I was privileged to hear Stephen Carter speak tonight at Columbia College. Carter was the speaker for the annual Schiffman Lecture in Religious Studies. The Yale professor has been engendering public conversation around ethics, religion and politics for the past thirty years, bouncing into the national arena with his best seller, The Culture of Disbelief. It would not be his last. I bought my copy of the latest tonight, The Violence of Peace (Beast Books, 2011).
The erudite presentation included a couple of simple propositions, both which swim upstream in common public discourse now.
The first was that religious discourse has always been a part of American politics, from the pre-revolutionary period, to abolition, to the civil rights movement. Those who deny this are simply ahistorical. The fact that Governor Romney’s Mormonism has become a political issue is not a shocking development on the American stage. Our sitting president, during his campaign for office 2008, was highly scrutinized for his church affiliation and in particular his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. That, too, was not a new phenomenon in American politics. All past public figures have been evaluated, in one way or another, according to religious issues. Ours is not a religiously vacant or neutral republic. Debate on policy, law and legislation has always included moral dimensions informed by religious claims.
If there was a controversial position in Carter’s speech it might have been found in point two, namely, that the traditions that grew around the metaphor of the wall of separation between church and state (pre-existing Jefferson) were chiefly designed to protect religion from the encroachment of government and not the other way around. I would argue that the concern moves two ways, that the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment also protects government from the encroachment of religion. Carter, though, would also define establishment as a government climbing over the wall of separation issue; meddling with the church should be avoided universally, even by favoring one religious entity over another.
Though Carter in no way agrees with many religious positions exercised out of this freedom he believes, nevertheless, that such freedom must be safeguarded in a true democracy.
I’ll let you know about The Violence of Peace. I’m betting it’s as good as all his others.