Righteous Empire: The "Faith Gap" and American Politics
Martin E. Marty, emeritus professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, is one of America's leading theologians and historians of religion. He was awarded the National Book Award for Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America and is also co-author, with R. Scott Appleby, of The Glory and the Power: The Fundamentalist Challenge to the Modern World, which was based on the authors' Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels just after the US election.
NPQ | Eight out of 10 Americans who emerged from the polls after voting for George Bush said it was above all because of "moral values." Only 20 percent who voted for Kerry said the same.
Forty-two percent of Americans define themselves, like Bush, as "born-again Christians" and go to church weekly. The voters of 11 states passed referendums against gay marriage. The organized religious right, such as the Christian Coalition, takes credit for putting Bush back in the White House.
Has a "faith gap" opened up in American politics?
Martin Marty | The "faith gap" is indeed there, and it is large. But it is also easily exaggerated. To be a "born again" today includes people who get a warm tingle in the bathtub. It is a cultural tag, and not always the profound spiritual experience of old-style Baptists.
Let's also not forget that the religious but non-conservative and less-church- or synagogue-going crowd includes more than half of the Catholics, most Jews, most black Protestants and most mainline (white) Protestants.
The "faith gap" between red and blue states has become so starkly apparent because Bush strategist Karl Rove was a genius at joining the red states from the North to the churchgoing South, exploiting fears of terrorism and gay marriage to form a larger bloc than there really is.
Still, we have reason to fear the development of American theocracy—"us vs. them," "good vs. bad," "American patriots vs traitors," "our laws are right, theirs are wrong." This is real and frightening if unchecked.
NPQ | These zealots of the American religious right who rail against secular liberalism are more like Muslim jihadists, who are America's enemies, than like our European friends, from whom we inherited the Enlightenment. They, too, are waging a holy war—an American jihad.
Marty | While it's dangerous to do too much "equivalence" and "equating," for fear of being misunderstood, one can say that there is some mirror imaging going on between hard-liners in America and our enemy hard-liners. As the late historian Harold Isaacs noted, around the world there is a massive, convulsive "ingathering" of peoples into their separatenesses and over-againstnesses [defining themselves by who they are not—ed.], to protect their pride and power and place from the real or presumed threat from others, who are doing the same.
In America the enemy is thus not only the jihadist but also the "secular liberal." In retreating from what they see as corrosive modernity, people turn their backs on others not like them. They turn exclusive and claim divine sanction. Yes, the exclusives in America are totally anti-Enlightenment. Like the Islamist radicals, they are thoroughly at home in the world of science and technology, but they oppose features of science whenever they perceive these to be contradictory to the Word of God, as they interpret it.
Like the jihadists, the hard-line religious right in America sees modernity as evil. In their perspective, the signals on television subvert parental guidance, pluralism reduces overt religion in the classroom, and relativism assaults solid values.
In their minds, God intended them to be a special people, a holy nation. Yet, here they are, overwhelmed by the tolerant indiscipline of public schools that teach evolution, Hollywood cultural elites, MTV promiscuity and the Supreme Court.
The difference between fundamentalists and the more traditionalist or orthodox religious is that the fundamentalists fight back. They get involved in politics. They can't let the world pass by. They must engage that world as the devil's domain, the domain of the Great Satan.
NPQ | A jihad then?
Marty | Yes, in the sense that the struggle against the devil is being turned over to God, the agent of apocalypse, who will settle all accounts in the end.
NPQ | In rejecting Harvard professor Sam Huntington's thesis of "a clash of civilizations," much has been made of "the clash within Islam." Now, can we speak of "a clash within Western civilization"?
Aren't there really "two Wests" divided between the liberal secularists and the religious conservatives? This is not just a matter of the religious right in America, but of the pope vs. the pop star Madonna, of conservative values vs. the plural tolerance of postmodern culture.
Look at the whole Buttiglione affair in Europe, in which a close ally of Pope John Paul II was rejected by a large bloc of the European Parliament because he said homosexuality was a sin and criticized single motherhood.
Marty | Yes, there is indeed a clash within some features of the West. The ﬁghts are all about "sex" and "authority" in every denomination, from Mennonite to Roman Catholicism.
"Conservative values," though, can be an artificial construct; they choose to "hold the line" where they know they can hold the line, against abortion and gay marriage. But where they cannot hold the line and where their fellow-believers no longer adhere to standards they upheld in the past, they are forced to accept change. This is true of divorce, where the divorce rate is as high as among everyone else. They no longer agitate for Sunday closings or for keeping the Sabbath, or against ingestion of alcohol. They resist where they can and adapt where they can't.
Certainly there are clashes on family and divorce. The fights over homosexuality and abortion are symbolic markers. They define this clash.
NPQ | Might we be witnessing in these divisions what the philosopher Pitirim Sorokin called "late sensate chaos," or the crisis of secular societies, that presages a new religiosity? Obviously secularism doesn't satisfy many. And the ultimate paradox of modernity may be that scientific advances such as cloning end up resurrecting the religious imagination because all the old questions of origins and destiny are once again on the table.
Marty | You have the plot lines pretty accurately summed up. There is considerable discontent with the barren aspects of modern life; secular rationality works for much of the "operational "side of life but does little to satisfy the human heart.
As you suggest, tremendously exciting things are happening at every front where religion and science intersect—from developments in brain research and consciousness to genetics and ethics.
For these reasons, it would be stupid and wrong to lump all people who are "religious" or right of center into one formidable theocratic camp. The reality is more complex. Indeed, a new synthesis is already emerging.
The society most Americans really inhabit is neither religious nor secular, but a blend of attitudes I call "religio-secular." Modes of being overlap. I am a Christian, but I think in secular ways all the time. If I am ill, I don't want Mormon brain surgery. I don't want a Baptist blood infusion or Lutheran proctology. I just want the job done.
In the course of practical life, we mix the religious and rational in all we do. Even as a Christian believer, a good part of me remains with the Enlightenment. Every time I see someone emerge from the Ganges with dysentery, I am reminded of my secular commitments.