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The Price of Power
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Stephen Carter

      . . . Professor of Law, Yale University, and an author. A former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Mr. Carter is among the nation‚s leading experts on constitutional law. Mr. Carter confronts what he views as challenges to America‚s democracy in his several books, including The Culture of Disbelief, Civility, Integrity and God‚s Name in Vain.

Excerpts4:39 secs
[This Program was recorded October 31, 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

      Religious believers put their beliefs at risk when they become active participants in electoral politics, according to Stephen L. Carter. Mr. Carter is a Yale Law professor, Constitutional expert and conservative Christian.

      People of faith -- lured by a fleeting political moment into embracing a candidate or party, working for electoral wins, coming to „the big tableš -- risk the very beliefs that motivated them in the first place, Mr. Carter contends. The process of electoral politics, he reminds us, is based on compromise and give-and-take. Being a party to that mutes the prophetic voice, whether religious or secular. And Mr. Carter believes we need that prophetic voice.

      It‚s not that either politics or religion is better, says Mr. Carter, they‚re just different. People with deep religious faith have been molded by it, have learned moral lessons, understand differently how to behave, think, relate to others and will bring those differences to their politics. That‚s very useful to a democracy. But people elected to political office are obliged be make practical decisions, not ideological ones.

      Mr. Carter has no problem with America‚s general sense of being a religious people (though prejudice against atheists does concerns him.) A lot of very important social changes has been effected in America in part because of social movements born in or led by religious outsiders, Mr. Carter reminds us.  He need point no farther than America‚s abolition of slavery and 20th century Civil Rights Movement.

      And it‚s fine when a politician ends his speech with „God bless you and God bless America,š if this is a profession of that politician‚s faith. But if the proclamation is driven by a focus group, not faith, Mr. Carter thinks it is...terrible. It is not only cynical, it also violates the ancient prohibition against taking God‚s name in vain. It says, in effect, „We don‚t care what you believe, we just care what you say.š

      What about „one nation, under Godš in the Pledge of Allegiance? Say it if you believe it, refrain if not, you pick, advises Mr. Carter. But it‚s very different and a serious problem when the Chief Justice of the United States adds „ help me Godš to the Presidential oath. That‚s not optional and turns the oath into a religious test, prohibited by the Constitution. George Washington said it, but the phrase should not be there.

      Our democracy needs prophetic voices preaching to politicians, Mr. Carter insists. Politicians do well to listen and learn. It‚s when religion and politics blur that we all lose.

Conversation 1

Stephen Carter assures Paula Gordon and Bill Russell that religion and politics both fill spaces that might otherwise be empty in the human soul. The importance of story-telling in both contexts is considered. He explains why he believes the differences between religion and politics are inevitable and can be useful.

Conversation 2

Assuring us that there is not always a strict duality between religion and politics, Mr. Carter recalls the interaction of the two in America's Abolitionist movement. Politics is neither better nor worse than religion, he maintains, just different. In a democracy, he contends, every effort to persuade is ultimately political. He explains why he is convinced that when religious voices get involved in electoral politics, they are weakened. He expands with a series of examples of the profound risks religious people run when they willingly compromise their stewardship obligation in the service of a fleeting political moment.

Conversation 3

Mr. Carter reminds us of how dramatically religious law has affected America‚s legal inheritance. Drawing on the story of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic convention, Mr. Carter demonstrates how religion and social movements are intertwined in America. He explains why people of faith driven to public activism need to be concerned about keeping their message uncontaminated by the give and take of electoral politics. He maintains a politician can listen to and learn from people of faith but should not be negotiating with them. He considers the importance of liberation and process theology in the world at large.

Conversation 4

Democracy requires that we value all kinds of voices, says Mr. Carter, who explains why he thinks religious voices should be neither specially privileged, nor specially un-privileged. He tells why it is fundamental to a democracy that we build a system of politics in which everyone can feel comfortable speaking from clearly different voices and perspectives -- secular as well as religious. He gives non-religious examples of people vulnerable to the temptation of muting their voices by entering the kingdom of power. While personally a believer, Mr. Carter is concerned that America is prejudiced against atheists. He explains why he is troubled by politicians who fail to say how their self-proclaimed religion relates to actual policies, citing American Presidential elections. He describes how politicians ending speeches with "God bless you, God bless America" are taking God's name in vain.

Conversation 5

The classic Pascal's wager and pandering are quite different reasons for politicians to make professions of faith in speeches, says Mr. Carter, who expands to include the Pledge of Allegiance. He notes how George Washington, not the Constitution, put "so help me God" into the Presidential oath of office, disturbed by how that makes it a test oath, which is Constitutionally forbidden. Mr. Carter explains why this deeply troubles him. He gives the ironic and challenging side to Americans‚ weakening hold to religious views.

Conversation 6

Mr. Carter cites Roger Williams' 17th century idea of the Garden and the Wilderness, on which our concept of the separation of church and state is based. Mr. Carter updates this metaphor in urging us to keep the wall between the two strong, to spend more time recovering and preserving a sense of whats most important to us


We were pleased to welcome Mr. Carter back to our program and thank him for rearranging his personal schedule to make it possible.

Related Links:
God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics is published by Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group.

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