Carter, Stephen L.

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Stephen L. Carter

Lawyer, writer, educator

Setphen L. Carter, a distinguished writer and professor of law, has gained critical acclaim and notoriety for his views on the role of religion in politics and culture and has sparked debates on the role of integrity and civility in American daily life.

Born in 1954, Stephen Lisle Carter grew up in Washington, D.C.'s middle-class neighborhood of Cleveland Park. Carter was born into a family of highly educated professionals. His grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter, was a member of the prosecuting team called Twenty against the Underworld, who were responsible for bringing to trial Lucky Luciano, one of New York's famed mobsters. Stephen's father, a lawyer, worked in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare during the administrations of presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Stephen's mother, Emily E. Carter, was a college graduate who worked as an assistant to the head of the National Urban Coalition. Along with his family, Stephen Carter, the second of five children, moved to Ithaca, New York, at the age of thirteen, after his father accepted a teaching position at Cornell University.

Growing up, Carter attended nearly all-white schools, in Washington, D.C. and in Ithaca. This racial imbalance never bothered Carter; indeed, it eventually provided the framework for his mindset into adulthood, giving him as a young African American male the opportunity to achieve and excel. When he took the SAT, and made a good score of 780 on the math section, Carter took the test over so that he could make a more acceptable score of 800. After graduating from Ithaca High School, Carter enrolled at Stanford University, in California, where he majored in history and in 1976 earned a BA. degree with honors.

Denied Admission to Harvard Law School

During his senior year in high school, Carter applied to various law schools. He was accepted at all of the schools except Harvard. Carter decided to attend the Yale Law School, but two days after he received his rejection letter from Harvard, he received a phone call retracting the former letter. The Harvard officials explained that there was an error: they somehow misread Carter's application and thought that he was white. Of course Carter was insulted and turned down their late offer for admittance. In a book that Carter later wrote about the experi-ence, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, he stated, "I was told by one official that the school had initially rejected me because 'we assumed from your record that you were white.'" Carter went on to say that the school had obtained "'additional information that should have been counted in your favor'—that is, Harvard had discovered the color of my skin…. Stephen Carter, the white male, was not good enough for Harvard Law School, [while] Stephen Carter, the black male,… rated agonized telephone calls urging him to attend. And Stephen Carter, color unknown, must have been white: How else could he have achieved what he did in college?" Carter admits that even though he was accepted to Yale, he wonders if his admittance there was also based on his race. He went on and earned his J.D. degree from Yale in 1979.

Carter landed his first job as law clerk to Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III at the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C, and in 1980 he served as clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Thurgood Marshall. Carter admired Justice Marshall, looking up to him as a father figure. Carter was admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C, in 1981, and in the same year he became an associate at Shea & Gardner, a Washington law firm. He began teaching law at Yale in 1982, and three years later became the youngest tenured professor in the university's history. That same year he also married Enola Aird, a fellow Yale Law School graduate. At Yale, he became the distinguished William Nelson Cromwell professor and began writing books.

In Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Carter discussed the positives and negatives of racial preference programs, using his own experiences as examples. He argues that affirmative action harms racial minorities more than it helps them. Carter advances three arguments in support of his thesis that affirmative action harms people of color. First, racial preferences reinforce, rather than eliminate, differences between minorities and non-minorities. Justification for affirmative action based on diversity—that is, minorities add a special viewpoint, outlook, or perspective "actually perpetuate ugly stereotypes about the different ways in which people who are white and people who are black supposedly think." The proposition that skin color always stands for a single perspective leads to troubling results. Second, affirmative action creates the assumption that people of color can be only the best in their group but never the best, period. Carter relates how he was prevented from competing for a National Merit Scholarship in high school because he had already been chosen for the National Achievement Scholarship, an award exclusively for black students. Third, affirmative action diverts attention from the people who need the most help—poor blacks who never have the opportunity to prove themselves under affirmative action in the first place. As Carter puts it, "The most disadvantaged black people are not in a position to benefit from preferential admission." Thus, he concludes, affirmative action is merely "racial justice on the cheap."


