The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion


The Culture Of Disbelief has  been the subject of an enormous amount of media  attention from the first moment it was published.  Hugely successful in hardcover, the Anchor paperback  is sure to find a large audience as the  ever-increasing, enduring debate about the relationship of  church and state in America continues. In The  Culture Of Disbelief, Stephen Carter  explains how we can preserve the vital separation ...

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The Culture Of Disbelief has  been the subject of an enormous amount of media  attention from the first moment it was published.  Hugely successful in hardcover, the Anchor paperback  is sure to find a large audience as the  ever-increasing, enduring debate about the relationship of  church and state in America continues. In The  Culture Of Disbelief, Stephen Carter  explains how we can preserve the vital separation of  church and state while embracing rather than  trivializing the faith of millions of citizens or  treating religious believers with disdain. What makes  Carter's work so intriguing is that he uses liberal  means to arrive at what are often considered  conservative ends. Explaining how preserving a special  role for religious communities can strengthen our  democracy, The Culture Of Disbelief  recovers the long tradition of liberal religious  witness (for example, the antislavery,  antisegregation, and Vietnam-era antiwar movements). Carter  argues that the problem with the 1992 Republican  convention was not the fact of  open religious advocacy, but the political  positions being advocated.

"A provocative summons to rethink the role of religion in American law, politics and culture" Newsweek, this intriguing work uses liberal means to arrive at what are often considered conservative ends.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Rational  argument rarely seems as warm, as human, as it  does in this book...Carter leads the reader to  contemplate the embattled constitutional wall between  the state and religion, and he does so without  furor, without dogma, with only the qualities he  envisions in the ideal public square: moderation,  restraint, respect." — The New  Yorker.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As in his previous book on race ( Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby ), Yale law professor Carter offers a thoughful, cogent and ideologically subtle analysis of a divisive American issue. A deep believer ``in the importance of both religious tradition and liberal dialogue,'' Carter here suggests ways to maintain both. Our culture, he stresses, pressures people to ``treat religion as a hobby'' while the use of religion for political ends has further debased it. Criticizing Supreme Court decisions concerning the separation of church and state as enforcing ``public secularism,'' he argues for granting religious groups more latitude to participate in the welfare state, allowing proven church drug rehabilitation programs, for example, to compete for public funding. Carter does, however, reject organized prayer in public schools for fear of advancing ``the interests of one religious tradition over another.'' He suggests religious dialogue should be part of the debate over euthanasia and abortion and that pro-choicers would do better to argue positive constitutional rights rather than demeaning their opponents as ``zealots.'' In a postscript written after the events at Waco, Tex., Carter cautions that ``we must not make the mistake of confusing the Branch Davidians' sinfulness with their religiosity . . . Otherwise, the putative `fanaticism' of the Davidians becomes virtually indistinguishable from the `fanaticism' of Martin Luther King Jr.'' (Sept.)
Library Journal
Carter, a professor of law at Yale University and author of the acclaimed Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby LJ 9/15/91, advances the thesis that American law and politics ``trivialize'' religion by forcing the religiously faithful to subordinate their personal views to a public faith largely devoid of religion. Carter argues that religious faith can and must be a significant element of our public life, even as we affirm the importance of the separation of church and state. He accepts the place of prayer in education and in developing family values, and he questions accepted public policy in matters such as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. As with Carter's earlier book, which questioned the utility of racial preferences, this book can be used in helping us examine accepted views. For another opinion, the careful reader might want to consider E. Forrester Church's God and Other Famous Liberals: Reclaiming the Politics of America S. & S., 1991.-- Jerry E. Stephens, U.S. Court of Appeals Lib., Oklahoma City
In our (Americans) sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, argues Carter (law, Yale U.), we have constructed political and legal cultures that force the religiously devout to act as if their faith doesn't really matter. Carter goes on to explain how we can preserve the separation of church and state while embracing rather than trivializing the faith of millions of citizens. Written clearly, without jargon, for a wide audience including--yes--secular humanists. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
An important broadside attack on, as Carter (Law/Yale; Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, 1991) puts it, the "effort to banish religion for politic's sake." In this passionately argued polemic—which Carter, a black Episcopalian, backs with personal anecdote, historical research, and legal brief—the case is made that something has gone awry in American politics since the heyday of the civil-rights struggle. To wit: In the 1960's, Martin Luther King, Jr., was applauded for bringing religious convictions to the public arena and thus continuing an American tradition of Judeo-Christian moral activism. But today, Carter says, the media and the liberal establishment wish to tuck religious beliefs back in the closet (witness the dismay when Hillary Rodham Clinton wore a cross around her neck to some inaugural events). While Carter supports strict separation of church and state, he wonders at recent court decisions that seem to go for the religious jugular. Especially at risk, he believes, are minority religions, as evidenced by the recent judicial approval of logging on Native American sacred lands. This wide-ranging study offers discussions of creationism, classroom prayer, private funding for parochial schools, euthanasia, sex education, and the ultimate hot potato, abortion—all noteworthy for their patient analysis and moderate stance. While the law can never establish religion, concludes Carter, we would do well to reclaim the venerable idea that religious faith can be our best guide for political action. Sure to provoke much acclamation and dissent.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385474986
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1994
  • Edition description: 1st Anchor Books ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen L. Carter
Stephen L. Carter
Long before his spellbinding legal thriller The Emperor of Ocean Park, Stephen L. Carter's nonfiction titles helped shape the national debate on issues ranging from the role of religion in American political culture to the impact of integrity and civility on our daily lives.


