The Dissent of the Governed

Based on his 1995 Harvard University lectures, Stephen L. Carter, author of THE CULTURE OF DISBELIEF (1993), analyzes the propensity of democratic societies to repress cultural minorities, especially religious ones in THE DISSENT OF THE GOVERNED: A MEDITATION ON LAW, RELIGION, AND LOYALTY. Carter offers thoughtful insights as a legal theorist on the natural oppression offered by any Establishment—rightwing or leftwing—against those who dissent from the accepted norms. Whether the Establishment is dealing with the special requirements of Hasidic Jews, Amish educational aberrations, prayer in schools, Native American religious land claims, Mormon polygamy, or the jingoistic requirements of loyalty oaths, it seeks cultural hegemony over peoples of alternative faith.

The book is divided into three sections. In part one, “Allegiance”, Carter justifies his inversion of the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase concerning the consent of the governed, and suggests that the intolerance of religious and cultural dissent, actually leads estranged minorities to a kind of disruptive disloyalty. Section two, “Disobedience” traces the conduct of religious rebellion, especially as found in the legal system. And section three, “Interpretation” offers proposals on how Americans are to grant religious minorities a dissenting status within a democratic framework.

Carter challenges the central working dogma of American democracy, what he terms “liberal constitutionalism”, which seeks “to knit the nation into a single community sharing a single normative vision of the world.” Carter attempts to show that such an aim is not benign; and that calls for diversity, tolerance, and multiculturalism—though good goals—are often a sham.

By denying religious people avenues for dissent, Americans make void the principles of the Declaration of Independence, including the right to petition for grievances, and thereby create a festering sore in the American body politic.