How to respect the free exercise of faith

God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics

By Stephen Carter Basic Books 248 pp., $26

Stephen Carter fired an important volley in favor of religious freedom in his 1993 landmark book, "The Culture of Disbelief." The prolific Yale professor's latest work is a further thoughtful and calm discussion about subjects on which few people currently seem thoughtful or calm - the proper role of religion in politics and the importance of religious freedom.

Sadly, Americans these days seem polarized between those who see either too little or too much religion in public life. Some think that the "wall of separation" between church and state - a much misinterpreted phrase - means they have the right to go through life without hearing a mention of religion, especially from politicians. Others are only too willing to have religion penetrate all public life and discourse - so long as it is their religion.

In the first part of this slim volume, Carter makes two related arguments: It's right for religious people to be involved in politics. But "religions," he says, "will always lose their best, most spiritual selves when they chose to be involved in the partisan, electoral side of American politics."

The idea that religious people have no place in politics is, of course, ludicrous. People of faith have led the charge for much of the positive change in American society since the republic's founding, most notably in the crusade to end slavery. The temperance crusade, the defense of working people from the worst abuses of the Industrial Revolution, and the civil rights movement were also driven mainly by religious folks.

But partisan politics can be a serious trap for religion, Carter writes. The essence of politics is compromise, he notes, and how can one truly compromise "truth"? In the end, politicians will co-opt the religious and tame radicalism.

The best approach, Carter argues, is for religious people to refrain from electoral politics as much as possible. That doesn't mean they shouldn't vote their consciences or speak out on society's shortcomings as they perceive them. But it does mean a more hands-off approach and more attention to preserving the group's religious vision.

Carter suggests as examples three ways religious people can exist in parallel with a world that does not share their vision: They can create their own institutions, such as home schooling and television-free households to protect children from the impact of a hostile culture. They can consciously make time to think, to put aside human work and concentrate more often on God's. They can boycott music with offensive lyrics and give trashy movies and television shows short shrift.

In his second part, Carter discusses how the religious voice can speak prophetically to today's culture. Here he's on shakier ground - not everyone will share his analysis of problems or his theological response.

In a discussion of society's obsession with material measurement, he offers a useful caution on studies that appear to show a connection between praying for the sick and their subsequent recovery - not because he doesn't believe in prayer's healing power, but because he believes God's power is not statistically measurable. That said, some readers will dispute Carter's estimate of the place of healing in Christianity.

But such quibbles don't overshadow Carter's masterful discussion of religious liberty and the constant struggle of religious people to fend off the incursions of a state that believes it always knows best. His particularly biting comment on those in the education establishment who believe their job is to separate children from their parents' religious beliefs is right on the mark. It's just a final reason why those concerned about religious freedom and the role of religion in America today must read this book.

Lawrence J. Goodrich is communications director of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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