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As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, December 1993

God's Patriots

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

by Stephen L. Carter.
Basic Books, 328 pages, $25.00

by James Carroll

WHEN I entered the seminary in the early 1960s, training for the Catholic priesthood, I half intended, once I was ordained, to become an Air Force chaplain. "Pro Deo et Patria" was my father's motto (he was an Air Force officer and a former seminarian himself), and I expected it would be mine. The slogan was an affirmation of America's long-established civic religion and of the satisfaction immigrants' descendants felt at having overcome nativist hostility. I felt a cozy contentment at what lay ahead for me, the life of priest and patriot.

By the time I was ordained, in 1969, everything had changed. I owed my image of the proper role of the priest more to the Berrigan brothers than to my father. Through the years of the civil-rights and peace movements religious faith had become ground on which to stand in opposition to the policies of government and also to the prevailing assumptions of what I had learned to regard as a racist, consumerist, capitalist culture. If I had a motto as an oedipally correct young priest, it surely was "Resist!"

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  • Except for the extreme nature of the religious discipline I had embraced, I was, of course, a typical liberal of the time. I suppose I still am. Now I cringe to realize that "resistance" as a mode of citizenship has mostly passed from left to right. The slogan "Resist!" was embraced by opponents of busing to integrate schools; the resistance technique of civil disobedience is now practiced mainly by anti-abortion conservatives. And the left, which celebrated the religious-political opposition of Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and the Berrigans, now routinely denounces the political opposition of Pat Robertson or John Cardinal O'Connor as a violation of the recently recanonized separation of Church and State.

    The relationship of Church and State in America is the broad subject of The Culture of Disbelief. Stephen Carter combines the vitality of an active religious commitment (he is an Episcopalian) with an impressive knowledge of constitutional law (he is a Yale Law School professor). He examines some of the most controversial subjects of our time -- abortion, the rights of homosexuals, the place of immigrants -- with the same maverick brilliance that marked his Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991). With that book Carter established his reputation for turning sacrosanct propositions on their ear -- to see them from a new angle. He examined the ways in which racial preferences long favored by white liberals and civil-rights advocates had the unintended effect of underlining racial stereotypes, prolonging injustice, and dividing the black community against itself. Carter's determination to avoid both neoconservative and old-time liberal responses moved the discussion of race out of the cul-de-sac of political labeling. His book had an impact across the lines of ideology.

    In The Culture of Disbelief, Carter's purpose is to sound numerous warnings against "the transformation of the Establishment Clause from a guardian of religious liberty into a guarantor of public secularism." It is "conventional" wisdom among liberals (especially since the revival-like Republican convention of 1992) that the American idea is threatened when religious power mixes too intimately with political power. Carter acknowledges that danger, but he argues that the greater threat comes when the Church is no longer kept merely separate but is forced into a position of utter marginality, its voice disregarded in the great public discussions and even disqualified from joining them. Much the way he criticized the affirmative-action ethos despite, as he admitted, having benefited from it, in this book he, as a liberal, assails the hostility that American liberalism increasingly shows to religion. His aim is to "protect the rights" of religious citizens, whether they are politically incorrect prelates or practitioners of obscure sects, and to insist on the importance of the citizens' participation in civic affairs as religious.

    To be sure, Carter lays out a thorough defense of the constitutional rights of religious citizens -- Native Americans whose rituals require the use of peyote, and parents who feel morally bound to control the sex education of their children, and the Archdiocese of New York in refusing to hire homosexuals, and Hibernians in refusing to honor homosexuals in parades, and even a Catholic prosecutor who was forbidden by a judge to show his Ash Wednesday ashes in court. A democratic society must protect the ability of citizens to practice their faith -- not except when that practice violates prevailing sensibilities, even liberal ones, but especially then.

    Carter takes his argument further, insisting that "the culture of disbelief" threatens far more than the religious misfit -- the Moonie, the gay-rejecting cardinal. The real danger is that all citizens will accept the culture's assumption that one's religious faith has no real bearing on one's civic responsibility, and vice versa. The wall of separation that worries Carter is the one between "church and self" -- the idea that the prevailing mores of culture, whether legally enforced or not, have a higher claim on us than do the privately held convictions of conscience, however we arrive at them. Our political discourse already accommodates this wall of separation, and reflects it, when we affirm the near absolute distinction between a politician's public duty and his or her private "character," applying in each realm a different kind of moral standard.

    To some, Carter's warnings will seem specious, because American civil religion is so famously established. Aren't all public figures bound to at least a pretense of piety? Isn't atheism far more unconventional, if not besieged, than belief? No, Carter would say. Shallow deference to the forms of religion, however pervasive, works to "trivialize" -- and domesticate -- authentic faith exactly because the deepest assumptions of faith contradict those of secular society.

    The heart of Carter's argument is that experience of "a powerful sentience beyond human ken" always brings with it a spirit of opposition to the prevailing culture, and therefore tension between Church and State is as proper as it is inevitable. Thus the Berrigans were right -- and so, in some wildly different way, is the politically intrusive Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York. Carter makes the point by citing the Catholic theologian David Tracy.

    Despite their own sin and ignorance, the religions, at their best, always bear extraordinary powers of resistance. When not domesticated as sacred canopies for the status quo nor wasted by their own self-contradictory grasps at power, the religions live by resisting.
    And the State, one wants to add, lives by being resisted.

    The genius of the American system is that such resistance is built into it--and that is why this country has, for more than two centuries now, thrived by changing. And that is why it can change further. Because religion's perspective is rooted not only outside itself and outside the national code but outside history and outside time, religious adherents will, "at their best," in Tracy's phrase, offer to the larger culture an inexhaustible source of the energy needed for human renewal. How? By enacting, in Carter's phrase, "the role of extemal moral critic and alternative source of values and meaning."

    The conjunction implied in "Pro Deo et Patria" is to the point after all. "Resistance" does not presume radical separation of Church from State, any more than identification. Rather, resistance implies a dynamic interaction of the one realm with the other. Not long before I entered the seminary, John F. Kennedy said, "God's work must truly be our own." But the intervening decades have laid bare how little any of us knows for sure what that "work" really is. Because the good guys and the bad guys have switched sides several times at least, humility is in order all around. "Patria" claims the prerogatives of "Deo" at its peril -- but so does the Church. A believer may be instinctively attuned to the ways in which the State abuses power, but no believer enters the civic fray from a position of superiority, moral or otherwise. If faith properly enables religious citizens to resist the unjust policies of government, or the inhuman strains in culture, it does so because it first enables religious citizens to resist themselves. No idols allowed -- here is Stephen Carter's point, and the point of authentic religion wherever it is found -- in Church, or State, or in the self.

    Copyright © 1993 by James Carroll. All rights reserved.
    Originally published in
    The Atlantic Monthly; December 1993; God's Patriots; Volume 272, No. 6; pages 139 - 142.

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