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Stephen L. Carter: the Christian As Contrarian

ISSUE:  Summer 2003

Stephen L. Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park was the publishing phenomenon of 2002. The $4.2 million advance Carter received from Alfred A. Knopf, joined with the $1 million advance he got from Jonathan Cape (the largest ever given to a first-time novelist by a British publisher) and his seven-figure deal with Warner Brothers, was vindicated commercially by the book’s sales. Knopf set an initial press run of 275,000, then raised it to 500,000 when legal-thriller maestro John Grisham made Emperor the first selection of the “Today” show book club. Emperor stood high on The New York Times list all summer.

Carter is surely the unlikeliest best-selling novelist in years. Let me count the ways.

For one thing, there is Carter himself. He is the William Nelson Crowell Professor of Law at Yale University, an unfamiliar spawning ground for writers of blockbuster fiction. He teaches courses on contracts, constitutional law, and intellectual property, subjects that have inspired few best-sellers. He writes law review articles on subjects like the separation of powers and books with titles like Integrity and The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process (as opposed, say, to The King of Torts or Q Is for Quarry). He has a column in the evangelical Christian magazine, Christianity Today. His earlier attempts at fiction were pretty much confined to childhood efflorescences of science fiction.

If Carter’s personal unlikeliness isn’t enough, there is the book itself, all 657 pages of it. To be sure, The Emperor of Ocean Park has many of the elements of a great beach read: a mysterious family secret, a tense marriage, sibling rivalry, menacing characters, an unexplained death, even a climactic storm. On the other hand, Emperor is set in the world of the black bourgeoisie, previously chronicled mainly in Dorothy West’s much less commercially successful 1995 novel, The Wedding. It is bereft of explicit sex and violence. Although some characters are brutally murdered, the action occurs offstage. “I’ve got explicit religion instead,” Carter says. His protagonist prays, reads the Bible, goes to church, and both seeks and heeds pastoral counseling for his troubled marriage. (By Carter’s design, not a single character takes the Lord’s name in vain.) Obscure chess problems that pit black against white undergird the novel’s structure, along with chess dilemmas in which black pieces obstruct each other’s progress. Emperor even has 64 chapters, one for every square of the chess board. A typical chapter mixes elements of serious essay and page-turning suspense. Chapter 12, for example, mulls the obligations of Christian service and the emptiness of liberal and conservative approaches to helping the poor, then ends with a sudden plot twist: “I peel off the tape as gracefully as I am able, unwrap the paper, and find, inside, the missing white pawn.”


Stephen Carter’s unconventional success with Emperor—and make no mistake, it is a literate, intriguing, thought-provoking entertainment—seems less surprising when seen in the context of his life, his ideas, and his previous published writings. Carter is his own man. He fits no mold. And gradually, over a period of years, he has developed a large audience of readers and admirers who are drawn to his original way of looking at things: a mixture of liberalism and conservatism that transcends both extremes, a variety of carefully reasoned perspectives that are deeply grounded in Christian faith, a strong African American identity that resists all easy categorizations, and a writing style that engages without condescending.

Carter was born in 1955 into a family of professionals. His grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter, had been one of Thomas E. Dewey’s “Twenty against the Underworld,” the team of New York prosecutors that nailed Lucky Luciano, among other feats of crime busting. His father, Lisle C. Carter Jr., was a lawyer in New York at the time of Carter’s birth, and later was tapped for various positions in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Carter’s mother, Emily E. Carter, was a college graduate who worked for a time in Julian Bond’s legislative office. The Carters lived in the Cleveland Park section of Washington; their neighbors included Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy. Carter’s parents were not strongly religious, but he remembers being impressed by the extent to which a Jewish friend’s family life was permeated by religion.

