Almost fifty times a year, the weekly Sightings column by Martin E. Marty appears. Almost every time it is based on documentation from print or digital or electronic media: newspapers, blogs, films, etc.
This week is different, not because our attempt to treat “public religion” or “religion in public” this time has no documentary base, no empirical grounding. Instead, its background is too abundant, too rich.
When we started monitoring media here not many years ago, there was fear that a nation whose citizens often liked to say “religion is a private affair” has gone to the other extreme and they find religion too available, too exploitable.
It is difficult to sort through the signals in quest of significance. Seldom is this plethora of sacred, spiritual and religious signs more evident than in an election year.
Awareness of this brings up a question we get asked in many forums and settings and sometimes by direct responders: “Why don’t you comment more on the campaigns, especially the presidential races? They certainly are tempting.”
After speeches on campuses and in public forums, I like to say, “I hardly ‘do’ presidents and presidential things here. I think word-search would reveal that we go through four- and eight-year presidencies without mentioning the current president.”
That omission has to be purposive, and is so, because naturally me and mine, or mine and I, are intensely political.
For one thing, all readers have access to and are probably overwhelmed by too many often ephemeral (news cycle by news cycle) events and comments. Why add to them?
I say this not without respect for news people, pundits and bloggers, so many of whom I read and who inform me. They may be serving in their own diverse ways.
But as the recent episodes and evidences of religious talk and imagery make clear, seldom does comment on them advance the causes of politics or religion.
Instead, they are often exploitations of religion for political ends and offer little chance for citizens to think clearly or deeply about issues that should concern them.
A quick sample: the current furor over birth control, family planning and contraceptives.
When it got heated, as arguments developed with special reference to how far legislation and the courts should go and where citizen interests should dominate, almost instantly focus on contraceptives and moral issues on all sides of “birth control” and “women’s issues” got blurry.
Almost all of the “arguments,” capable of inducing rage and the rejection of fellow citizens, left no room for the array of contentions that could and should profoundly inform discussion.
Say that, and you will likely hear that you are too cowardly to take a stand, or “we have nothing to talk about because you are simply on the other side,” or “your religious blasts lack a spiritual side and are merely political.”
“Oh, come now!” I can hear some of you say about my apparent naiveté. Politics is a brutal game that is a losers-versus-winners match. The point is to win, to amass and assert power, not to listen to or hear the other.
It is possible, however, to deal with religion and much more in politics without immediately reducing the efforts to total rhetorical war, which leaves the republic in ruins.
Dear readers, fear not: we’ll soon be back to commenting on religion-in-public with close-up views, nearer the field of battle.
Still, a breather in which God and the gods are not constantly invoked to justify the noise our parties and tribes and churches and we are making can be of help as the din of battle cannot.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.