Stephen L. Carter has helped shape the national debate on issues ranging from the role of religion in American political culture to the impact of integrity and civility on our daily lives. The New York Times has called him one of the nation's leading public intellectuals.

Born in Washington, D.C., Stephen L. Carter studied law at Yale University and went on to serve as a law clerk, first on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and later for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

In 1982 he joined the faculty at Yale, where he is now William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law. His critically acclaimed nonfiction books on subjects including affirmative action, the judicial confirmation process, and the place of religion in our legal and political cultures have earned Carter fans among luminaries as diverse as William F. Buckley, Anna Quindlen, and former President Bill Clinton.

Carter's first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, draws heavily on the author's familiarity with the law and the world of highly placed judges, but he didn't begin by attempting to write a "judicial" thriller -- Carter earlier tried the character of Judge Garland out as a White House aide, and also as a professor like himself. He has said that in the end "only the judicial role really fit."

With Emperor Carter has moved (for the moment) from writing nonfiction to fiction -- a shift which he downplays by noting "I have always viewed writing as a craft." But, while he has also indicated that another novel like this one is in the works, he sees himself as "principally a legal scholar and law professor" and plans to continue publishing nonfiction as well.

Good To Know

An avid chess player, Stephen L. Carter is a life member of the United States Chess Federation. Although he says he plays less now than he once did, he still plays online through the Internet Chess Club. For The Emperor of Ocean Park, Professor Carter says he had to learn about "the world of the chess problemist, where composers work for months or years to set up challenging positions for others to solve."

Carter lives with his wife, Enola Aird, and their two children, near New Haven, Connecticut.

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    1. Hometown:
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 26, 1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A. Stanford University, 1976; J.D., Yale Law School, 1979

Table of Contents

I The Separation of Faith and Self
1 The Culture of Disbelief 3
2 God as a Hobby 23
3 From Civil Religion to Civil Exclusion 44
4 Political Preaching 67
5 The "Christian Nation" and Other Horrors 83
II The First Subject of the First Amendment
6 The Separation of Church and State 105
7 The Accommodation of Religion 124
8 Religious Autonomy in the Welfare State 136
9 In the Beginning 156
10 God: A Course of Study 183
III The Clothed Public Square
11 (Dis)Believing in Faith 213
12 Matters of Life and Death 233
13 Religious Fascism 263
Postscript 275
Notes 279
Index 319
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