In a break with tradition that may signal the rising importance of religion in public life, a prominent Yale University law professor has become the first non-theologian to win the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.
Stephen Carter won the award for "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion," published in 1993 by Basic Books.
The award carries a prize of $150,000 and is jointly given by the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville.
Established in 1990 to honor insights into the relationship between humans and the divine, it is named for the late Louisville industrialist Charles Grawemeyer, a Presbyterian layman.
Why a law professor's treatise on constitutional issues should win a prize for theology is not obvious at first, said David Hester, professor of Christian education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and administrator of the Grawemeyer Award.
But, Hester said, the award is not so much for Carter's book but for the professor's contention that faith and religious values have a rightful place in the public debate.
Carter writes that the U.S. Supreme Court has silenced the religious debate by treating the First Amendment as if it protects the state from the church rather than the other way around has resulted in a silencing of debate about religion and public issues. Religion, in Carter's view, has come to be regarded in contemporary America as a hobby, rather than as a defining force in people's lives.
Hester said the judges felt it was significant that Carter--an Episcopalian layman--writes not as a theologian, but as an active member of his church and as a professional committed to the law.
"This book is more or less representative of what he (Carter) would like to see happen: that all sorts of professionals not in the field of religion engage in the reflection of religious values and public life," Hester said.
In his book, Carter argues that the constitutional separation of church and state has resulted in the "sensible zeal" to keep religion from dominating U.S. politics.
However, he writes, the United States has "created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them."
Carter also takes issue with the notion that religiosity is equated with political conservatism. He notes that many liberals are motivated by deeply felt religious beliefs and he admonishes those liberals who are suspicious of religion. They should recognize religion as an often positive force in people's lives, he said.
Carter is William Nelson Cromwell professor at law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. A graduate of Yale Law School, Carter served as a law clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
He is also the author of the memoir "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby."
Carter, who will receive the award Oct. 12 in Louisville, is the fifth recipient of the award. Previous winners have included Elizabeth Johnson, a Catholic theologian; the Rev. Ralph Harper, an Episcopal priest and theologian; John Hick, a British theologian and expert on world religions, and E. P. Sanders, a British biblical scholar.