Growing up, Carter went to nearly all-white schools: Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington and, after his father took a teaching position at Cornell University, the public high school in Ithaca, New York. Carter’s reaction to being the only black kid in the honors section of many of his classes was, in his word, “overachievement.” He was the kind of student who, when he made 780 on the math part of the SAT, retook the test so that he could make 800. The best way to prove to “an often doubting, arrogant, and insensitive white world” that he belonged in the top tier, Carter decided, was to “show that whatever their best can do I can do, except that I can do it better.” He enrolled as an undergraduate at Stanford University, where he majored in history and wrote a column for the Stanford Daily.

Carter was a confident, original thinker in college: his columns usually tilted leftward (this was the era of Vietnam and Watergate) but he was also capable of, say, blasting Judge John J. Sirica for “his inquisitorial tactics at the Watergate trial.” During Carter’s senior year, he applied to a half-dozen top-tier law schools. Still the fierce competitor who thought that the best way to silence doubters was to outperform them, Carter was distressed at the circumstances of his acceptance into Harvard Law School. Two days after he received a rejection letter, three Harvard officials called to apologize: they had declined to admit him because they’d misread his application and thought he was white—would he come anyway? Carter turned them down flat. “The insult I felt,” he later reflected, “came from the pain of being reminded so forcefully that in the judgment of those with the power to dispose, I was good enough for a top law school only because I happened to be black.”

Carter went to Yale instead, even though “the chances are good that I was admitted. . . for essentially the same reason: the color of my skin.” (If that was the case, then Yale at least took pains to conceal the fact.) Again he excelled, and his progress as an independent thinker continued. For example, told by another black law student that, “You are disadvantaged. Racism has marked you. It has held you back,” Carter didn’t buy it. Weren’t his parents professional people, he asked? Hadn’t he always gone to excellent schools? Didn’t Yale open wide the door to its law school?

Although he disdained racial excuses, Carter could not be branded a “black conservative.” After graduating from law school in 1979, he spent yearlong clerkships with two of history’s greatest civil rights lawyers and judges: first, Spottswood W. Robinson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, then Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court. Interestingly, Carter admired Marshall as much for his generosity of spirit as for his liberalism. He was especially impressed by the way Marshall could sort out his fierce disagreements with John W. Davis, the lead attorney defending segregated public schools in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, from his fondness and admiration for this “great man, wonderful man [who] just believed in segregation.”

After his clerkships were over, Carter practiced law (briefly) with the prestigious small firm of Shea and Gardner in Washington and married (permanently: Carter has very strong views on lifelong marital fidelity) Enola Aird, a fellow Yale Law School graduate. In 1982 he returned to Yale as a professor. He wrote, and continues to write, an impressive battery of law review articles; taught, and continues to teach, enthusiastically and well; and was tenured after only three years.


At its worst, academic tenure offers professors a safe haven from ever again having to work hard or think new thoughts. At its best, tenure liberates them to blaze innovative intellectual trails. Carter fits squarely into the latter category. Since earning tenure at Yale, he has become a prolific writer of books on a wide range of topics. The Emperor of Ocean Park was hardly the first of these works to defy convention. Carter’s first book—the one that launched him into the ranks of public intellectuals (in his case, a remarkably media-averse public intellectual)—was Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, published in 1991.

Reflections is pro-affirmative action (Carter defends it as a way of giving “lots of people from different backgrounds the chance—only the chance—to have an education at an elite college or university”) but in ways that have made other affirmative action advocates squirm. For one thing, Carter dismisses the main contemporary defense of affirmative action, namely, that it fosters “diversity.” Such a defense rests on the expectation that, instead of becoming independent thinkers, beneficiaries will have a predictable set of tastes, opinions, and attitudes—in other words, they will “think black.” For another, Carter fully acknowledges the price that the African American community continues to pay for affirmative action. Even black doctors and lawyers are assumed by many colleagues and clients to be the “best blacks” in their professions, not the “best qualified.” Perhaps most distressing of all, the concentration of affirmative action’s benefits on middle-class African Americans has funneled the rising black leadership class into the white-dominated establishment, denying poorer blacks their most effective potential advocates. In “the era of affirmative action,” Carter notes ruefully, “middle-class black people are better off and lower-class black people are worse off.”

