The Culture of Disbelief
In his nineteenth century classic, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, that astute French observer of the young nation’s life, emphasized that “the religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States.” Religion’s importance in the United States, he added, was that it did so much to teach Americans what Tocqueville called “the art of being free.”
A century and a half after the publication of Democracy in America, Stephen L. Carter, a leading legal scholar at Yale University, amplifies key parts of Tocqueville’s understanding of religion in the United States. American religion, Carter affirms, still has much to teach about “the art of being free,” but today the religious atmosphere of the United States tends to hinder that instruction. It does so because the atmosphere is dominated by a political and legal culture that leans toward trivializing religious devotion. If that trend continues, Carter fears that the result will be a culture of disbelief. Such a culture will undercut the diversity of religious commitment and perspective that helps to ensure the vitality of democratic life.
Carter’s persuasive book combines theoretical and practical interpretation. Drawing on his impressive mastery of law and jurisprudence, as well as his perceptive religious understanding, he clarifies reflection about contemporary issues such as school prayer, abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. An additional virtue of the book is that Carter’s scholarly analysis never obscures where the author stands.
As a legal scholar, he believes that the dominant legal and political forces in contemporary American life have interpreted the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment in ways that rob religious belief of its importance. Determined to safeguard the wall of separation between religion and the state, those forces have placed too little emphasis on the fact that the First Amendment’s primary purpose is to provide protection for the “free exercise” of religious life. In Carter’s judgment, the effect of First Amendment interpretations has too often promoted indifference, if not hostility, toward religion.
The “free exercise” of religion has been needlessly restricted, Carter argues, and the country is worse, not better, for it. Those philosophical views do not mean that Carter ends up with predictable public policy positions that reflect conventional conservative or liberal outlooks. He does think that the courts have properly proscribed formal prayer in the schools, and he is opposed to capital punishment. Although he would not deny women the right to abortion, he has strong “pro-life” sympathies as well. But his book is primarily an inquiry—not a set of public policy pronouncements—that reasons its way to views that he wants to be part of a wide-ranging national conversation about the state of the nation’s union.
Carter’s judgments are informed not only by his study of the law but also by his religious commitments and his ethnic heritage. A dedicated Christian of Episcopalian persuasion, Carter is also an African American who firmly believes that the free exercise of religion had much to do with civil rights advances in American society. He knows, of course, that religion has never been an unmitigated force for justice. Many of history’s most destructive chapters have been written in blood spilled by and for religiously inspired causes. Even in the United States, the “free exercise” of religion is rightly checked and balanced by sound legal restraints to ensure that it does not become an instrument of oppression. Nevertheless, Carter affirms, religion remains overall a great force for good. “In recent history,” he writes,
we have seen religious witness against oppression around the world, which tyrannical governments have often met with antireligious slaughter. In America, we have seen religious witness against slavery and segregation, against the war in Vietnam, and against poverty. Witness of this kind will be most effective in a nation that truly celebrates its diverse religious traditions, valuing them instead of trying to hide them.
Carter carries no brief for every religious belief and practice, but he is deeply sympathetic when American religion plays a resisting, independent, minority role. When religious expressions work in that way, Carter insists, they “promote freedom and reduce the likelihood of democratic tyranny by splitting the allegiance of citizens and pressing on their members points of view that are often radically different from the preferences of the state.”
A key strength of religion is its power to dissent not only from state power but also from the tyranny that cultural conformity and other forms of “majority rule” are tempted to enforce. Following Tocqueville, then, Carter upholds a tradition affirming the importance of religion as source of moral understanding that checks the tendencies of a secular state and culture to dominate tyrannically. Religion’s proclivity to be unfashionable, its refusal to go along with what most people may find expedient, politically correct, or even rational—in short, the very dissenting aspect of religion that many of its critics most fear—is precisely religion’s great strength and gift to a democratic republic.
(The entire section is 2205 words.)