Journal of Law and Religion
Stephen Carter is a most gifted, unpredictable commentator on life and law in the United States today. He has staked out a distinct, complex position on race already, and begins to do the same on religion in his latest book, The Culture of Disbelief. This book is well-written, well-reasoned, and sprinkled with the wry twists and engaging stories that increasingly mark Carter’s style.
The book integrates some of Carter’s former writing on the theme he calls “religion as Hobby,” an attitude by the courts that he brings to the fore in his analysis of news articles, court opinions, and political talk. He examines the separation of church and state and free exercise. He analyzes several controversial issues like abortion and the death penalty, less to give the definitive answer than to attempt to demonstrate a mixed religious-secular argument and to defend those who have been devalued in the public debate on those issues because of their religious beliefs. His basic argument is as the titles suggests: American public language discourages speech and writing that acknowledges its grounding in religious faith.
Yet, The Culture of Disbelief trips on its own excellences. He titles his book to defend religious devotion, but does not take up his own invitation. He bemoans the hostility of the public sphere to religious talk, and then lets that hostility mold his own voice into a too-frequently smooth, deft academic-popularizer whose personal presence rarely hints in the text. He talks winningly about how the secular cannot hear the sacred, but he does not even let the sacred speak. By his own standard, Carter has managed to betray his message through his medium; and this, from such a gifted, well-intentioned, established, reflective, and sensitive commentator, is not a good sign.
Emily Fowler Hartigan, Loving the Medium: A Review of Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief, 11 J. L. & Religion 459 (1994-5).