Reviewers didn’t know what to make of Reflections and its author. Was Carter, as critics variously labeled him, a conservative, a liberal, a neoconservative, a black conservative, or an “honest liberal”? The usual way of labeling people—identifying them by their allies and associates—was no help either. The list of friends and colleagues whom Carter thanked in the book’s preface included all-star liberals like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Roger Wilkins and leading conservatives like Michael McConnell (now a George W. Bush-appointed circuit court judge) and Thomas Sowell. Nor did the book’s conclusion place Carter in any familiar category. It merely called for “solidarity” and “unity” among African Americans, “not in the sense of group think, but in the sense of group love”—that is, “of rooting for us—the way many of our parents and theirs did for Marian Anderson and Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr.”

Carter’s subsequent writings have played variations on the theme that he fits no one else’s mold. He published his second book, The Culture of Disbelief, in 1993. Culture is filled with subtle, well-reasoned positions that resist translation into bumper sticker-style shorthand: that capital punishment is wrong but not unconstitutional. That teaching creationism in the public schools is wrong and unconstitutional, but only because it’s bad science—not, as the Supreme Court ruled in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard, because the laws mandating it were religiously motivated. That organized public school prayer is wrong and unconstitutional, but that allowing parents to use government vouchers to send their children to parochial schools is both constitutional and right.

Carter’s main point in Culture is that contemporary liberals are making the same mistake that ‘50’s conservatives did when they discouraged voters and public officials from defending their political ideas in terms of their religious convictions. Exhibits A and B for his case are the champions of abolition in the 19th century and of civil rights in the 20th. Whom should we have listened to during the 1950’s, Carter asks: Reverend Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, who claimed for the civil rights movement’s agenda “an exclusive alignment with the Almighty,” or Southern segregationists like Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who said that religious people should not “make a moral question of a political issue”?

Leave it to Carter, however, to slap down the audience that was most likely to cheer these sentiments. Christian conservatives were heartened by Culture; they, after all, were the most politically active Christians of the 1990’s. But they received their comeuppance in God’s Name in Vain, which Carter published in 2000. God’s Name was Carter’s effort to complete the argument that he had begun in Culture. If, as Culture declared, “religion is to be actively involved in politics, what is the proper form of that involvement?” One part of Carter’s answer was that religious groups are true to their best selves and enrich the broader public dialogue most when they offer faith-based perspectives on public issues. For example, when Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Orthodox Jews criticize abortion (Carter himself is “moderately” pro-choice), that is all to the good. The other part of his answer, however, is that when a religious group allies itself with a particular party or candidate, as many conservative Christian groups have done with the Republican Party and with leaders like Ronald Reagan and the Presidents Bush, the group “is likely to lose its best and most spiritual self.” Why? “Because the religious, like everybody else, are tempted by politics. . . .Who wants to be a voice crying in the wilderness when we can be witnesses testifying before Congress? Who wants to be a prophet without honor in his own land when White House prayer breakfasts are available?” Or, as another religious thinker once said, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Carter’s books (since becoming a tenured professor, he has published at least one every couple years) also include the first two volumes of a series exploring what he calls “elements of good character”: Integrity (1996) and Civility (1998). Integrity has three components, Carter argues: “discerning what is right,” “acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost,” and, as a way of showing that one is “unashamed” of doing what is right, “saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.” Although “[f]or me as a Christian,” Carter writes concerning the first component, “a belief in discernment rests crucially on the belief in God and the duty of obedience to God’s law,” he is convinced that the discernment process can be grounded just as strongly in reason as in revelation. Consistency is what integrity requires, a consistency among discernment, action, and articulation. Not surprisingly, in Integrity Carter once again finds cause to sternly lecture ideologues of the left and right. To the extent that a person of integrity is persuaded that government assistance “cripples self-reliance,” for example, he or she should criticize corporate welfare just as fervently as welfare payments to individuals.

