This article was originally published in December 1993 and has recently been converted into HTML text format in 2022; please excuse any grammatical errors.
Reading Stephen Carter is a frustrating exercise. His points are argued in reasoned tones, without the bombast or rhetoric of so many Black conservatives. In fact, he argues that he is not a conservative. He frequently assures the reader that he believed Anita Hill, holds Ronald Reagan in disdain, and is not a part of the “Christian right,” adding to the sense that he is a moderate. To make his points, he assembles a battalion of anecdotal stories with the skill of a conjuring magician. You don’t know how it happened, but your guard is down, you’re lulled into a heavy-lidded ease, and you find yourself applauding many of his main points.
Carter, you may remember, is the author of the best-selling Confessions of an Affirmative Action Baby, the most popular attack on affirmative action to come out of the Reagan/Bush era. In The Culture of Disbelief he again has popularized a complex legal debate, in this case a debate over what is known as the “hostility thesis,” a shorthand name for the argument that the Supreme Court has erred by granting too few religious exemptions from public laws (under the Free Exercise Clause), and has too often excluded religion from publicly-funded programs in the name of preventing the “establishment of religion.” Promoters of the hostility thesis argue that this has weakened the role of religion in civil life, a role further trivialized by liberals, the media, the welfare state, and elite opinion makers.
Carter has crafted a statement of the hostility thesis for the average reader—no legal training required. He outlines in lay language the complaint that religion is excluded from public lite and actually mocked when it is mobilized in support of conservative causes. He blames all the usual suspects-secular liberals, the media, political pundits and opinion-makers-for applying a double standard when they demand the removal of religious statements and principles from the public sphere. He argues that religious principles are accepted so long as they are used in support of liberal causes such as civil rights, but they are excluded as inappropriate and intolerant when mobilized for conservative ends.
Carter’s tone is bitter on his central theme, the trivialization of religion, or what he calls “religion as a hobby.” He relies on legions of anecdotal stories to support his position that public-spirited citizens who arc religious are made to feel “ashamed” of their religiosity. “Through all of this trivializing rhetoric runs the subtle but unmistakable message: pray if you like, worship if you must, but whatever you do, do not on any account take your religion seriously.” (p .15) Meanwhile, Carter repeatedly distances himself from the Christian Right, diminishing its danger to civil society by dismissing it as weak, politically ineffective, and divided.
Carter makes some points about the role of religion in public life that ring true. He argues that religiosity itself should not be condemned, and that progressive movements do so at their own risk. I agree that those who criticize the intolerance of the religious right too often seem to denigrate the spiritual dimension of people’s lives. An analysis of the Religious Right that dismisses the importance of religious beliefs and practices will overlook a fundamental way that many people seek some sort of wholeness and harmony, some sense of purpose and meaning, and some way to locate themselves in the universe.
Further, civil libertarians would agree with Carter that government should, for the most part, stay out of the practice of religion, even suspect religious sects, cults, and pseudo-denominations such as the Unification Church (Rev. Sun Myung Moon), Scientology, or the Boston Church of Christ. Surely there are limits to how much pressure government should be allowed to bring to bear on them to mend their manipulative, pocket-picking ways. Beyond outright criminal fraud, people should probably be free to be misled.
Finally, even many who are not religious would agree with Carter that religious expression is debased by the use of mandatory religious sound bites in the public sphere. The banal and counterfeit religious intonations of Presidents Reagan and Bush, including bold statements that this or that American triumph was God’s will, is not a new practice but represents an undeniable cheapening of religious sentiment.
Carter concedes that “there are reasons that the public square is cautious about religion-reasons linked to history, linked to post-Enlightenment philosophy, linked to the Constitution.” (p. 53) Yet he is unable to see any such reasons at work in the United States today. Given his dismissal of the Christian Right as weak and divided, it is no wonder that he does not see the obvious danger it represents. He wants religion to be uniformly welcomed in the public square, in spite of the declared goal of the Christian right to impose its will on the larger society by capturing the political sphere.
Carter seems unaware that in the past 15 years in the United States there has been a religious revitalization movement of historic proportions.* Its impetus has been a revolt against modernity and the reassertion of what Martin Marty calls the “new traditionalisms.” In Religion and Republic, Marty describes these traditionalisms as “frankly nostalgic, longing for the simpler, ordered, homogeneous world that once satisfied the ‘wholeness-hunger’ of individuals, subcultures, and the larger culture.” (p. 26) While mainstream religions have declined, there has been a dramatic resurgence of conservative churches. In many cases the growing churches are advocates of a form of “born-again” Christianity, often characterized by absolutism, fanaticism, rigid doctrinal conformity, and zealous proselytizing.
An important component of this revitalization is a growing consensus that it is no longer appropriate for fundamentalist Christians to wait passively for the second coming of Christ. A strong expression of this position, found in what is loosely called dominion theology, promotes the notion that Christians must “occupy” all secular institutions in preparation for the Second Coming. The influence of dominion theology has helped to bring fundamentalist Christians into the political sphere, mobilizing them to work for conditions more hospitable to Christianity. This commitment promotes (even mandates) involvement in the political sphere here and now.
On the scene to promote and manipulate this revival are the well-known Christian activists of the day: Pat Robertson (former Southern Baptist minister), Rev. Tim LaHaye, Dr. James Dobson, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Rev. Donald Wildmon, and their lay promoters, Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh, Rep. Newt Gingrich, and Rep. William Dannemeyer, among others. This leadership is not promoting a political activism informed by religious belief; it is promoting politics governed by religious belief, with an added mandate to convert others. It is this aspect of the convergence between religious lite and public life that gives pause to the openhanded acceptance of religion in the public square. If you are one of the despised of this movement, you may well find yourself excluded from the public square if you do not defend a “wall of separation.”
The aggressive push of Christian fundamentalists into the political sphere has corresponded with a similar forceful push by secular conservatism. The two sectors, religious and political conservatism, were explicitly united in the New Right, and fed each other’s success. How could this recent history possibly be interpreted as the exclusion of religion from the public square?
Stephen Carter would have us take religion seriously, and we should. But civil society must defend against becoming the captive of the evangelistic instincts of any one religious doctrine. In the case of the contemporary Christian Right, the anti-modern aspects of the doctrine promote a rigid division between good and evil, and ultimately the silencing of those members of civil society who are deemed evil. Those who are outside the comforting arms of a “true” relationship with God (usually atheists, feminists, liberals, single mothers, gays and lesbians; sometimes Jews, people of color, Muslims, Buddhists) are in serious peril. Vigorous dissent, in the form of public education, political combat, or the aggressive promotion of opposing ideas, cannot fairly be labeled anti-religious trivialization. It is anything but.
*Revitalization is a term developed by anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace to describe a moment when a society responds to individual and cultural stress by reasserting nativist or traditionalist beliefs, values, and behavior patterns.