Politics, Religion and the Common Good
By Martin E. Marty, with Jonathan Moore
Jossey-Bass, 184 pp.

Education, Religion and the Common Good
By Martin E. Marty, with Jonathan Moore
Jossey-Bass, 156 pp.

Martin E. Marty, America's most famous and most prolific church historian, wants to start a conversation about religion and American society. The subtitle of his new series of books is "Advancing a Distinctively American Conversation About Religion's Role in Our Shared Life." The books are a fruit of the Public Religion Project (PRP), which Marty directed from 1996 to 1999. Just prior to that, Marty had been studying the rise of fundamentalisms around the world, especially in America, having become concerned about the close-minded polemics that increasingly marked the political speech of various religious groups. Yet he did not agree with those who insisted that religion should simply be kept in a private lock box. So the question was how to take public religious expression seriously while convincing those with deep convictions to listen to one another. The process he chose was one of bringing together small groups of people to sit around a table to "converse" about particularly contentious issues of public life. Thus, the PRP and its plan to publish a series of books on the different topics of conversation.

The first of the PRP books--the one on politics--starts with a warning that religion in public life can be dangerous even though it cannot be kept out of the public square. Marty surveys ways in which individual citizens are formed and mobilized by faith, and describes the political influence of traditional religious institutions. He concludes, however, that today's religious special-interest groups have a greater influence in politics than traditional institutions do. "I am aware of hazards in setting forth...arguments against the antireligious and the religious privatists," Marty writes. "If religion ('faith,' 'spirituality') is to have its place in the public order, including its witness in politics and government, it will need reform. But I think this reform is more likely if a wide range of religious interests are present."

The second book, on education and religion, surveys some of the historical problems and questions the nation has faced about religious and nonreligious schooling. Part of the book's uniqueness, Marty insists, is that it considers all levels of education, from elementary school through graduate universities. However, his conversational style becomes strained by his own axe that he grinds on this topic, conveying the opinion (if not "arguing") that publicly funded schools should not be religious; they should only teach about religion. And universities should "teach tolerance" and remain "indifferent to the truth claims of any particular faith."

These relatively short books contribute almost nothing new to the arguments and conversations Americans have been having about these matters for more than three centuries. So why has Marty written them? His underlying motive is to try to find a way to hold America together in face of its increasing diversity and its loss of the old moral and religious glue of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. Even with America's diversity, multiculturalism, and culture wars, insists Marty, "there are also convergences. The Constitution regularly gets tested and yet retains its place. The affirmations of the Declaration of Independence receive more than lip service. There may be no single grand narrative that holds everyone together, but the public clearly cherishes narratives that edify and illuminate the nation."

Even though it may appear that Americans no longer hold anything in common, "almost all will argue that freedom and responsibility connect; that people should help the less fortunate; that family ties, however defined, are important; that the United States is the world's great nation; that spiritual and religious belief are essential in the nation; that the nonspiritual and nonreligious are at a disadvantage."

With these books Marty is, in fact, fishing for a "grand narrative" to "hold everything together." His "everything" is America, and his grand narrative seems to be this: Diverse and contradictory views can still add up to unity as long as Americans continue to converse about their differences. To put it another way, Marty desperately wants to retain an American civil religion, even if it consists of nothing more than an agreement that all opinions may be expressed and that the majority will not disagree too strongly with the author. Ignore for the moment that not everyone believes that "spiritual and religious belief are essential in the nation" or that nonspiritual and nonreligious people "are at a disadvantage." Ignore the fact that many of us cannot find ourselves in Marty's thin, relativistic, civil-religious narrative. Many deeply rooted Catholics, evangelicals, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews have quite a different basis for patriotism than this. Their distinctive God matters and requires a firmer allegiance from the faithful.

Many religious people argue so fervently precisely because they believe that their God upholds and judges the nations, not that America upholds and judges religions.

These books prove, by way of contradiction, that religious and educational disagreements require hard and disciplined argument. An open-ended conversation will not do. The "common good," about which Marty actually has very little to say, must have some substance to it in order for it to be a good. To insist that all our differences, kept in play by conversation, can somehow serve as the "common good" will not do much to get a conversation started, much less to pull all Americans together. It certainly does nothing to clarify Christianity's role in this highly diversified country.

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