Civility picks up where Integrity leaves off: “having developed. . . our own moral selves, we must next develop tools for interacting with others.” The book is an extended brief in defense of Immanuel Kant’s imperative that people must be treated as ends, not means—that is, with “an attitude of respect, even love.” To be civil means to recognize other human beings as our equals instead of putting our own desires first. This ethic is one that Carter frankly finds hard to imagine us fulfilling in the absence of “a revival of religion as a force in both our public and our private lives, because religion can give believers the power to resist the dangerous, self-seeking moral understandings that are coming to dominate our social life.” As in his other books, Carter regards politics as having betrayed us, in utterly bipartisan ways. Democrats promise entitlements and Republicans promise tax cuts, “but both parties are really doing the same thing: appealing to our selfish side.” Conservatives exalt property, liberals exalt rights, but “[b]oth teach us to worship ourselves.” Executions are anathema to the left and justifiable to the right, while abortions are supported by the left and opposed by the right. Carter would have us believe that a “society in which [either] of these practices is common is a society that is morally obtuse about violence.”

Carter is aware of the ways that being a contrarian makes him seem strange to others. He begins his 1994 work, The Confirmation Mess, for example, by recounting that “[j]ust about everybody I told I was writing a book that would criticize the confirmation-time treatment of both Robert Bork and Lani Guinier had one of two reactions: “What are you defending him for?” or “What are you defending her for?”” (Carter goes on to note that the first nominee to be bullied by the modern judicial confirmation process was neither the Reagan-appointed Bork nor the Clinton-appointed Guinier, but rather his old mentor, Thurgood Marshall.) What critics miss is that Carter is not a contrarian for lack of clear thinking or for the sake of sheer orneriness. He is a contrarian because that is where his Christian faith leads him.

Carter makes no bones about it: his primary identity is as a Christian. Carter’s favorite book is the Bible, which he reads diligently. One of his favorite authors is the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. He prays. He describes his wife as “God’s gift” and doesn’t mean that as a figure of speech. He believes that “the Lord has a plan for each of us” and that, although “we have free will, the Lord nudges us on the course he wants us to follow.” “I’m a Christian first,” Carter says. “I write not only as a Christian, but as one who is more devoted to the survival of my faith—and of religion generally—than to the survival of any state, including the United States of America.”

Politics grinds lenses through which it wants us to look at the world; so do the university, the scientific community, the entertainment and advertising media, the welfare state, and the capitalist economy. Carter is interested in and has useful things to say about all of these domains of modern life. But he has dedicated himself to looking at them through the eyes of faith. Is it any surprise that what he sees and reports does not conform to any of the world’s familiar categories?


The Emperor of Ocean Park “is a work of fiction. . .,” Carter declares in the first words of the “Author’s Note” that concludes the book. “It is not a roman a clef on law teaching, or the bizarre process by which we confirm (or fail to confirm) Supreme Court justices, or the tribulations of middle-class black America, or anything else.”

Well, yes and no. Emperor’s first-person narrator, Talcott Garland, is prickly, depressive, and skeptical of people in a way that Carter says he is not. Talcott is married to an ambitious careerist who is cheating on him. Carter is happily married to a woman who, although a lawyer herself, has chosen to devote her children’s growing-up years to them. Talcott finds it much harder to like his students and colleagues than Carter does.

On the other hand, the similarities between creator and creature are just too numerous and important to ignore. Talcott is a tenured law professor at a university in the northeastern city of Elm Harbor. Carter is a tenured law professor at Yale University, located in New Haven, whose nickname is Elm City. They are both African Americans, but neither of them specializes in civil rights law. They both grew up among Washington’s black bourgeoisie, and both were nonathletic kids who loved sports. Both married other lawyers and are devoted fathers. Both are chess players. Both are ambivalent about affirmative action and fret that whites suspect they don’t deserve their positions. Their ideas about most things are similar: for example, Talcott, like Carter, denounces the bitterly partisan, scandal-obsessed judicial confirmation process. And, even though Carter did his best to give Talcott a distinctive voice, could anyone confidently distinguish character from author in passages such as the following, which bewails the suffering of homeless women:

This is what conservatives have spawned with their welfare cuts and their indifference to the plight of those not like themselves, say my colleagues at the university. This is what liberals have spawned with their fostering of the victim mentality and their indifference to the traditional values of hard work and family, my father used to tell his cheering audiences. In my sour moments, it strikes me that both sides seem much more interested in winning the argument than in alleviating these women’s suffering.

