Commentary Magazine


God's Name in Vain by Stephen L. Carter

God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics
by Stephen L. Carter
Basic. 248 pp. $26.00

Considering all the God-talk that was heard in this year’s presidential campaign—much of it, unexpectedly, from the Democratic side of the aisle—Stephen Carter’s latest book could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. A professor of law at Yale, Carter has written before about the relationship between faith and politics, most notably in The Culture of Disbelief (1993). There, he lamented the tendency of contemporary American culture—and of the country’s elites in particular—to insist that religious people (like himself) leave behind their deepest convictions when they enter the public square. In God’s Name in Vain, he returns to this theme but also addresses the fundamental question it raises: “If religion is to be actively involved in politics, what is the proper form of that involvement?”

The usual starting point for such a discussion, Carter writes, is to ask how religion “fits into” politics—that is, to try to describe the limits that should apply to its influence on public affairs. But this approach can never satisfy the believer, for whom religion is not something so easily confined. As he says of his own “increasingly evangelical” Christianity:

My faith does not call me to be a different person only in some hidden persona. My God requires of me that I live a changed life. . . . [I]n whatever sphere of life I might enter, it is my faith that is to lead me.

Because the claims of religion are so comprehensive, in short, it is inevitable that believing Christians—and Jews and Muslims—will at times seek far-reaching changes in society.

Such faith-based activism, Carter points out, has been a crucial part of our history. From the abolitionists and suffragettes to the labor and civil-rights movements, American politics would have been “unimaginable,” he writes, without “the religious voice.” Nor is that voice any less urgently needed today, when we live in a culture “awash in self-seeking and self-fulfillment and simple selfishness.” America’s religious communities, Carter suggests, are the likeliest source of the moral energy that will allow us to rise above “the politics of me.”

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What concerns Carter, therefore, is the emergence in recent decades of an “antireligious politics.” This view of public life more or less says that people of faith should stay out of politics altogether, or that, if they must engage in it, they should do so without making religiously based arguments and without—heaven forbid—mentioning God or the Bible.

One salient aspect of this brand of politics is that it is typically wielded by nonreligious liberals against religious conservatives. The explanation for this, Carter believes, seldom has to do with doubts about whether religious argument “fits comfortably into the proper form of democratic dialogue.” Rather, more mundanely, it concerns “the ends that liberals are afraid the [conservative] religious voice might seek.” These are ends that liberalism finds “distasteful.” Thus, “it was one thing to quote the gospel command to love thy neighbor in order to battle against racial segregation—but quite a different matter, in the liberal vision, to quote the same words to battle against abortion.”

At the same time, Carter suggests that there is a still deeper dynamic at work in our antireligious politics. Modern secular liberalism, he argues, has increasingly aspired to a kind of “hegemony.” “Not content to serve as a theory of organization of the state,” he writes, liberalism “has grown into a theory of organization of private institutions in the state,” imposing its principles not just on religious bodies and their members but on every form of social traditionalism. A case in point (which Carter does not cite) is the recent litigation aimed at forcing the Boy Scouts of America to admit avowed homosexuals as scout masters.

By stifling traditional arrangements, liberalism undercuts both diversity and liberty. Conversely, religion, to the extent that it resists liberalism’s hegemonic tendencies, safeguards freedom itself—an idea that informs Carter’s call for interpretations of the First Amendment that are much friendlier to the devout.

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How, then, are believers to resist this assault on the very possibility of their participation in politics? One option would be to create a religious political party. But, for Carter, this is a “temptation” that must be resisted. Few of the religiously conservative organizations have maintained the vitality they had in the 1980’s, he explains, and the reason is precisely that they made the mistake of adapting to the practical demands of political activity, engaging in compromise and attempting to determine the outcome of elections.

“What is wrong with compromise?” Carter asks rhetorically, and responds: “Nothing, if one is a politician. But, potentially, everything, if one is a religionist”—not only the corruption of one’s soul, which has now become preoccupied with nonreligious pursuits, but also the defeat of the political goals the religionist has been seeking in the first place. As far as Carter is concerned, religion engages in politics most effectively when it speaks with the voice of the “prophet”—of a Nathan to a King David. With compromise, he warns, “does the power of prophecy disappear.”

God’s Name in Vain is a useful, if not especially original, believer’s brief in behalf of a religious America. Politics needs morality, says Carter, making an observation as old as Aristotle, and because our morality as a people has always derived from our religious beliefs, our politics needs religion. George Washington said as much in his Farewell Address, and it has been repeated of late by, among others, Joseph Lieberman. Which is not to say the message has been heeded: as if to offer fresh evidence for Carter’s thesis about the new “antireligious politics,” the Anti-Defamation League promptly rebuked Lieberman for siding with President Washington and even for professing his faith in public.

God’s Name in Vain intelligently addresses a wide variety of matters, including whether and how voters should take into account statements of faith made by candidates for office. Yet it does not treat many of the questions about religion and politics it might have. For example, Carter explicitly declines to address whether a pastor should run for political office. Nor does he ask whether some religions might be incompatible with democracy. Though he writes a great deal about religious conservatism, he has little to say about religious liberalism (as opposed to liberalism tout court). Yet religious liberalism is quite alive today (see the involvement of liberal church groups in the Elián González case) and gained expression in Lieberman’s speeches. Finally, Carter does not take a stand on the question of abortion, the central moral issue of our time.

One has the sense that Carter will write still more books on religion and politics. If he does, he will find that God’s Name in Vain will have left him with two major issues to explore, both arising from his own faith tradition (which I share). The first concerns the state. Carter has almost nothing good to say about the state, and yet his own faith is not so hostile to it: Christianity recognizes that temporal authority is ordained by God, and the letters of Paul and Peter instructed the early church to obey legitimate governments. And that, of course, leads to an even thornier question: in the face of decisions that the faithful consider wrong, but that have been made by legitimate authority, how are the faithful to respond?

Second, in stressing that religion is best when it plays a prophetic role, Carter seems to be saying that only the prophet need apply for political work. This is much too narrow a view of vocation, and it fails to recognize that nonprophets, which is to say almost everyone, can make a difference in public life (as in other realms) through hard work that willy-nilly includes compromise.

Consider, for example, the case of someone opposed to abortion who agrees nonetheless to support a measure against partial-birth abortion. What is wrong with that? Why should the perfect be the enemy of the good? Perhaps, in due course, Carter will tell us, and one hopes he will say that it should not be.

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