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Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun

Interview with Martin Marty


TIKKUN: What’s the appropriate boundary between religion and politics? Here’s why I’m asking:  We’re trying to create a network of spiritual progressives—essentially, an interfaith spiritual Left. Some liberal colleagues object and say, "Can’t you see what the Right is doing? They’re pushing religion into the public sphere. The only appropriate response is to make sure that religion has no place in it."

MM: There’s a wonderful Dutch book titled Everything is Political, But Not Everything is Politics. When religions convert themselves into nothing but political forces, in the perception of the larger republic, they hurt religion and they hurt the republic. But, you cannot separate religion and politics in a neat way. In a political world—and there is no other world—not to be political is political. That is, if you are silent, if you create a spiritual, political vacuum, it will be filled. Therefore you are voting by not speaking. So, there’s no place to hide.

We have to define what a political world is. Francis Crick says that in a totalitarian order, you don’t have politics. Politics involves that you can make a difference. You can’t do that under tyranny, so you have to have a republic. If you have that, your job is to try to influence that order, and you’re going to use whatever instrumentalities you have for it. To ask profoundly religious people to leave at home, and out of politics, that which shaped them would be very artificial. It can’t be done. What you have to do is ask them, "Will you be in politics, or are you trying to become the new, not totalitarian, but totalist … theocracy," for example.

Paul Ricoeur once said that history’s dirty secret is violence. The best instrument you have against it is the human invention of politics, which assures that nobody gets everything. But through give and take, through rhetoric, through lobbying, and through fundraising, you get some measure of human good. This gets complex in our republic when some group aspires to run the whole show, which is what we’re seeing right now.

The current danger is that they’re not trying to get their share of politics, they’re trying to dominate by using the sacred book, which changes the rules of the game and goes beyond the Constitution. You are to be influenced by the sacred book, but you can’t impose that reading on others.

TIKKUN:  Some people in the Religious Right would respond by saying, "Well that’s what’s been happening with the secularists for the past fifty years. They’ve been imposing their views on the rest of us." Though I don’t agree, I think we have to acknowledge their arguments.

MM: I tell those Religious-Rightists, "if that’s your perception, fight back against the secularists, because that would be their version of religion and a lot of people have discerned that." But, what they’re doing in the fight against the secular is that they’re trying to change the rules of the game in which the secular is one of the fighters among all the other forces. The Religious Right is trying to say that secularism dominates us. I think their big plot is to say America is all secular.

Our public square is not naked; it’s festooned with religion. It’s just that there are about fifty square yards in this city that shouldn’t have a privileged religious symbol on them. You have 30,000 lawns in a town where you can put Mary and Jesus and a Menorah and all the rest. We’re not a secular society. They’re trying to say that we are because a lot of people in universities and in the media feel otherwise.

TIKKUN: Well, they use as an example that in our society evolution is taught in schools and non-evolution positions are not allowed to be taught in school.

MM: I think non-evolution should be taught in the school, just not as science.

TIKKUN: The theory of evolution is weak science, but it’s nevertheless an attempt to be science.

MM:  I’d be very happy if they would teach the Genesis story. But then they better know that they have to teach the Navajo creation myth about the Grand Canyon, too.

TIKKUN: They’d respond by saying, "How can liberals justify a public education system in which any topic in the world can be taught, but religion can’t be taught? That is, taught about, not taught as advocacy, but taught as part of the human enterprise that has been an integral part of the development of human consciousness."

MM: Well, here’s where I fight the liberals, because they’re being very stupid about human motivation and human understanding. Teaching about religion is perfectly legal. How would we understand a speech of Abraham Lincoln if you didn’t know religion?  So, it should be taught. In our five volume fundamentalist study (The Fundamentalist Project), we kept saying we really got caught off-guard, because Americans didn’t know what religion was and they didn’t know how it functioned. They didn’t know its limits and they didn’t know how to counter it.

What you have to be careful of is the rules of the modern world: "science is science, and religion is religion." For example, my kids went to a regular public high school. They had a wonderful Madrigals group and at Christmas they sang to Mozart and Bach with Christian words, and they sang Chanukah songs, and would throw in a Buddhist chant if they wanted. The point was, it was made very clear in the program: this is performance, not worship. If somebody’s sitting there who wants to make worship out of it, that’s their business.

