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Politics, Religion and the Common Good

By Martin E. Marty
Jossey-Bass. 2000. 240 pp. Hb. $22.50.
ISBN 0-7879-5031-9

Reviewed by Edward A. White, Washington, D.C.

This is a refreshing and clear-thinking description and analysis of the place of religion in the public life of our nation. Martin Marty sets forth six theses:

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 an awareness of possibilities based on their beliefs and the effects of those beliefs, provide hope for improving the republic.

4. Traditional institutions — congregations, denominations and ecumenical agencies — provide 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 for religious people to join the political conversation and get involved [pp. 20-21].

Marty begins by acknowledging that religion can be divisive, disruptive and violent. Examples are the Ku Klux Klan or the killing of doctors in the name of being “pro-life.” He also points out that political interaction can compromise religion’s purity.

Nevertheless, Marty feels that public religion is worth the risk. He cites the helpful social service role of the Salvation Army (often using public funds to help the poor), the civil rights movement under the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the role of public religion in the abolition of slavery.

Marty lifts up the potential for public witness on the part of religiously motivated individuals.

“Suppose that a cluster of congregations want to provide for the homeless in their area. Suppose . . . that some property owners oppose any kind of sheltering of these homeless by churches in their community . . . . The hearings come to a decisive stage and the antis have been well heard. Then one citizen stands up, and to the astonishment of all, tells the story of his own days as a homeless person, taken in by a church group when he was down-and-out and given the chance to become the responsible citizen they now know. The town board summons the courage to change the direction of its vote — all because of one individual” (p. 61).

Marty reviews the decline in influence of established denominations and the increase in significance of parachurch groups and issue-oriented organizations such as those that are pro-life or pro-choice concerning abortion. Many issue-oriented groups begin with a “politics of resentment” and represent those who feel disenfranchised. Many such groups thrive on having “enemies.” Some such groups mature over time and learn to collaborate with other interest groups around a broader agenda.

The bottom line for Martin Marty is that religiously motivated citizens need to be actively involved in the public conversations that will shape the future of our society. Such involvement is essential to addressing the plight of the poor, the threats to the environment and the prospects for justice and peace in the world.

I believe that Martin is right. It troubles me to see many mainline Protestant congregations turning in upon themselves and withdrawing from responsibility for the world over which God has made us stewards. Instead of being “leaven” we are becoming part of the lump.