Born in Washington, D.C.
Moves with family to Ithaca, New York
Graduates with B.A. from Stanford University
Earns J.D. from Yale; serves as law clerk at U.S. Court of Appeals to Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III
Serves as law clerk at U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Thurgood Marshall
Admitted to the bar, Washington, D.C; becomes an associate at Shea & Gardner law firm; marries Enola Aird
Accepts position as assistant law professor at Yale University
Promoted to associate professor at Yale
Promoted to professor of law at Yale
Writes Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby; awarded the William Nelson Cromwell chair
Writes The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion
Writes The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process
Writes Integrity
Writes Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy
Writes God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics
Writes first novel, Emperor of Ocean Park

Career as a Writer

He published his second book, The Culture of Disbelief, in 1993. In this book, Carter attempts to analyze how law and politics trivialize the religious devotion that is so much a part of the inner culture of U.S. society. He argues that faith and religious values have an appropriate place in the nation's public life. In the 1990s, politicians were shunned for talking about God or religion, which Carter defines as public discussion in explicitly religious terms. In 1994, the book won Carter the Louisville Grawemeyer Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in the world of religion. Carter, who was amazed that he won the honor, was the first non-theologian to win the prize. Also in that year he was named by Time magazine as one of the "Fifty Future Leaders of America." Soon after the book was published, it received a public endorsement from President Bill Clinton, who spoke about it highly at a prayer breakfast with religious leaders. Clinton was criticized for his statements by those on the left who believed that politicians should not be speaking publicly about their religious convictions and then by those on the right who disagreed with Clinton's religious views. Carter believes that these are exactly the sorts of pressures that religious people experience all the time. He was later asked on a panel discussing the media and religion, if it bothered him that Clinton spoke about the importance of religion while facing questions about alleged ethical lapses ranging from Whitewater to extramarital affairs. Carter responded that he was not, pointing out that people are complicated and flawed.

Carter points out that there was a time in U.S. history when religious witness in the public square was welcomed. But history altered its course when the abortion issue surfaced. After the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion, the image of American religion was damaged. In the book, Carter uses the example of New York's controversial Roman Catholic archbishop, John Cardinal O'Connor who, in 1990, stated in an article that he wrote in a religious publication, that those Catholic politicians who support a woman's right to abortion risk excommunication. Much debate ensued, and the press had a field day. Vanity Fair informed its readers that O'Connor was an extremist. Carter states that there is nothing wrong with people like O'Connor, in particular, or a spokesperson for any religious group pressing a moral claim in the public square.

In 1994 Carter published his next book, The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process, in which he criticizes the manner in which federal appointees are confirmed. The federal confirmation process, Carter believes, has become more consumed with exposé than with objective examination of candidates' capabilities to hold the post for which they were nominated. To argue his case, Carter uses several high-profile nominations of the 1980s and 1990s, including the controversial Supreme Court candidacies of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas and also assistant attorney general for civil rights nominee Lani Guinier. Carter believes that Bork and Guinier are prime examples of the distortion that has become an integral part of the confirmation process. The two candidates were not defeated intellectually but were rather demonized. Carter maintains that one of the most victimized federal nominees in history was Thurgood Marshall, who Carter says was called a liar, was castigated as being a subversive, had his intellect and ethics questioned, and was roundly termed unqualified during his Supreme Court hearing. "The animosity that Bork and Thomas encountered was not unprecedented. Marshall received the worst treatment. But most of what happened during Marshall's hearing was not reported unlike today where the hearings are televised," Carter wrote.

In his review essay, "Is There a Confirmation Mess? An Analysis of Professor Stephen Carter's Critique of the Federal Process," published in the January 1995 edition of the California Law Review, reviewer Michael Kahn objects to Carter's gloomy prognostication about the nomination of Thurgood Marshall. Kahn states that if Marshall were considered all over again, he would be nominated and confirmed again. Kahn also rejects Carter's view that the system is a mess. Many of the reviews of The Confirmation Mess, were mixed; some offered praise for Carter's detailed description of the problem but skepticism about his proposed solutions.

Carter's next book, Integrity, was written because Carter sees a problem in raising children properly in a country which does not act on its proclaimed values. Reviewer T. Howland Sanks in the April 27, 1996 issue of America calls the book a "skillful combination of anecdote and analysis." Integrity is not a philosophical or theological treatment of the virtue of integrity, but it concerns itself with "how we Americans think, or have thought, or should think of it." In Part One, "Explanations," Carter maintains that integrity means more than just honesty. Integrity requires three steps: first, discerning what is right and what is wrong; second, acting on what one has discerned, even at personal cost; and third, saying openly that one is acting on one's understanding of right and wrong. Carter discusses the issues of integrity in marriage, politics, academia, and journalism. Carter commented in the July 1996 issue of The Lutheran that "Integrity is the crucial element of good citizenship. It's more important to know if someone has integrity than to know whether I agree or disagree with him. If you lack integrity, nothing else you say you believe matters."

Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, published in 1996, endeavors to analyze what has happened to civility in the United States, why it matters, and what can be done about it. Carter presents a list of fifteen rules intended to guide readers, within the limits of democracy, in reconstructing their civility. While clearly these rules of behavior that form the "etiquette of democracy" are difficult to practice, Carter warns that failure to implement them will lead to nothing short of barbarism. The concept of civility involves deep commitment to respect or even love fellow citizens in a way that governs actions towards them. Carter locates the genesis of the lack of civility in American life in the turmoil of the 1960s, when serious questions arose about the roles of family, religion, race, gender, and education in civic life. The 1960s introduced a kind of cultural relativism into the American experience, which tended to tear down fundamental verities without supplying anything meaningful in their place. Somewhere in the chaos, civility got lost. Carter believes that Americans are rude, selfish, and "nasty as [they] wanna be." He believes that much American incivility stems from the inability or unwillingness to discipline personal desires.

In his 1998 publication, The Dissent of the Governed, Carter explores how the federal courts discount religion. As a legal theorist, a citizen in a democracy, and as a Christian, Carter believes deeply in dissent, not simply as a right, but as a responsibility. He analyzes the Declaration of Independence as an example of dissent and as the criterion of government legitimacy. Carter believes that moral progress in the United States demands a richer understanding of the world and that groups need to engage in more dialogue. His principal argument for community autonomy is that individuals should be constitutionally exempt from the application of laws to which they have a religious objection unless an especially strong state interest can be shown.

In his next book, God's Name in Vain, Carter argues that many Americans have essentially "lost sight of the proper relationship between religion and politics." Targeting religious Americans, particularly evangelical Christians with his warning, Carter contends that religious individuals and overtly religious organizations must set "sensible limits" with regard to their involvement in the political process. According to Carter, evangelical Christians must never become disengaged from politics, but they must remain mindful of the inherent capacity of politics to corrupt genuine faith and "prophetic vision."

Carter's subsequent publication, a novel entitled The Emperor of Ocean Park, his first work of fiction, turned out to be his most lucrative work. The central figure of the story, Judge Oliver Garland, a distinguished black conservative federal judge who is slated for the Supreme Court is accused of having ties to a crime kingpin. After the judge dies mysteriously, his son Talcott Garland, a middle-aged law professor at an Ivy League college, is drawn into the mystery surrounding his father's life and death. According to a July 18, 2002, article by Kendra Hamilton in Black Issues in Higher Education, Carter stated that "the enthusiasm and even affection that has greeted the novel and the characters has overwhelmed me." Some critics doubt the book and its author deserved so much money and attention. Despite some negative attention, though, the novel turned out to be a huge success. Carter earned a reputed $4.2 million in a two-book deal with Knopf, and Warner Brothers has offered him a movie deal for the novel.

Carter teaches law at Yale, frequently publishes articles in law reviews and popular presses, and writes a monthly column in Christianity Today. He holds memberships in the American Law Institute and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a trustee of the Aspen Institute, where he moderates seminars for executives on values-based leadership. He has received honorary degrees from various schools, including Notre Dame University, Colgate University, and the Virginia Theological Seminary. He lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Enola, and their children, Leah and Andrew.



Chimiel, Mark. "Religion—Doing Right and Resisting Wrong—Key to Curing Incivility." National Catholic Review 35 (6 November 1998): 3-4.

Halton, William. Review of The Confirmation Mess. In Political Science Quarterly 109 (Winter 1994–95): 252.

Hamilton, Kendra. "Writing for Pleasure and Profit: Law Professor Spins a Tale of Mystery, Sex, and Intrigue to the Tune of a $4.2 Million Book Deal." Black Issues in Higher Education 19 (18 July 2002): 30.

Kahn, Michael A. "Is There a Confirmation Mess? An Analysis of Professor Stephen Carter's Critique of the Federal Appointments Process." California Law Review 83 (January 1995): 471-84.

Kauffman, Bill. "Out of the Box." American Enterprise 9 (November-December 1998): 3-5.

Lane, Charles. "A Victim of Preference." Newsweek 118 (30 September 1991): 3-5.

Sanks, T. Holland. Review of Integrity. In America 174 (27 April 1996): 22.

Trevino, A. Javier. "Sharing Democracy's Community." Society 37 (July-August 2000): 78-84.

Unsigned review of God's Name in Vain. In Virginia Quarterly Review 77 (Summer 2001): 102.

Washington, Linn. "Yale School Professor Stephen Carter Tackles 'The Confirmation Mess.'" Philadelphia Tribune 12 July 1994.


Interview with Stephen L. Carter. http://www/ (Accessed 31 January 2005).

Miller, David L. "Integrity: Why We Need a Transfusion." The Lutheran (July 1996). (Accessed 28 January 2005).

                                    Sheila A. Stuckey

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Carter, Stephen L.

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