TIKKUN: Then liberals have to rethink the way they’ve set up the schools, because the vast majority of the schools in this country teach nothing about religion.

MM: I know, but a lot of us have been working for years to try to change that. One of the things that holds us back is not only liberals who are tone-deaf to religion, but the far Right, who want their religion taught as the truth about life. They have a real passion for it, but don’t want the Navajo creation story. They don’t want you to know about Hinduism.

TIKKUN: Their position has some plausibility even in the eyes of some not-far-right Americans because most public schools don’t teach the Navajo creation story—or anybody else’s stories. They teach nothing, so the Religious Right is able to say, "Look, they’re teaching secularism, because they will not allow any of the religious stories to be told."

MM: Yes, that is an important point. It has been said, "Don’t attribute to malice what you can attribute to lethargy."  And here I would say, "Don’t attribute this failure to teach religion to a liberal crack down on religion when we’re often only dealing with ignorance." You simply remind a school board, "Here are statements from the courts that tell us that teaching about religion is legal. Here’s the department of education statement encouraging it. Let’s get it going—here are textbooks ready to go." When my kids were done with school, they knew why Hindus are Hindus. I don’t know anybody who went to the school that turned Hindu because they learned what Hindus were. But they learned more about what humans were.

TIKKUN: Liberal and left forces in this country, fearing the attempt by the Right to take over the public sphere, are, if anything, more rigid in trying to keep the teaching of religions out of the public schools.

MM: Well, number one: they won’t win. Number two: they’re not following the legal option. Number three: they’re going to leave a vacuum that these right-wing religious forces will fill. When you get a typical school board of seven people, and you’re a town of let’s say ten thousand—eight thousand of whom are nominally Judeo and Christian—and you get in a fight over this, the school board’s going to cower. They’re going to say, "All right, we’ve got to have it all there," and you’re going to have the wrong version of it there. So I think a religious Left can perform a real service by presenting a better and balanced version of teaching the world’s religions.

TIKKUN: So, from your standpoint, spiritual progressives should be also calling for the teaching of religion in schools.

MM: I’ve written about it for a long time. Let’s not just blame [this situation] on aggressive secularists. Let’s notice that very often apathy, indifference, and ignorance is on the local level, where people don’t care that much about it, because they’re interested in only having their own religion taught.

TIKKUN:  You said that religion is religion and science is science. But some religious people respond this way:  You’re telling us that science is on a higher or more solid intellectual grounding than religion. Isn’t science based on some theory that assumes that which is real is that which is observable by empirical observation and can be confirmed through repeated experimentation? What is the foundation of that belief, except a belief system?

MM: Yes, it is a belief system. There’s no way to be in the world without a belief system. The issue is what goes with the belief system. If somebody is teaching out of evolutionary studies that the consequence of the evolutionary process is that evolution is the be all and end all of existence, and they surround that with ceremonial reinforcement and metaphysical sanctions, then it’s evolution being taught as religion. Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit, fused evolutionary science with religion into explicitly Jesuit, mystical forms of great beauty, but it didn’t belong in a science classroom.

TIKKUN: Again, to represent the religious critics, they might say "Now look, the theory of evolution talks about various stages in the evolutionary process but it has no account of what the agent of change is, of what really causes the change."  So, how about we come in and say, "We have one possible theory about what the agency for change is, namely God, or a divine spirit, or some spiritual aspiration in being or matter." Why can’t the explanation of change in evolution be a spiritual one? Why must it only be a scientific discussion?

MM: Well, it can be a spiritual discussion, but it belongs in a social science or humanities classroom, not in a laboratory. The difference is, you can someday check out the scientific search. We may not yet know, but we have a means of beginning to do it. We’re very critical these days. Evolution doesn’t get a free ride, because nothing post-Enlightenment gets a free ride. We all learned to relativize that in post-modernity, but what makes a claim scientific is that the instrument is there for checking out further the claims, and when you can check it out further, it can be and sometimes is revised. No one has yet shown a way to check out further religious or spiritual claims to the satisfaction of other testing agents. God is revealed, you get an experience, you get into a tradition, a text, a community, but you can’t check it out. You need to have belief in a particular book to get it.

