STEPHEN CARTER'S important new book owes much of its popularity to President Clinton, who purchased it on his Martha's Vineyard vacation and praised it publicly. Had he not, ``The Culture of Disbelief'' would probably circulate mainly among scholars.
Carter's analysis of a cultural dynamic that marginalizes religion - and his quiet call for more space in the public square for religious pluralism - is timely, fresh, and much needed. The book is important not as a ground-breaking, but a ground-clearing effort, carried off in a tone that is dispassionate but lively.
The author, a law professor at Yale, argues that Supreme Court decisions and a secular elite in media, law, and academia have tended to shut out anything smacking of faith from the public realm. A ``cultural correctness'' has been established in which it is de riguer to dismiss issues defined as religious. Moral and spiritual convictions are thus trivialized, creating an atmosphere Carter sums up nicely early in the book: ``Pray if you like, worship if you must, but whatever you do, do not on any account take your religion seriously.''
Church-state relations are at best ``uneasy,'' Carter notes, and at worst hostile. No wonder religious interests - which millions of Americans care about - are discussed in a nearly illiterate fashion. After the Waco tragedy, with family-values debates and ongoing rulings on school prayers, a new discussion must emerge.
Carter says this state of affairs dates to Justice Hugo Black's 1947 interpretation of the First Amendment as a ``wall of separation'' between church and state and the 1972 Roe decision on abortion. Since 1947, the ``wall'' has not only grown too high and rigid, but it also rewrites the First Amendment's Madisonian purpose - to protect churches from the state, not vice versa. Carter wants to open ``a few doors'' in the wall, not abolish it.
Roe forced conservative religionists into politics, causing an equal and opposite reaction among political liberals who began stripping the public square of religious and moral language.
The book is a critique of liberal culture by one who is both liberal and devout. Tolerance may be the virtue of liberalism, the dominant mode in recent decades, but Carter finds it has become a selective tolerance. The piety in black churches that infused the civil rights movement, for example, was politically acceptable in the 1960s. When traditionalists raised school prayer and family values in the early 1980s, however, they were put down - on religious grounds. Carter argues that a genuinely liberal culture cannot have it both ways. To remain vital, liberal culture must move past its current rather shallow tolerance to a deeper respect for religious equality.
Nor does he apologize for his faith; those who take matters of the spirit seriously will recognize the cost of treating God as more than ``a hobby.'' To admit faith, Carter notes, may harm one's career, bring stares at PTA meetings, and risk the epithet ``fanatic.''
Most useful is Carter's Toquevillean view that democracy is based on ``mediating structures'' between people and the state. Churches mediate as important sources of meaning, and as opponents of inhumane rule. True church is always at odds with worldly power. But US democracy has given churches special ground on which to disagree. Carter warns that this ground is in danger.
Yet while Carter diagnoses the dilemma of faith and culture and offers a tent for discussion, one wonders if he underestimates the problem. Faith has been undercut not just by law, politics, and disagreement over values, but by the entire thrust of 20th-century modernism. Modern science, Auschwitz, cynicism, and ``materialistic piety'' in the US described by Robert Wuthnow, to name a few, have blasted a conventional sense of spirituality and God.
In this sense, faith inside churches is the issue. The disbelief, trivializing tendencies, and hostility toward piety found in many churches and among clergy is an open secret - given voice in ``Resident Aliens,'' the recent work of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. Public space must be broader and deeper. But the ``people of God'' must look first to their own spiritual vitality.
James Wilson's ``The Moral Sense'' is a cry in the night of the social sciences. The preeminent sociologist wants to consider anew elements of character and feeling ignored by number-crunchers and relativists in the study of behavior. Empirically, Wilson admits, 20th-century brutality offers little evidence for optimism. Yet there is a ``natural'' morality that leads people to love each other and make choices for reasons beyond rationality. People are not civil only out of fear of anarchy, duty to collective rules, or a desire for economic well-being. There are also reasons of the heart: Rousseau's ``compassion for the misery of others.'' If sociology had a moral sense, public policy would improve, Wilson intimates.
Still, many Christians (even law professors like Carter) may not find Wilson's wholly social origins of ``inner morality'' adequate. Social science acts here as a substitute for theology and spiritual explanations of morality. Is a moral sense only instinctive? Or must it be learned, and how? Wilson provides little connection between these questions. Left wide open is the quite serious other side of moral sense - sin and depravity - the dimensions of which social science has often tried to explain away, but hasn't quite.