Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Religion Unites or Divides -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Does religion unite or divide? That's a complex question. Why know lots of stories about religiously inspired or at least rationalized violence. It is present in every culture and religious context. We also know stories of how it unites and serves. The question raised by Martin Marty in this essay concerns why in the United States there has been so little religiously inspired violence. It's not that it is totally absent, but it is less than many other places in the world.  Could it be a result of something present in our "constitutional polity"?  One that is in its essence secular but allowing for full expression of religious expression (as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others or injure them in some way)?  I invite you to take a read and offer your thoughts.  

Religion Unites or Divides
Monday | Oct 20 2014
Rally in Pensacola to support educators on trial in federal court for praying in school (2009)             Image Credit: Cheryl Casey /
“ISIS CRISIS.” . . . “EBOLA CRISIS” . . . “ECONOMIC WORRIES” . . . Headlines about these and others point to realities which often have religious dimensions. One of them is posed in a featured interview with Jodi Picoult, the novelist author of Leaving Time, in the New York Times Book Review (Oct. 9, 2014). She was asked, “What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?” She was ready with a clear response: “One that explores why our country is so contentiously divided along the fault line of religion.”

Picoult sees religions as “a construct meant to unite, but that more often creates schisms.” She cites “all the hot-button issues in this country—abortion, reproductive rights, gay rights, the death penalty,” all of which “have ideological roots in religious beliefs that are often archaic or that have been cherry-picked to support specific points of view.”

She had to be reductive in what can be well-phrased in a one-page interview, but that reduction is not beside the point. Picoult: “I hope that some book can explain why our country, which was founded on religious freedom, so often finds itself tangled up in the screen that should separate church and state.”

Whether such a book does or does not yet exist, one must note that shelves full of books do throw various lights on her larger concern. The question of what is behind the tangling of the church/state screen concerns hosts of historians, theologians, political scientists, and psychologists, and will keep them busy for a long time—e.g. “forever” in this complex, pluralistic, free society.

Here we’ll take the novelist’s issue in a slightly different direction. Why, given the breadth and depth of “religion” in this “most-religious” industrialized nation, and given all the conflicts here among faiths and people of faith, why has there been so little killing in the name of God or the gods?

The headlines mentioned above deal with militancy, murder, and sometimes genocide elsewhere. Why so little here in the US?

We are schooled never to cover up the dark side of our own nation’s longer history, for example in the case of the murders of native Americans or the religiously-legitimated killing of black slaves and their heirs and….and…” There is here abundant hate of the stranger, polarization among militant parties, ferocious cherry-picking of passages from sacred scriptures which in many places issue in killing. Why less here?

Some years ago, after Scott Appleby and I headed the six-year, five-volume study of fundamentalisms around the world, public television agencies sponsored a three-episode follow-up program. We had no trouble finding war-level conflicts inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Gush Emunim in Israel, and other “sects” in conflicts where killing went on. Where were the matching stories in contemporary America?

 The producers did have us notice and portray some murders in America of abortionists by religion-inspired fanatics, and feature a couple of “cults” that offered suicidal or murderous examples for the camera and the audience. But add up the fatalities in all of them and the number won’t match the casualty-counts on any bad morning in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

We cite this not to contribute bragging rights for the “exceptionalist” virtue-camps in our nation. Instead, we pick up from Jodi Picoult the larger questions of our constitutional polity and point to many endeavors by citizens of faith and non-faith who have learned to care about their beliefs without killing others.

People of good will and good faith have reason to ponder: how to keep things “alive.” We’ll keep Sighting some of them, and looking for more.


New York Times Sunday Book Review. “Jodi Picoult: By the Book.” New York Times, October 9, 2014, Sunday Book Review.,

Image Credit: Cheryl Casey /

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
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