TIKKUN: What’s your theory about the growth of the Religious Right in the Seventies and Eighties? What spiritual or social forces can we refer to in order to account for the resurgence of religious energy—in a right-wing direction—at this particular historical moment?

MM: First of all, it is universal or global. In The Fundamentalism Project, Scott Applebee and I rephrased something from Harold Isaac’s book Idols of the Tribe: Around the world there’s a massive, convulsive ingathering of peoples into their separatenesses, to protect their pride and power and place from the real or presumed threat of others. Almost always, this will be done on religious terms, because you want to use the highest level of ingathering. In other words, the Enlightenment envisioned that the religion that survived would have an ecumenical, tolerant, responsive, and open approach. But instead, what survived was a hard line, a closing off from other humans.

In a very short period, a lot of formidable, thought-out rivals of religion collapsed, namely Soviet life. In a year and a half, the entire Soviet Union imploded. Maoism isn’t believed in anymore. Whatever is left in China, Cuba, and North Korea is not believed in—it’s just a matter of power. Sixty years ago this week, Hitler’s [Germany] met doom. Under Nazism, you had all these ways of organizing human life with ultimate concerns. They did everything religion did. They had ceremony, metaphysics, ritual, and myth.

When you get a vacuum so big that half the human race suddenly is creedless and free to be what it was, and what we think it was—after seventy-two years, with rivers of blood and oceans of ink spent to defend Soviet communism, the day it’s over we find Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Latter Day Saints, Lutherans, Orthodox; every ethnic group is there in spades—clearly, you can’t put it down formally. It’s a very profound thing in humans. Religion was an instrument to survive. It is an instrument again, now that you have freedom to propagate it.

Secondly, the forces of modernity reach everywhere, into Bin Laden’s caves and everywhere else, mediated mainly by mass communications, but also by global economy, by rapid transportation, etc. They reach everybody, and it means that your social and personal identity is threatened. Twenty years ago, Jerry Falwell said that in the Civil Rights era, right-wing Christians used to say it was sinful for the church to be in politics. Now it’s sinful not to be, because we used to think we could keep the world from our door, the way the Amish do, or Orthodox Jews do. But you can’t. Our kids get MTV and all these other forces by the time they’re four, five, six years old. So we have to fight back.

Fighting back is the big thing, and that’s what everybody’s doing: reacting, counter-acting. Fighting back.

When you do that you’ve got to have heavy ammunition, and you’re not going to do it in a mild way. I’ve long been interested in religion and sports. There are no Unitarians or reform Jews in the National Football League, but there are plenty of Pentecostals. There are plenty of people who know God’s on their side and will bash the other guy’s face in God’s name. When you’re on the front line, you must be sure you’re really loaded up with pretty heavy stuff. So you have to have an authoritative book, an authoritative teacher, an authoritative moment, and that’s the simplifier. There was an old bumper sticker a few years ago that stated "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." That’s a very efficient kind of thing.

Beyond that, I would say that liberals and moderates didn’t stress religious experience. For example, in every little town I go to in Guatemala or Bolivia, I can walk up and down the street and there are ten little evangelical or Pentecostal things going on, and they don’t wait for structure. They just start right in. They pick you up off the street, they give you an exuberant experience, you jump up and down. You’ve got experience, and that’s a very popular thing. I’m going to use an analogy: With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you buy a $70 ticket. But U2 comes to town, and they have $160 tickets and it’s sold out every night. It has its own drama that pales our own drama. This is what happens with Pentecostal and exuberant forms of religion. People are starved, and this gives them an emotional high.

