Despite Stephen Carter’s past record of presenting important, more liberal-minded studies on the tensions between religion and politics, God’s Name in Vain is a rather convoluted exploration of Carter’s conservative change of heart regarding Christianity’s dealings with America’s doctrine on the separation of church and state. Carter, a William Nelson Cromwell professor of law at Yale University, clearly wants readers to accept his overall perspective that conservative Christians are not the threat to American democracy that liberal thinkers fear. However, his tone and overall structure raise more questions and doubts than he answers. One major problem is his leaping back and forth between approaches or ideas that he describes as either right or wrong. Each thesis or claim stated early in the book seems to set out the case for one viewpoint or another, but each notion is quickly countermanded by equally strong claims for the other side of the issues involved. Until his more cohesive final chapters, Carter rarely maintains a continuity or flow in his presentation. Still, as a whole, God’s Name in Vain sees more right in conservative activism, and the wrongs are more internal squabbles among believers than problems for those outside his mind-set. What may puzzle those who support Carter’s calls for a strong cultural Christian presence in the political milieu is his recommendation that such believers should separate themselves from mainstream culture. This notion is an important contradiction of other ideas among Carter’s scattered viewpoints expressed both in God’s Name in Vain and in earlier publications. Once a strong advocate of affirmative action, a foundation on which this African American author built his reputation, Carter now seems to feel that separation from dominant culture is more advantageous than participation in it, although he is now addressing such issues along religious rather than racial lines. However, even excluding his previous body of work, few readers will miss Carter’s struggles to successfully synthesize his point-counterpoint jumps in logic.
For example, Carter states that there is much right in religion participating robustly in issues of the moment, but he also believes religion can lose its spiritual self when it becomes too closely attached to partisan electoral campaigns. On one side, he questions those who believe that religion should have no place in politics at all, and he is equally concerned with those who would use religion to enforce moral codes. After such even-handed claims, though, Carter says that he believes the survival of his faith is more important than the fate of any government. Government should be viewed through the prism of faith and not the other way around. By omission, he makes it clear that his definition of religion is mainstream Christianity, ignoring any issue regarding the place of Islam, Buddhism, or any other faith that is now part of the modern American religious landscape. With an occasional nod to Judaism and a brief overview of Native American persecution late in his book, Carter is clearly championing the role of evangelical Protestantism in all its varieties. This limitation of scope undercuts his attempt to sound balanced, reasonable, or objective.
Early in the book, Carter states his agreement with John Calvin that the world is full of depravity and temptation. He believes that the religious faithful in the garden of the saved, an analogy borrowed from the writings of Roger Williams, need protection from the worldly souls in the wilderness. Thus, for Carter, church and state separation should protect the church, and not the other way around. It is the duty of the faithful to make the state conform to religious ideals, a contradiction of an earlier claim. Carter relies on Old Testament principles to illustrate his points. For example, in one of his few biblical allusions, he refers to the Old Testament tale of David and Bathsheba as an example where prophets instruct leaders to change their hearts. This episode provides Carter his central image, the example modern ministers should follow in a corrupt world. For Carter, ministers need to be like the radical prophets of old. He warns that as soon as God’s spokesmen are co-opted in the political process, endorsing candidates who must by definition make compromises, they too become compromised. As a result, Christians end up supporting candidates unworthy of the religious associations that come to them through the sponsorship of secularized clergy. This is a point Carter developed earlier in Integrity (1996), in which he stressed that American culture as a whole is too interested in winning conflicts to follow the rules and retain character in achieving desirable goals. Integrity remains the more convincing exploration of these topics.
Carter’s new study loses credibility on these issues when he reverses course and launches into defenses of...
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