Risking Nothingrnby Philip JenkinsrnGod’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs andrnRights of Rehgion in Pohticsrnby Stephen L. CarterrnNew York: Basic Books; 264 pp., $26.00rnAmericans like to think this is a landrnof diversity unparalleled anywherernin the world, but in religious matters atrnleast, such a view is far from the truth.rnAmerica remains today substantiallyrnwhat it has always been, namely, a Christianrncountry. While the United States isrnindeed home to a remarkable number ofrnreligious denominations, overwhelmingly,rnthese are currents within the broaderrnstream of Christianity. Adherents of non-rnChristian religions are strikingly few. Ifrnwe combine the best plausible estimatesrnfor the numbers of American Jews, Buddhists,rnMuslims, and Hindus, then wernare speaking at most of four percent ofrnthe total population. Even if we excludernMormons from the Christian community,rnthis only raises the non-Christian totalrnto around six percent. The degree of religiousrndiversity in the United States is veryrnlimited compared to what we find inrnmany African and Asian countries, wherernreligious minorities commonly make uprn20 percent of the people, if not more.rnContrary to American perceptions, somernof the most diverse lands are found in thernMiddle East, which Westerners oftenrnimagine in terms of Muslim homogeneityrnand intolerance: Countries such asrnEgypt and Iraq are far more diverse thanrnthe United States. American religious homogeneityrnis actually likely to increase inrnthe coming decades, as our populationrnbecomes more diverse ethnically. Arnlarge proportion of the latest wave ofrnAsian, Latino, and even Arab immigrationrnis Christian, often fervently so, whilernthe non-Christians seem ripe for evangelisticrnefforts, particularly by conservativernand Pentecostal denominations.rnThe existence of a powerful AmericanrnChristianity is open to many interpretations:rnSome believe that a Christian peoplernrequires a Christian government,rnwith all that implies about religious exercisesrnin schools, while extremists advocaterna theocratic state. On the otherrnhand, many argue that the sheer numericalrnweight of Christianity requires therncounterbalance of a rigid secular state.rnHence the ongoing and often trivialseemingrncontroversies about public displaysrnof religion —creche scenes onrncourthouse lawns, commencementrnprayers, and the like.rnStephen L. Carter is a Yale law professorrnwhose 1994 book. The Culture of Disbelief,rnmade a provocative and balancedrncontribution to the debate about the rolernof religion in a supposedly secular state.rnHis earlier work bore the subtitie, “HowrnAmerican Law and Politics Trivialize ReligiousrnDevotion,” and offered manyrntelling examples of the selective responsernby the media and the political elite tornpublic expressions of faith. In secularrneyes, it was completely acceptable forrnMartin Luther King to engage in his crusade,rnand even to be identified publicly asrn”the Reverend,” but utterly taboo whenrnconservative politicians (or even clergy)rninvoke Cod in their particular causes.rnThe more the secular elites seek to excludernreligion from the public sphere,rnthe further removed America’s rulers becomernfrom their subjects, and the morernthe media depict the worldview of the ordinaryrnperson as a form of incomprehensiblernfanaticism. I offer this modest proposalrnto some aspiring filmmaker inrnsearch of a topic: Make a documentaryrnthat strings together the typical depictionsrnof religious believers or pastors inrnmainstream American movies of the lastrn20 years or so. The clips could be unitedrnby titles such as “homicidal maniac,”rn”babbling fanatic,” “hate-spouting hypocrite,”rn”child molester,” “self-hating homosexual”rn—the list is endless.rnReligious issues remain at the forefrontrnof American politics. The proper placernof religion was discussed in the context ofrnthe religious forms affected by PresidentrnClinton’s “confession” of sin in the MonicarnLewinsky affair, and the response byrnthe liberal media. Over the last fewrnmonths, both presidential (and vice-presidential)rncandidates have tried to out-rnGod each other. Increasingly, Americansrnseem to favor a greater public rolernfor religious voices; see the surveys in anrnimportant recent book from the BrookingsrnInstitute, The Diminishing Divide. Arnnew salvo by Carter was therefore to bernexpected, and his work thoroughly meetsrnour expectations. God’s Name in Vain isrna sane, intelligent, and lucid analysis,rnwhich can profitably be read by activistsrnof all shades, as well as by anyone interestedrnin American politics.rnCarter offers a new assessment of thernstate of the debate. His judicious viewsrnare summarized in two primary theses:rn”First, that there is nothing wrong, andrnmuch right, with the robust participationrnof the nation’s many religious voices inrndebates over matters of public moment.rnSecond, that religions —although notrndemocracy—will almost certainly loserntheir best, most spiritual selves when theyrnchoose to be involved in the partisan,rnelectoral side of our politics.” These twornviews may initially seem contradictory—rnamounting, crudely, to the propositionrnthat while the churches have a right tornspeak out, they really shouldn’t—butrnCarter’s case is far more subtle than thisrnreductive summary might suggest. Hernstresses the critical role played by religion,rnoften of the most fundamentalistrnand evangelical stripe, in political debatesrnthroughout American history, notrnleast in the civil-rights movement. Andrnjust how, exactiy, should 19th-century religiousrnactivists have refrained from crossingrnthe wall of separation betweenrnchurch and state on issues such as slavery?rnTo understand American history,rnwe must never underestimate the sincerityrnor determination of those in every generationrnwho have sought to constructrn”the kingdom of Cod on earth,” howeverrnthey conceived this goal. As Carter argues,rn”Religion, in short, has no sphere.rn. . . The law today too often behaves asrnthough it does.” Carter goes so far as tornproclaim that, in a hypothetical conflictrnbetween God and country, he would bernrequired to relinquish the cause of hisrncountry: As much as he loves the UnitedrnStates, it is no more eternal or indispensablernthan the Roman Empire of its day.rnYet God’s Name in Vain is no call for arnreligio-political crusade, still less for arnspecifically religious agenda in politics.rnCarter warns religious activists that,rn”When you touch politics, it touches yournback. Politics is a dirty business at best,rnand leaves few of its participants unsullied.rnThe religious enjoy no special immunity.rnOn the contrary—the religiousrnface special risks.” Not the least of thesernrisks is that religious activists will be heldrnto a higher standard of responsibility thanrnsecular politicians. The public will,rnrightiy, demand the highest possible standardsrnof behavior and will be deeply sensitivernto any apparent hypocrisy or powerseeking,rnnot to mention more obviousrnfailings in fiirancial and sexual integrity.rnIf religious leaders fail to meet these standards,rnthe results will be disastrous notrnDECEMBER 2000/33rnrnrn