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The Dissent of the Governed A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty

by Stephen L. Carter

Part of the The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies Series

The Dissent of the Governed A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty Synopsis

Between loyalty and disobedience; between recognition of the law's authority and realization that the law is not always right: In America, this conflict is historic, with results as glorious as the mass protests of the civil rights movement and as inglorious as the armed violence of the militia movement. In an impassioned defense of dissent, Stephen L. Carter argues for the dialogue that negotiates this conflict and keeps democracy alive. His book portrays an America dying from a refusal to engage in such a dialogue, a polity where everybody speaks, but nobody listens. The Dissent of the Governed is an eloquent diagnosis of what ails the American body politic--the unwillingness of people in power to hear disagreement unless forced to--and a prescription for a new process of response. Carter examines the divided American political character on dissent, with special reference to religion, identifying it in unexpected places, with an eye toward amending it before it destroys our democracy. At the heart of this work is a rereading of the Declaration of Independence that puts dissent, not consent, at the center of the question of the legitimacy of democratic government. Carter warns that our liberal constitutional ethos--the tendency to assume that the nation must everywhere be morally the same--pressures citizens to be other than themselves when being themselves would lead to disobedience. This tendency, he argues, is particularly hard on religious citizens, whose notion of community may be quite different from that of the sovereign majority of citizens. His book makes a powerful case for the autonomy of communities--especially but not exclusively religious--into which democratic citizens organize themselves as a condition for dissent, dialogue, and independence. With reference to a number of cases, Carter shows how disobedience is sometimes necessary to the heartbeat of our democracy--and how the distinction between challenging accepted norms and challenging the sovereign itself, a distinction crucial to the Declaration of Independence, must be kept alive if Americans are to progress and prosper as a nation.

The Dissent of the Governed A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty Press Reviews

Carter celebrates reasoned dissent and urges the need for 'public moral dialogue'. Choosing examples from familiar conflicts between religion and law, he argues cogently that those in control of government today too often delegitimize the perspectives of groups, particularly religious communities, who strive to promote an alternative vision to the secular bias dominating politics, the media, and the courts...To continue a civil polity of indifference or hostility toward religious values, he warns, threatens to transform dissent into disallegiance. This gracefully written book should prove useful for anyone interested in a civil argument over contemporary public affairs.--Thomas E. Buckley Theological Studies [Carter's] point of departure is a reading of the Declaration of Independence that stresses dissent as the criterion of government legitimacy. The extent to which government accommodates dissent is the index of citizen allegiance; if dissenters' grievances are persistently ignored, that justifies disallegiance and rebellion...Read this little book and become a better American.--Ray Olson Booklist Carter possesses a sensitive and well-informed mind; he is independent in his judgements and at the same time almost always sensible and persuasive; he is highly serious in that he addresses fundamental issues such as those of morality, religion, and politics; he is expert in matters of public law; and finally, he is a lucid and graceful writer.--Glenn Tinder Religion & Public Life Carter offers sound insights into the nature of governmental power [and] delivers a masterly attack on what he calls 'liberal constitutionalism, ' that is the use of law to increase the power of the federal government for the purpose of enforcing secular values.--Mark Miller The Weekly Standard [Carter] believes that judges too seldom see themselves as parts of the government; and that this illusion prompts them to approach many grievances as monologuists...rather than as participants in an ongoing 'conversation'...His arguments [are] forceful and interesting...[This book] deserve[s] to be read with close attention, especially in Washington, where 'the etiquette of democracy' seems, these savage days, to have plunged to an all-time low.--Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. Washington Post Book World [A] crisply argued volume...The book is, as Carter's subtitle suggests, a meditation on 'the relationship between loyalty and disobedience on the one hand and, on the other, between the recognition of the sovereign's authority and realization that the sovereign is not always right. In America, this conflict is eternal'...[Carter] provides much grit for the mill. His summary of his position stresses dissent rather than consent as lying at the heart of the question of democratic legitimacy, thereby turning political-theory-as-usual on its head.--Jean Bethke Elshtain Books & Culture A renowned law professor at an elite liberal school, an African American, and a devout Christian, Carter has proven himself to be a natural master of contradiction...This makes Carter's new book unusually nuanced and daring...[It] offers thoughtful insights on how conflict between national morality and religious convictions affects issues such as civil rights, state funding for private schools and abortion.--Publishers Weekly Thought-provoking observations about the relations between government--including the courts--and society's dissenters...Stephen Carter rightly rails against government hostility toward America's religious communities. He finds little legitimacy in denying government funds to religious schools and in court hostility to school prayer. He trenchantly observes that if this secular disdain for religious participation in public life had been operative in the past, we might never have had the antislavery movement and the Martin Luther King Jr.-era civil rights movement...One need not agree with the book's musings or interpretations...to appreciate its plea for a greater sensitivity on the part of our political establishment to those with unconventional beliefs.--Forbes In The Dissent of the Governed...Carter eloquently rejects the claim that argument from religious morality has no place in public debate...[He] not only defends the legitimacy of religious argument but provides an impressive example of how a believer may engage in civil debate with fellow citizens who do not share his faith. His meditations on the tensions between democracy and religion display the eloquence and independence of mind that have made Stephen L. Carter one of America's leading public intellectuals.--Michael Lind New York Times Book Review In Dissent of the Governed, Stephen Carter points out that Americans do not believe in political trials. So, what is to be done with religious dissenters who protest the sovereign's understanding of the social contract? We cannot treat then as traitors and political subversives because that would come uncomfortably close to political trials. On the other hand, they cannot be regarded by analogy to the civil rights movement, because that would leave open the possibility that the sovereign is wrong...Carter correctly points out that when disaffected religious citizens are told to take their case on abortion, school prayer, family planning, or whatever to the public forum, the recommnedation is not sincere because liberal constitutionalism holds both in theory and practice that these things 'should be outside the realm of politics'...The question, then, is how the regime will treat the losers, and how the losers will comport themselves in their defeat. Carter is surprisingly--I think refreshingly--blunt in spelling out the problem.--Russell Hittinger First Things There is much good sense in The Dissent of the Governed...And there is also much to praise in [Carter's] basic diagnosis of the discontent that has been bred by the overreaching of the federal government, particularly the courts...[This is an] important contribution to a heated, ongoing debate. The ministry he has chosen is a laudable one, instructing liberal sectarians in the true demands of their creed of tolerance. On these fundamental matters, his is plainly a voice for reason.--Gary Rosen Commentary

Book Information

ISBN: 9780674212664
Publication date: 1st November 1999
Author: Stephen L. Carter
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Format: Paperback / softback
Pagination: 167 pages
Categories: Jurisprudence & philosophy of law, Political structures: democracy, Demonstrations & protest movements,

About Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School and the author of The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion.

More About Stephen L. Carter

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