Religion Goes Public

Politics, Religion and the Common Goodby Martin E. Marty with Jonathan MooreJossey-Bass, Inc. 174p $22.50

Wags in the divinity school at the University of Chicago used to love retelling the joke about someone who tries to call Professor Martin Marty’s office and gets the following response from Marty’s secretary: "Could you hold on for about a minute and a half while Professor Marty finishes his next book?"

This prolific author has always, throughout his career, written three different kinds of books. The first, the books of a distinguished historian, include the National Book Award-winner Righteous Empire and the three-volume Modern American Religion. A second kind of book veers more toward the spiritual and theological, treating of baptism, the Lord’s Supper or sustaining hope in a time of grief. But a passel of booksperhaps the most distinguished of which is the 1981 volume, The Public Churchhave dealt with the social and political implications of Christian faith.

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Politics, Religion and the Common Good fits into this third category of books. It grows out of a three-year set of conferences, conversations and even arguments about the public role of religion in a project, The Public Religion Project, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust. Marty writes this latest book with the aim of continuing and advancing a national conversation about the way politics and religion do, can or should mix. Clearly the two domains have permeable boundaries. If religion, by definition, focuses our ultimate concern, builds community and appeals to myth and symbols and ritual, politics also is about community, myth, symbols and ritual. In any event, politics asks many questions that can either further or hinder our understanding of ultimate concern.

In this very useful compendium of wisdom about the many interconnections between politics and religion, Marty rehearses the arguments to further six distinct theses about public religion: (1) Public religion can be dangerous; it should be handled with care; (2) public religion can and does contribute to the common good; (3) individual citizens, energized by the possibilities based on their beliefs, can provide hope for improving the republic; (4) traditional institutionscongregations, denominations and ecumenical agenciesprovide an effective public voice for religious people, but the political power of such groups has declined; (5) for the foreseeable future, religious people will most commonly funnel their political energies into special-interest groups, voluntary associations and parachurch organizations; (6) it is important for the common good that religious people join the political conversation and get involved.

Few observers of American religion have been around the block as many times as Marty. He cannot avoid a nuanced caution about too much religion in politics. For religion often divides, disrupts and intensifies passions. "At times, religion seems to do more to maintain political divisions than to heal them." Marty has not so recently finished a multiyear study of fundamentalisms around the world without learning some truths about the need to handle religion in politics with care. He knows there is an arguable case against any public role for religion. But would nonreligious stances avoid all disruption, violence, divisions? Religion may mirror fundamental human conflicts as much as cause them. Moreover, just pragmatically, who thinks that religion is going to disappear or not continue to be at work in the political order? It is hard, in the end, on democratic grounds, to muzzle religion’s public voice. Still, some irony is called for. "There will always be days when we have to cross our fingers or hold our noses when observing what can happen in the name of religion gone public."

Marty also knows the restraints put on public religion by the American populace (prescinding from any legal barriers or those pushed by jurisprudence). "The public wants its officials to be moral, informed by religious faith, but they don’t want that faith to be made particular in a way that conflicts with the officials’ execution of their public duties." Indeed, in a paradox, our most explicitly religious presidents (e.g., Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton) have a hard time translating into public policy any of their faith convictions. Most of the time, politicians do and can make decisions on grounds the secular world would call rational (even if the deep background source of this rationality is biblical).

Marty is especially illuminating in his treatment of the limits as well as the usefulness of congregations, denominational agencies and ecumenical bodies in the public arena. The main limits are that congregations remain too localized to mobilize very effectively around larger social agendas. They are better vehicles of mercy than of justice. Denominational diversity leads, in general, to filtered, well-considered stands but ones that result from a very, often painstakingly, slow decision-making process. Denominations also often proclaim watered-down positions.

For this reason, special-purpose religious-interest groups have a strategic advantage. They can draw together a like-minded constituency (often culled, to be sure, from the churchesbut from like-minded groups therein, across denominations) and focus on the issues at hand. In contrast to congregations and denominational agencies, special-purpose religious groupsbecause of their efficiency and relative uniformitycan speak out early, clearly and without ambiguity on moral and religious themes.

Special-purpose religious-interest groups, however, both earn and risk religious capital in public. They are often sorely tempted to make up their religious position as they go along, adapting Scripture to the political moment. The quest for power and the need to build coalitions can easily lead to a displacement of specifically religious conviction or explicitness. The actions of religious interest groups in the South Carolina primary (insinuating ugly and unjust aspersions on one of the Republican candidates) show that special purpose religious interest groups may too frequently force us to hold our nose in public about the role of public religion.

All told, this is a wise and useful book for starting, continuing or refining a conversation about the legitimate role, but with limits, of religion in the public arena. Clearly, James Madison’s metaphor of a "line of distinction" between civil and religious authorities may be preferable (certainly as an empirical description of what has happened and continues to happen in America, probably also as a normative guide) to Jefferson’s throw-away line in a private letter about a "wall of separation." Just as clearly, that "line of distinction" has often been permeable, sometimes blurred, always contested.

If I would fault the redoubtable Marty on one thing in the book it is this: He carefully construes descriptions and definitions for two of the terms in his title, "politics" and public "religion." He waffles and finesses (and leaves pretty blurry) the third term, "common good." The last phrase means so many things to so many different Americans (some, like the Harvard philosopher John Rawls, would deny that the term can have any meaning), that I would have wished Marty used it less as an evocative term for a sense of a wider, inclusive public and more in some technical, defined and precise meaning.

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