Carter: Discussion vital in democracy

The emphasis in a democracy should be on listening rather than on speaking, Stephen L. Carter LAW ’79 said at a talk in Sterling Memorial Lecture Hall on Tuesday.

Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell professor of law at Yale, presented “Some Third Thoughts on Religion and Politics” to a diverse audience of about 20 members of the Yale community.

Law School professor Stephen Carter LAW ’79 argued that “the Constitution only binds the government,” not the people, at a talk Tuesday.
Charles Francis
Law School professor Stephen Carter LAW ’79 argued that “the Constitution only binds the government,” not the people, at a talk Tuesday.

Carter, the author of books including “New England White” and “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby,” began his remarks by defining what he sees as the limits of constitutional law. People should not look to reform the Constitution in order to resolve issues of the separation between church and state, he said.

“The Constitution only binds the government,” Carter said, arguing that people should be more concerned with having conversations about current issues among various demographics than about looking to reform this document. Constitutional debates become very popular among candidates during presidential campaigns, he said, and the separation of church and the state is often misunderstood to be a constitutional issue.

Carter’s evolving personal view on the dynamic between religion and politics has led him to three conclusions, he said, hence the name of his lecture. His first conclusion, he said, is that politics is self-correcting — while it is an accessible field for people to enter, not everyone has the skills to rise to the top.

Second, politics poses a threat to religion by prompting people to sacrifice their personal convictions in their zeal for power.

“Everyone gets corrupted in politics,” Carter said, noting that politicians must often make moral trade-offs in order to get elected.

Finally, Carter described his faith in conversation among citizens about issues of the day and the pursuit of the good. People should use religion to persuade others to work for the betterment of humanity, rather than to win a presidential campaign, he said.

Carter said that dialogue among candidates and constituents, not elections, comprises the essence of democracy. Having identified listening as a much more valuable skill than speaking, Carter told the audience that it is important for citizens to have faith in each other and in people’s capacity for self-government.

“America is a religious country,” said Carter, adding that religious rhetoric has often been part of American politics, from Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King Jr.

Sponsored by the Diversity Council of the Yale University Library, Carter’s lecture was organized as part of Black History Month. Carter’s latest book, “New England White,” received the 2008 Black Caucus of the American Library Association award in the fiction category.

Aybala Saricicek, a postdoctoral associate of psychiatry, said he found the lecture informative and stimulating.

“I come from Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country,” Saricicek said, “and I was not aware that religion could be such a big part of American politics.”

University Librarian Alice Prochaska, who just finished reading Carter’s “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” said she was glad he could take part in the library’s celebration of Black History Month.

Carter’s other books include “God’s Name in Vain” and “The Emperor of Ocean Park.” He is currently working on two other books.

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