Martin Marty remains on call

As the old saying goes, for most American newspapers a front-page religion story has three essential elements -- a local anecdote, new poll data and a quote from scholar Martin Marty.

Need a quote on God and politics? Call Marty. Liberal or fundamentalist demographics? The clout of suburban believers? Hollywood spirituality? Salvation for extra-terrestrials? Conflict in (name any church) pews? Call the University of Chicago Divinity School and anyone who answers will know what to do.

The church historian is, as Time said, America's "most influential living interpreter of religion." He has written 50- plus books, popular and scholarly, 40-plus years of weekly Christian Century columns and his Context newsletter will soon turn 30. Marty has become the one religion expert in many media rolodexes, the undisputed champion of pithy quotes shedding light on a dizzyingly complex subject many would relegate to the shadows of civic life.

"Even religion that aspires to be at home in the public can be in the dark, unless we have trained eyes to see it in the gallery, in the mall, in the university, in the market and all of the other places," he said, in a recent Minnesota Public Radio address.

It is Marty's style to light candles instead of cursing this darkness. Researchers in his current Public Religion Project have one rule -- no whining. The goal is to cheerfully educate religion-impaired media pros, educators and civic leaders instead of griping at them.

Many people are simply afraid, since religion does have a dark side that keeps making bloody headlines around the world, Marty said. As a colleague once told him: "Religion is a lot like sex. If you get it a little bit wrong, it's really dangerous."

Those who don't understand religion's power tend to be more scared than they need to be. They are, said Marty, like Medieval cartographers who filled empty spaces in their maps with beastly images and the warning: "Here be monsters." This fear causes many public leaders to try to tackle some of today's most urgent problems without using all of the positive resources -- such as faith-based volunteer groups -- found in American life.

Meanwhile, many people believe it's OK for others to have private beliefs, so long as they stay out of the public square. This is an old tension. However, today there is a new wrinkle. An increasing number of Americans, said Marty, embrace "spirituality," and welcome its presence in public life, while opposing such a role for "organized religions" they find threatening.

"So many people," he said, "now speak in terms of, 'I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual.' ... Those of us who study religion say that this is just one more of the religions that are out there."

Religious faith is, in fact, a force that is almost impossible to pigeonhole, said Marty. It doesn't just spring to life on Sunday morning or Friday at sundown. The secular blends with the sacred. City skylines contain steeples as well as skyscrapers and chaplains carry Bibles and holy oil in hospital hallways. No one should find it strange that people act on convictions born in 3 a.m. meditations on death and eternity. It's perfectly normal for prayers and mysticism to affect people's actions in daily life -- even in politics.

In recent years there has been increased public debate about the proper and improper uses of religion, said the historian. The roots of these tense exchanges go back 200 years or more, to a time when enlightened cultural leaders decided that religion's days were numbered.

"We got into our systems the notion that every time we looked out the window there would be less religion than there was the last time we looked and ...that whatever form of religion survived, it would be quiet, passive, reconciled, dialogical, ecumenical and interfaithy," he said. "Instead, every time you look out the window there's more, not less, and the prospering forms are extremely intense."

This makes many people nervous and they ask: Is it good or bad for religion to play a prominent role in public life?

The answer, said Marty, is "yes."

Get used to it.