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By Michael Cromartie


How We Muddle Our Morals

"Integrity"

By Stephen L. Carter

BasicBooks

277 pp.; $24

In his new book "Integrity," Stephen Carter sounds despairing at times when he considers the level of public discourse in the 1990s--"what appears to be an increasingly bitter and even mean political era." Carter's own career, however, suggests that his assessment may be too pessimistic.

Stephen Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has been on the faculty since 1982, first gained a wide audience with his book "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby" (1991). Even more influential was "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion" (1993; an updated paperback edition with a new foreword appeared in 1994). "Contemporary American politics faces few greater dilemmas than deciding how to deal with the resurgence of religious belief," Carter wrote. From his perspective as a Christian and a political liberal, he proceeded to chastise those (including many of his academic peers) who are openly contemptuous of religion and religious believers, particularly when they also happen to be politically conservative.

"Integrity" is the first of three books that Carter plans to write on what he calls " 'pre-political' virtues--that is, elements of good character that cross the political spectrum and, indeed, without which other political views and values are useless." (The next book in the series, Carter says, will be on civility.) Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., talked recently with Carter about his new book.

WHY DID YOU WRITE THIS BOOK, AND WHY DID YOU WRITE IT NOW?

We live in a time when people are giving attention, finally, to the spiritual dimensions of public life. Our democratic institutions are at risk precisely because politics has become so relentlessly materialistic, across the political spectrum. As a result, people are feeling increasingly alienated ...

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