AS FAR BACK AS HE CAN REMEMBER, STEPHEN Carter yearned for the comfort of faith and a spiritual family. Growing up in a middle-class suburb of Washington, he says, “I always felt this call to come to church.” His parents were not churchgoers, but that didn’t slop him. “Sunday after Sunday,” he says, “I’d get up, dress and make my way to the Episcopal church, alone or with a neighbor.”
That devotion to religion would in-form his whole life—and now it has inspired a new book, The Culture of Disbelief (Basic Books). Carter, 39, a constitutional law professor at Yale, argues that for the past 20 years the liberal establishment—in the courts, politics, universities and the press—has sought to banish religion from public discourse and treat “God as a hobby.'” He points to things small—how certain journalists chastised Hillary Clinton for wearing a cross around her neck at various inaugural events—and large, like the tragedy in Waco, where the government, Carter says, wrongly equated the Branch Davidians’ crimes with their religion. Carter suggests that after the legalization of abortion in 1973, “we saw people from the left running away from religious rhetoric while the right was co-opting it. That has left little space for people in the middle, and that’s a crisis.”
Disbelief generated plenty of table talk in the capital—especially after President Clinton gave it a rave and recommended it al a prayer breakfast in September. “I was speechless and quite flattered,” says Carter, a man who finds value in public scrutiny. His first book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, examined compensatory racial preference in hiring and college admissions. (A beneficiary of such programs, Carter supports them, but not uncritically.) It struck a public nerve when it appeared in 1991, coinciding as it did with the Clarence Thomas hearings. One of his key arguments in Disbelief is that religious groups should have the same right to influence government as other organizations, but beyond that his views don’t fall squarely to the left or right. He is “moderately pro-choice” (he favors parental notification for minors), against capital punishment and for the ban on organized prayer in schools. Yet he has also defended parents’ rights to exempt children from educational programs on religious grounds. “When you insist on the right to be complicated,” he says, “you anger people who want to fit you into little boxes—liberal, conservative or whatever.”
Carter was one of five children born to Lisle Carter, the first president of the University of the District of Columbia, and the late Emily Carter, an assistant to the head of the National Urban Coalition. When he was 13, the family moved to Ithaca, N.Y., and young Stephen stayed behind, living with a Jewish family while he finished school. “It was wonderful to see the way religion permeated their lives,” he says. “Since then I’ve always wanted a religious tradition to hand down to my kids.” He studied history and religion at Stanford before going on to Yale Law School in 1976, where he met Enola Aird, whom he married in 1981.
Carter also secured two clerkships, including one with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “He was a father like figure for me,” he says, “and a warm, playful human being. He loved to lease the law clerks. With me, he never liked my clothes, so he always teased me about that.” Carter was offered a teaching job in 1982 at his alma mater, becoming Yale Law School’s first tenured black professor.
Not surprisingly, faith occupies a crucial place in the Carter household. Although Enola was raised a Roman Catholic, in 1985 she and Carter chose to attend an Episcopalian church. “Religion shouldn’t just be a Sunday activity,” says Enola, who worked as a corporate attorney before the birth of Leah, 8, and Andrew, 5. “It should influence every minute of every day.” The family lives in a four-bedroom colonial home in Hamden, Conn., and the children attend an Episcopal private school. “We wanted one that would reinforce, rather than demean, the values we teach at home,” explains Carter. “I’m not saying that religion insulates people against doing or thinking wrong, but I am confident that a strong religious background and family support are the best weapons against that.”
Meantime, Carter is back at work, editing Thurgood Marshall’s oral history and finishing a book about the appointment and confirmation process for judges and other federal officials. Will it create as much of a fuss as his first two? “Basically it’s a call for decency,” he says. “I hope that’s not considered controversial.”
JENNIFER KAYLIN in New Haven