Now how does this get into politics? Almost all of these evangelical groups, as Falwell once said, were non-political or anti-political. When I started writing on these themes in 1956, through the next twenty years, my own distinction in Protestantism was between the public and the private. The public were the liberals, the moderates, and the mainliners; and the privates were the fundamentalists, the evangelicals, the Southern Baptists, and the Pentecostals, all of whom said this world doesn’t count much. The other world is what counts; we want to save souls. Dwight Moody, the great Chicago founder of all this stuff, said, "The world is in a flood, God gave me a lifeboat. ‘Moody, rescue all whom you can.’" Then, in our country as Dixie became the Sunbelt and people from New England and the industrial states moved to California, Texas, and places in between, you had a huge demographic and morale shift happening.

But they carried with them a lot of resentment against those who had previously shaped the mass culture and had put down religious people. So we get from many on the Religious Right a politics of resentment. They were represented in mass media as hillbillies, holy rollers; they were backwoods, dribbling-spit-in-their-beards types. So they organized against the people who put them down. You still see a lot of that. It’s almost weirdly ironic that these people who now run the country still see themselves as a beleagured little group, even though now they have the senate, they’ve got the house, they want the courts, they’ve got the entertainment industry insofar as its religious. They’ve got it all. And they still have that resentment—heavily.

TIKKUN: Its typical nationalist self-victimization.

MM: Right. What happened was that they learned how easy it was to grab power. So they started grabbing power. In doing so, they moved from the politics of resentment to a politics of the will to power. Now will to power in the past meant that Polish Catholics didn’t like Irish Catholics, that Benedictines didn’t like Jesuits, that Left didn’t like Right—and there was no chance for Catholicism or Judaism to run America. The Presbyterian Church was half Republican, half Democrat. The Episcopal Church was called the Republican Party of Prayer. Baptists favored the "socialist" Tennessee Valley Authority and things like that. There was little aspiration to make this "a Christian America," or a "Judeo-Christian America," which really means "a Christian America."

But today, suddenly, you have people who haven’t had power, who realize how easy it is to get it, and use these instruments of emotion, experience, organization, and hostility to the surrounding world, and it doesn’t take long before you have Jimmy Carter. He had the right religion, but no aspiration to have his Southern Baptist thing run the country. Things began to change with Reagan. The senior Bush didn’t do much. Clinton they resented, but suddenly they have a moment when they have a chief executive (George W. Bush) being very explicit.

Bush has learned not to be as overt as his backers are—and want him to be. Confronting the Muslim world, trying to make friends in Georgia and Russia, he has to be more ample than they are, and they don’t like that. But Bush is so close to them that he is their man. I just wrote in The Christian Century that we don’t have a theocracy, but we have a theocratic impulse there. The number of people in America who explicitly are non-religious is very small. You can’t rally enough of them, and when liberals talk in a language that is tone deaf to religious concerns, they are just unintentionally helping the Right gain more ground.

My image is very Madisonian—the tenth and fifty-first Federalist Papers: The security of the republic is in the diversity and multiplicity of its factions and interests, its sects. What you do, says Madison, in both of those, is when somebody in one part of the republic starts a conflagration, the best check against it becoming a great fire is the activity of all the other factions and sects.

The way to fight this off is not to sit back and mourn, but to be up on the front lines. On that front line will be secularists. Many of my best friends are secularists. I don’t think we could have pulled off anything over the last fifty years—the Selma marches, Civil Rights, freedom of the press—if we didn’t have motivated secular people up front. But, by themselves, they can’t begin to face off all of these forces. They need all of the religious help they can get. And that means that we don’t write off the evangelicals, because of the great diversity among them. We’d still have the politics of resentment, but they wouldn’t have the chance they have to be gaining if we had an effective religious Left.

In Madisonian terms, we’d have all the evangelicals we can get, all the African-Americans you can get, all the Jews you can get, every kind of Protestant you can get in a religious Left. They don’t have to agree on policy. They have to agree on fighting off the theocratic impulse and resisting those who say that unless you have our god, our text and our community, you won’t have virtue.

Micheal Lerner is Editor of Tikkun magazine, and the author of The Politics of Meaning, and Spirit Matters.

Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity in the Divinity School. His scholarly research is centered in a multi-volume work entitled Modern American Religion, three volumes of which have appeared: The Irony of It All; The Noise of Conflict; and Under God, Indivisible

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