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THE ONE AND THE MANY by Martin E. Marty


America's Struggle for the Common Good

by Martin E. Marty

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-674-63827-1
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

 Marty (Religion/Univ. of Chicago; The Glory and the Power, 1992, etc.) struggles to define a moderate position within an emotionally charged debate. In contemporary American society few tasks seem more obviously sensible yet doomed to fail than seeking the common good. Marty blames ``totalists'' and ``tribalists'' for this situation and wishes a pox on both their houses. The former want the values of a single group to be promoted by the government and thereby established as the dominant identity of the country; this is represented most prominently in arguments for an explicitly Christian democracy. The latter want to be recognized as an independent group denied their separate identity and thereby victimized by a dominant group; this is exemplified by identity politics that divide society along gender, racial, and religious lines. Although in constant conflict, totalists and tribalists share a crucial characteristic: By insisting on the unique (and usually superior) status of their own group, they promote an exclusivism that undermines any potential for seeking the common good. The current dispute over abortion provides a perfect example. Pro-life and pro-choice advocates point to moral imperatives that are incommensurate and absolute. Marty looks to the past for ways Americans have conceptualized the relationship of the individual or group and the larger community, focusing on the Constitution as a legal and mythical document to illustrate how seeking the common good can be facilitated by limiting its imposition through law. He favors a social association that, in his recurring image, would be like porcupines huddling together during a cold winter, maintaining the proper distance so that each is warmed by the presence of the others without being pricked by their quills. Unfortunately, recent experience suggests that humans may be more prickly than porcupines.