Emperor is filled with mini-essays like this one that echo themes (or even paragraphs) in Carter’s nonfiction books. Talcott scotches the incivility of a powerful Washington wheeler-dealer with Carter-like fervor: “He hangs up without saying goodbye, which has become a status symbol in our uncivil times; the less you have to worry about offending people, the more powerful you must be.” He ruefully comments on the fruits of modern-day notions of diversity: “I pass flurries of undergrads who, despite their proudly proclaimed diversity. . .think more and more the same.” He lampoons senators at a judicial confirmation hearing, “noticing how they read most of their long, pompous questions from cue cards, and how some of them grew confused if the conversation wandered too far from their briefings.” He questions the integrity of the law professor whose ambition to become a judge “affects everything from the subjects he chooses for his writing to the arguments he is willing to press in the classroom.” Passing “an elementary school that looks like a casualty of some Balkan war but is, in fact, still in use,” Talcott wonders “how many of my liberal friends would remain so adamantly opposed to voucher programs if their kids were required to attend a school like this.”

Talcott’s most important similarity to Carter is that he is, first and foremost, a Christian. Here’s the wrinkle: at the outset of Emperor, Talcott’s life is as well-ordered as Carter’s, but only for a moment. “My life is pretty simple in many ways,” Carter says. “I spend time with my family, I read the Bible, I go to church, I write, I teach my classes—and that’s my life. I play chess.” In contrast, Talcott’s life suddenly and dramatically becomes disordered. His father dies. He is told by a number of dangerous people that his father has bequeathed him important information that they are willing to kill for, but he doesn’t know where or what it is. His career teeters on collapse. His marriage disintegrates. The Christian at rest becomes, in a way that Carter himself has blessedly been spared, the Christian in crisis. How faithfully will Talcott respond?

The answer lies not in certainty—the usual outcome of suspense novels—but in the faithful acceptance of mystery and ambiguity. Talcott seeks counseling from the wisest character in the novel, Reverend Morris Young, the pastor of Elm Harbor’s most influential African American church. “I think my wife is cheating on me,” Talcott tells him. “Your job is to love her as best you can,” responds Reverend Young. “Scripture tells us that the husband is head of the wife, but we are also warned that the headship is of a special kind: “as Christ is head of the church.” And how does Christ love his church, Talcott? Unquestioningly. Forgivingly. And sacrificially.” What about my father’s secrets? Talcott asks. Remember Noah’s son Ham, Reverend Young replies, and his eagerness “to see his father naked. Wanted his brothers to see. What kind of son is that, Talcott?. . . A son is not supposed to know all his father’s secrets.” In a wonderful set piece, Carter even has Reverend Young redeem a table full of astonished and appalled skeptics at a faculty dinner party by quoting Martin Buber. “[T]here are no atheists,” says the reverend, “because the atheist has to struggle with God every day. . . . The Lord creates many paths to his house, and he will, in the fullness of time, gather in many of those who believe that they do not believe.”

Am I about to give away the ending to the book? Fear not, gentle reader—I reveal nothing of the plot. But as to the results of Talcott’s test of faith—the matter of truest suspense in The Emperor of Ocean Park—well, yes, I am. “Morris Young is teaching me to live with ambiguity in my faith,” Talcott says at the end of the novel. “That truth, even moral truth, exists, I have no doubt, for I am no relativist; but we weak, fallen humans will never perceive it except imperfectly, a faintly glowing presence toward which we creep through the mists of reason, tradition, and faith.”


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