In a thoughtful antidote to the arguments that usually dominate discussions of politics and religion, Marty (The One and Many, 1997, etc.) here invites us instead to enter into a conversation about the relationship between the two.
Enacted in the wake of centuries of religious controversy and oppression, the Constitution mandates separation of church and state and assures free exercise of religion. The tension between the two principles spawns endless political controversy and litigation, however, and private faith continually spills over into the public realm, often affecting elections and driving public debate on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. But should religion have any place in our public life? Marty says yes: indeed, he finds it “hard to think of any descriptions, definitions, or citations or profound elements in politics and government that are not somehow religious.” Recognizing the controversial nature of any discussion of politics and religion, and welcoming anticipated disagreement, Marty makes several claims about public religion. He acknowledges that public religion presents dangers to the civil order (ranging from intolerance to religiously motivated violence), but points to the public good done by such religious forces as the Salvation Army and Martin Luther King as evidence of the benign influence of religion on public life. Marty also claims that individuals energized by an awareness of possibilities based on religious beliefs can provide hope for improving the republic, and he observes that religious people have exercised an effective political voice through both traditional institutions and religious special-interest groups and voluntary organizations.
Not all readers will agree with Marty’s insightful reflections on the relationship between politics and religion, but his essay is a useful starting point for anyone interested in the role of religion in America’s public life.