GOD'S NAME IN VAIN: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in America by Stephen L. Carter. New York, NY; Basic Books, 2000.248 pages, notes, index. Hardcover, $26.00. ISBN: 0-465-00886-0.
In this volume, Stephen L. Carter, a Professor of Law at Yale, revisits the issues treated in his 1993 book, THE CULTURE OF DISBELIEF, and expands upon them, focusing upon the two questions, how and when should persons take their arguments based on religious principle into the political arena. Professor Carter is the author of many works in recent years, among them being INTEGRITY and CIVILITY.
It is a rare author who writes in a way that makes you like him even when you disagree with his arguments. Stephen Carter does that. I fill each of his books in my library with marginal notes as I grapple with the issues he deems important.. Carter writes with excellence; his discussions, while on a scholarly level, are seldom obscure -- always thought provoking. He writes with passion and utter integrity. I highly recommend this book (and other Carter volumes) to my ASA colleagues.
Carter argues two themes. The first is that arguments based on religious grounds (presumably from religious people) should be welcomed into the dialog of American culture and not, as is done sometimes, marginalized. The second is that religious activists who enter the political arena must do so with considerable care so as not to "lose their souls." He enlarges upon these issues with examples from the law and from history. He writes from both theological and philosophical viewpoints, and includes utterances by both pro-slavery and anti-slavery preachers of the nineteenth century, and the anti-war and civil rights advocates of the twentieth. Persons who argue that church-state separation should keep religious people and arguments based on religious principles out of political discourse are, as Carter puts it, simply wrong. I find him very persuasive .
The chief weakness in GOD'S NAME IN VAIN is Carter's avoidance of the issue of factuality as he wrestles with arguments where religious views conflict with secular culture. In several places he treats the religious view, held by a substantial number of American people, that the earth is very young. There is no evidence that Carter holds this belief himself, or even gives it any credence, indeed, he calls it “bad science“ (see THE CULTURE OF DISBELIEF, page 161). Yet, he avoids the discussion of the question "Does teaching it in classrooms in any significant way hurt the students?" On page 3 he writes: “...I am not sure why it is more ’fanatical’ for parents to tell their children that the creation story in Genesis is literally true than for the public schools to tell the same children, required by law to attend, that the religion of their parents is literally false.” It would seem to me that when a religion teaches something that is clearly factually untrue, such as a young earth, or a flat earth, or the supremacy of white people, the secular culture is obligated to teach otherwise. Carter makes much of a survey, in a footnote, that shows that a significant number of our citizens do hold to the young earth position, but I fail to see how that particular fact holds any significance.
The book is divided into two quite different sections. The first, "Religion's Sphere," shows a number of very specific ways in which politics and religion necessarily interact. The second, "Religion's Voice," suggests a number of current political issues where religious arguments offer a potentially vital contribution. In the second section Carter treats the important subject of "Measurism," the philosophical position that, if an attribute can be measured, even poorly measured, it is, ipso facto, of more importance than an attribute which does not admit to that characteristic. If you read nothing else from Carter -- read this section, chapter 10, a brief twenty pages. It will be, I suggest, like eating the first peanut at a baseball game -- you will likely finish the bag (book).
If you are an evangelical Christian, you will find much to agree with in this book. If you are a liberal Christian, you will find cogent arguments from the right, and find more areas of agreement than otherwise. To any secularist reading this review, you owe it to yourself to read this book to understand how your religious colleagues might view the issues.
Published in PERSPECTIVES on Science and Christian Faith,
Journal of the American Scientific Association,
Volume 53, Number 3 (September 2001).
John W. Burgeson,
First Presbyterian Church,