(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Stephen L. Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, has a deep and abiding interest in the moral and ethical health of America. In CIVILITY: MANNERS, MORALS, AND THE ETIQUETTE OF DEMOCRACY, he shares his ideas about the causes for the decline of civility in modern America, sorts through some possible solutions for the dilemma, and tries to encourage religion to take its rightful place in the public debate. Civility, in Carter’s view, is not synonymous with manners or etiquette, although it invariably involves these, but it is a much deeper commitment to respect or even love fellow citizens in a way that will govern actions towards them.

Carter locates the genesis of the lack of civility in American life in the turmoil of the 1960’s, when serious questions arose about the roles of family, religion, race, gender, and education in civic life. The 1960’s introduced a kind of cultural relativism into the American experience, which tended to tear down all the old fundamental verities without supplying anything really meaningful in their place. Somewhere in the chaos, civility got lost.

Given the popular trend towards ego gratification and winning at all costs, Carter’s simple, but demanding, remedies for reintroducing true civility into American life will be difficult to achieve. Carter’s civility, for example, requires citizens to sacrifice their own ease and convenience, not just for those in their immediate circle, but also for strangers as well. This is not a lesson modeled by politicians, sports heroes, or journalists, nor is it a lesson taught consistently in schools. It is however an idea taught in almost all the great religions of the world. Carter’s argument for allowing religion back into the national debate is a cogent one.

What distinguishes CIVILITY from the other books in this growing category is the true evenhandedness and civility with which Carter engages his opponents. A writer who practices what he preaches is one that might well be listened to.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Century. CXV, April 8, 1998, p. 366.

Insight on the News. XIV, June 22, 1998, p. 36.

National Catholic Reporter. November 6, 1998, p. 23.

The New Republic. CCXIX, October 5, 1998, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 10, 1998, p. 12.

Nieman Reports. LII, Fall, 1998, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 16, 1998, p. 41.

The Village Voice. May 26, 1998, p. 141.

The Washington Monthly. XXX, May, 1998, p. 50.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, May 24, 1998, p. 11.