carter was most concerned to free black intellectuals from the box labelled “politically correct”—i.e., the assumption on the part of both blacks and whites that, since racial affirmative action exists to bring a “black perspective” into universities and other institutions, an “authentic” black will conform to a political stereotype.
In The Culture of Disbelief, Carter tries to declare independence from another confining stereotype, this time the requirement of religious correctness that applies to persons of all races who do not want the media and intellectual elites to label them as nut cases. When religion is defined as belief in supernatural intervention in human affairs, says Carter, the dominant liberal rationalist culture imposes “a common rhetoric that refuses to accept the notion that rational, public-spirited people can take religion seriously.” Carter is himself a church-going Episcopalian who at one point refers to “the revealed Word of God, Holy Scripture.” He and his wife send their children to a private religious school so that they can receive an education “that celebrates, not demeans, their religious beliefs,” and he reports that “prayer is a crucial part of our family life.” A seriously religious person himself, Stephen Carter aims to present “the case for taking religion seriously as an aspect of the lives and personas of the tens of millions of Americans who insist that religion is for them of first importance.”
Peter Berger once commented that if India is the most religious country in the world, and Sweden the least religious, then America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. The ruling philosophy of our Swedes is naturalism, the metaphysical doctrine that nature is a permanently closed system of material causes and effects that can never be influenced by something from outside—like God. From the Swedish viewpoint, the proposition that some supernatural being intervenes in nature or human affairs, or reveals its will through “Holy Scripture,” is inherently nonfactual. The ruling Swedes might recognize that religious “feeling” is a legitimate aspect of human subjectivity, but they emphatically object when people act on the fantasies produced by this feeling to the detriment of other people, or when delusionary beliefs impede the achievement of important social objectives. Above all, they will not tolerate any effort by the Indians to replace naturalism—or rationality, as the Swedes think of it—with some superstition involving an imaginary Supreme Being.
The Swedish colonial rulers in this metaphor comprise the American intellectual elite, including the law professors and judges who seem to be Carter's primary intended audience. For the most part Carter simply urges the rulers to treat the Indians with respect, and to grant them a bit more freedom in areas where important state policies are not genuinely threatened. Like most constitutional law professors, Carter is sharply critical of the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith. This decision held specifically that a state may enforce its drug laws against Native Americans who have a religious obligation to ingest ceremonial peyote, and more generally that the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion does not require the government to make exceptions to laws of general applicability for the benefit of persons who have genuine religious scruples about obeying them. Carter favors granting such religious exemptions where there are no compelling reasons for denying them, and notes that Congress is likely to pass a law to that effect. On such matters, the Swedes can afford to be kind to the Indians.
Treating people kindly is not the same thing as taking them seriously, however. When we take people seriously we grapple with their arguments, and consider the possibility that what they believe might actually be true. The Swedes are never going to take the Indians seriously in that sense, and when their vital interests are at stake, they are not going to be lenient either. What Carter calls the “religious right” in American politics represents a real challenge to Swedish power, and when he turns to this subject Carter loyally employs all the buzzwords of Swedish propaganda to crush the rebels. His chapter on the efforts of the Christian Coalition to elect candidates to local school boards is titled “Religious Fascism,” although he says nothing about the agenda of the group that remotely justifies the use of that ugly word. Commenting upon the rhetoric at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Carter is as partisan and simplistic as a New York Times editorial writer:
After the 1992 Republican Convention, which filled the air with the kind of cruel and divisive rhetoric which gives religion a bad name, Tom Wicker of the New York Times was led to draw an analogy between the antics of the religious right and the Salem witch trials of three centuries past. The comparison was apt, for the Salem trials, most historians now agree, rested on a societal distaste for those who were different, particularly when those who were different were women.
I assume Carter must have in mind the most widely criticized speech at the convention, in which Pat Buchanan said that there was a “religious war” going on in America, and announced that “We stand with (President Bush) for freedom of choice for religious schools, and we stand with him against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women. We stand with President Bush for a right to life, and for voluntary prayer in the public schools, and against putting women in combat.”
For a writer whose aim is to persuade his readers to take strong public religious commitments seriously, Carter makes remarkably little effort to explain why statements of this sort might make sense to people who still believe in biblical standards of morality. His own book describes a cultural hostility towards supernatural religion that makes the reference to a religious war at least understandable, and I wonder if Carter himself really thinks that opposition to extending marital status to homosexual couples should be dismissed out of hand as bigotry. If it was cruel and divisive for the Republicans to support a right to life, what should we say of Democrats, who refused to allow Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey to speak at all in favor of moderate restrictions on abortion? But the Democratic convention was conducted entirely in Swedish, and hence what was done there needs no justification.
It is when he turns to the debate over evolution and creation, however, that Carter most clearly betrays his ambivalence about whether he wants to be a Swede or an Indian. Here the issue is whether the Indians may tell the Swedish schoolmasters in the classroom why they don't believe the Swedish creation story. Regular readers of First Things know that I have stirred discussion on this subject in a book in which I explain that a “creationist,” in the important sense, is a person who believes that God creates, whatever he thinks of the literal Genesis account. The opposite of creation is not evolution, if the latter is consistent with a God-directed process, but naturalism, which happens to be the philosophy that justifies Swedish rule. If naturalism itself were called into question, perhaps by a debate in the educational institutions and the media in which the Indians were seen to discredit the Darwinian mechanism of mutation and selection, continued Swedish rule over the cognitive territory would be jeopardized. That is why the Swedes are so fiercely determined not to allow the debate to occur.
Carter, who cites my book in his reference notes, remarks of himself that “I am no creationist—not, at least, in the popular sense.” That circumlocution will baffle readers not aware of the background, but to me it implies that Carter is uncomfortably aware that, as a believer in a God who intervenes in worldly affairs, he is a creationist in the “unpopular” (nonliteralist) sense. If that were frankly acknowledged, he could hardly condemn out of hand the creationist argument that a theory founded upon an a priori faith in metaphysical naturalism may not be true. Indeed, Carter does defend the creationists as sincere believers in a Bible-based epistemology. That is safe enough, however, because to Swedish ears it means only that they are sincerely committed to an absurdity.
The way to get into serious trouble on this issue is to suggest that the Indians might have rational arguments that deserve a fair hearing in a respectable forum. Carter is not about to jeopardize his own standing in the Swedish establishment by treason of that kind, and so he does exactly what he did with respect to the religious right's opposition to the gay and feminist agendas: he defers to a Swedish authority as if to an impartial judge. In this case the judge is Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel laureate physicist and passionate creation-basher. On such authority Carter concludes that creationist arguments are “shoddy science, not science at all, really,” and hence should not be heard in public schools. What he does not say, or perhaps understand, is that the Swedish definition of “science” excludes in principle any consideration that a creator might have been involved in bringing about our existence.
I hope my argument is not misconstrued as disrespectful to Swedes (my own paternal heritage), Indians (with whom I symbolically identify), or Stephen Carter. Carter is an intelligent and decent man who is having an important constructive effect in our insular academic world, where for all the talk of “diversity,” one rarely hears any language but Swedish. I hope he writes many more books, and eventually breaks out of the most confining box of all, the one labeled “made in Sweden.”
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law at Boalt Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.