When it comes to religion and politics, it's hard to talk about the contests without naming the players and their teams.
Consider Hillary Rodham Clinton, who insists that her political convictions are rooted in her United Methodist faith. Then there is Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremy Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ. Enough said.
What about John "Faith of My Fathers" McCain, an Episcopalian who worships with the Southern Baptists? Soon he will pick a running mate. Do you prefer Mitt Romney, who served as a Mormon bishop, or Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister?
But to see the big faith-and-politics picture, it helps not to focus on the details. That's why the famous church historian Martin Marty, speaking early in this year's topsy-turvy primary season, elected to do the near impossible -- deliver a 45-minute lecture on this hot-button topic without mentioning the name of a single candidate.
"Won't that be a relief?", asked Marty, speaking at Palm Beach Atlantic University in South Florida.
The alternative is to cause yet another shouting match in the political pews. Tune in the typical talk-television politico, he said, and "as soon as there's a label as to whether she or he is representing a candidate or party or whatever, you know what they are going to say and it ends there."
Right up front, Marty admitted that he has been a doorbell-ringing political activist since 1949 and he still calls Harry Truman "my president." Also, the intersection of religion and public life has been a major theme in many of his 50-plus books and the weekly columns he has published for 50 years in the Christian Century, a mainline Protestant journal.
Truth is, he said, it's impossible to study American history without noting the role religion has played in politics and culture. Since day one, America has offered a powerful blend of evangelical revivalism and enlightenment rationalism and believers on both sides of the aisle have followed their heads as well as their hearts.
This faith factor isn't fading, as America life becomes more pluralistic and complex. Once, America was a Protestant, Catholic and Jewish nation. Now, it is a "Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim nation -- and much more," said Marty.
But one thing America certainly isn't is "secular" and there is no evidence whatsoever that the power of religion is fading in the world as a whole. Marty said this reality is hard for many scholars and journalists to accept, especially those influenced by studies in the 1960s that guaranteed a 21st Century world that would be "secular, sensate, epicurean, hedonistic, contractual, pragmatic, programmatic and empirical."
"That model didn't work for most people" around the world, he said, and it "doesn't work for any of us" in America.
These days, religious believers on both sides of the aisle continue to be shaken by aftershocks from the school prayer decision in 1963 and Roe v. Wade in 1973. The Iranian crisis in 1979 cracked the shell of America's sense of safety and security, which later was shattered by the hellish reality of Sept. 11, 2001.
Marty said it's hard to discuss national "security," without talking about religion. That's also true when it comes to debating an issue that "starts on page one of the Bible," which is caring for creation and the environment.
Then there are the issues linked to what he called the "care of the other," including health, education, welfare and immigration. Religious believers also are worried about the state of American culture, yet it's hard for them to find common answers to questions such as, "What is beautiful? What is true? What is good? What is noble? What is ugly?" Then there are all those hot-button issues linked to sexuality, marriage and family life.
All of this keeps seeping into American politics.
The bottom line, said Marty, is that it's good for religious activists to work in politics, but very bad for them to confuse religion and politics.
Believers must, he stressed, remember that the "God who sits in the heavens shall laugh at our pretensions, our parties, our causes, but the same God holds us responsible and honors our aspirations." And, as for the flash point where politics and religion meet, "we can't live with it, we can't live without it. ... You aren't going to get anywhere without dealing, some way, justly with the religious involvement of the people."