Temptation for candidates is to flaunt their faith - An interview with Martin Marty

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By Daniel Cattau Martin Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he taught chiefly in the Divinity School for 35 years. He also is a columnist for the Christian Century, on whose staff he has served since 1956. Mr. Marty, a Lutheran pastor ordained in 1952, is the author of more than 50 books, including “Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America,” for which he won the National Book Award. Former Dallas Morning News religion editor Dan Cattau recently interviewed him in Chicago: Have you learned anything from the God-talk in the campaign so far? Most candidates are genuinely religious - it goes with the American territory. The temptation in 2008’s climate is that some may exploit religion - it’s marketable now - and some flaunt it, evidently not having read the Sermon on the Mount’s caution about practicing piety in public. Take two headlines in The Washington Post after New Hampshire - the “Capriciousness of Hope,” about Barack Obama’s showing, and “A Lazarus-like Resurrection,” about John McCain’s victory. Is theological language everywhere this year? The Christians among the candidates’ supporters have it on the good authority of the apostle Paul (Romans 5:5) that “hope does not disappoint.” They’ll get over the disappointment. As for having resurrected Lazarus language: fine. Anything that signals residues of biblical literacy is a sign of health. As a historian of American religious history, what do you think Thomas Jefferson would say about these campaigns? James Madison? Jefferson liked the ethical teachings of the human Jesus but was himself not a Christian. He wanted the republic “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” One 2008 candidate ruled out “the infidel.” Madison reported that in a Virginia bill, the legislators ruled out the use of the name of Jesus because that would have implied “a restriction of the liberty … to those professing his religion only.” Do you see evangelicals’ enthusiasm for Mike Huckabee spilling over to any other Re­publican nominee if he’s not selected to run in November? Mr. Huckabee is effortlessly and broadly evangelical; his form of expression does not come naturally to any other candidate, even those of “broadly evangelical” persuasion. Ronald Reagan was not an evangelical, but he had good rapport with evangelicals of his day. Here’s a quote from a New York Times piece on Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith: “When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. …Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.” Do we have a problem with revelation or Mormonism? They had it right: It helps us Jews and Christians, as our campus infidel used to remind us, that “our mountain” (Sinai? Transfiguration?) was distant in time and space, so it was hard to check out; the Mormon’s Hill Cumorah was near in time and space, and easier to check out. H. Richard Niebuhr in “The Meaning of Revelation” talked about how Lincoln, in his Gettysburg address “described the history of living things and not the data relating to dead things.” Do you see any Lincolnesque candidates? No one matches Lincoln’s understanding or rhetoric about America and “the mysterious will of God.” Others invoke expressions and moments from the past, but do less artfully, usually in codified forms about “our founding fathers.” America’s past is a rich one, so it’s fine to draw on it. Hillary Clinton cautioned against the promises of “false hope” and seemed to align herself with LBJ and his ability to push through civil rights legislation rather than Martin Luther King. What’s going on here? Dr. King’s moral and Mr. Johnson’s political work represented a one-two punch; both are always needed to bring about moral-legal change in a republic. There’s plenty of work for people who stand in the shadow of the rhetorician and the politician. It’s not wise to sever the connection in the past or the present. Your son, John, once ran for governor of Minnesota and is a state senator. Did you ever advise him on how to talk about his Lutheran/Christian faith? John and the rest of the family and I talked Lutheran/Christian faith and public policy quite literally since John was in kindergarten—you could check this out with his brothers… He’s extremely careful about “flaunting” or “exploiting” religion but reflects much and speaks often about natural and legitimate ways to put faith to work in various vocations, including politics. The late Paul Simon, senator from Illinois, seemed to integrate his faith and public life in a seamless manner. How did he do it? Paul Simon was my best friend in politics from 1948 until his death and a mentor to my son John. Paul integrated faith into his way of life and then went into the thick and thin of politics, letting the ethics that was part of that integrated life inform his positions. I don’t think he was ever accused of “using” religion to advance his cause. It was just “there.” Martin Marty, born in West Point, Neb., is a Lutheran religious scholar who has written extensively on 19th- and 20th-century American religion. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has authored over 5,000 articles and has been conferred with 75 honorary doctorates. In addition to “Righteous Empire,” his published works include the encyclopedic five-volume “Fundamentalism Project” and the biography “Martin Luther.” This article first appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

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