Politics, Religion, and The Common Good

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Politics, Religion, and The Common Good

  1. Review

    This book is the first of a two-volume set, one product of the Public Religion Project, a three year endeavor (1996-1999), funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, "to promote efforts to bring to light and interpret the forces of faith within a pluralistic society." The director of the project and author of this book, is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and senior editor of The Christian Century Magazine.

    Part of the project consisted of holding a series of conversations on "ten zones" of public life that the forces of religion impact. Invited to the table were politicians, the politically active, and scholars of government and political science who shared an interest in religion. The chapters of the book derive from and report on these conversations with the intent to provide, for individuals and groups, a model of conversation which can be a resource "on which to draw, a framework to do your own thinking, a sense of what has gone on elsewhere." The six chapters, each focused on a thesis chosen to stimulate conversation, could provide topics for a series of conversations within church and community groups.

    In his introduction, Marty suggests that when we begin our conversation we need some clear and shared understanding of what we are talking about: politics, religion, and public religion. He does not define the words but provides a variety of statements to provoke the imagination and stimulate discussion. The basic issue raised at this point of the conversation is whether, and to what extent, religion has a public as well as a private dimension.

    Marty then offers six theses, which art: explained and explored in the six chapters of the: book, (1) Public religion can be dangerous; it should be handled with care. (2) Public religion can and does contribute to the common good. (3) Individual citizens energized by an awareness of possibilities based on their beliefs and the effects of those beliefs, provide hope for improving the life of the republic. (4) Traditional institutions –congregations, denominations, and ecumenical agencies –provide an effective public voice for religious people, but the political power of such groups has declined, (5) For the foreseeable future, religious people: will most commonly funnel their political energies into special-interest groups, voluntary associations, and parachurch organizations. (6) It is important for the common good for religious people to join the political conversation and get involved.

    In inviting all religious people to join the conversation and become involved, Marty, in his final chapter, speaks for himself and pushes for "conclusions, actions and new directions." He stresses that the conversation, which begins within each "citizen believer," will never be concluded because many issues about politics and religion are "so complex and have so many sides that they seldom get resolved." He states that, "Only a pure ideologue has an answer to everything. Only someone without a sense of history can stay stuck with a political creed no matter what the circumstances."

    As the conversation moves into the community, the issue of religion in the public forum and the political arena will be raised. Marty strongly believes that religion "takes on special importance in the political realm." He suggests, on the one hand, that religious people "can delimit the political order" by reminding us that "we are temporal and finite and that spiritual concerns transcend the political issues of the day." On the other hand, since almost every political issue has religious dimensions, "religious people can counter self interest in themselves and others with a vision of "justice for all."

    Another reviewer has written of Marty’s contribution in this book, "He opens a path between civil religiosity that makes God the national mascot and an uncivil religion that defies dialogue." So let the conversation begin. Is it too much to hope that the churches will take the lead in their communities?

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