Monday, May 05, 2008

Reflecting on Protestantism and the Relevance of Christianity with Martin E. Marty

I have been reading Martin E. Marty lately. Two short books, The Modern Schism (published the year I was born 1969) and The Protestant Voice in American Pluralism (his George H. Shriver Lectures: Religion in American History published in 2004.) I find Marty's histories insightful. When I finally picked up Righteous Empire a couple of years ago, which had sat on my shelf for years, American Protestantism and its current divisions and the rise of the Religious Right made so much more sense. Now, as I finished Modern Schism so much of the various ways Christianity has failed to meet the challenges of the Enlightenment, Modernism and Post-modernism made sense in ways it had not before. I found myself asking if the struggles of all Christian groups has been the failure to accept that Christians are no longer the driving force in cultural production, why dow we Christians continue to insist on this sort of power. Essentially Marty argues and begins to demonstrates that this is the Modern schism, the church does not disappear. Christianity does not shrivel and die. What happens is that Christianity and the church looses its cultural relevance in terms of cultural and political production. It seems to me that much if not most of the evil done in the name of God, the church and Christianity has been done to preserve power and relevance in any given society or culture. Marty's histories make this astoundingly clear to me.

However, I have found little evidence that this reading of Marty is followed, and perhaps entirely lost on his readers. I say this because Marty's histories should give especially the liberal and mainline Protestants pause: since they no less than the Religious Right, want to remain influential and relevant in our culture society and politics. Liberal protestants, we progressives, desire cultural, social and political power. We convince ourselves that desire is for the good, and they desire it for the bad (we don't use "evil"). However, a careful reading of Marty shows that Protestant reform of society for social goods and to promote personal morality emerge from the same view of "America" as the "City set on a Hill" as the "New Israel". We hear it in all the political rhetoric in this country. American Protestants of any stripe are loathe to critique, and probably don't realize it might be something to reject. But there it is for all to see that the rise of the Religious Right and the election and Presidency of George W. Bush all makes sense given this mixture of Protestantism and Manifest Destiny of a particular nation. Oddly though I am aware of few if anyone who sights these works of Marty's to elucidate our current context and the ways in which Protestants both succeed and fail in our current context. I couldn't figure out why.

Then I read The Protestant Voice in American Pluralism, an equally insightful work until Marty attempts to apply his own historical work to the present. Oddly enough Marty doesn't seem to see how his history reveals the idolatrous tendency in American Protestantism. He too still wants the American Protestant reality to succeed, he just wants it to succeed in a Liberal Protestant way. Marty doesn't seem to see what I see in his histories. So, he critiques Evangelicalism and praises the pluralistic Protestants. He still sees a Protestant future for America. As an interpreter of the current scene he is just a mainline liberal Protestant, who doesn't see that his historical work actually provides the basis of a critique of all American Protestantism. He critiques the Evangelicals conservatives and Fundamentalist Protestants of falling into nostalgia or resentment. And doesn't see that he and the liberal Protestants are simply clinging to a relevance and influence that it may be good for all if we'd let it go. American Protestantism of what ever stripe was compromised by its being American, by its tie of the goods of the Kingdom of God to the history of a nation. Marty simply ties (at least in The Protestant Voice) the goods of the Kingdom of God, to the pluralism that has emerged in our culture and society in part due to American Protestantism. Thus the Kingdom of God can still be realized by American Protestants of the pluralist and liberal bent if this pluralism is fully embraced. Of course that is simply patting American liberal Protestants on the back and claiming that history is on their side and against "them", the evangelicals and fundamentalists.

So, it seems that a perspective Marty's histories provide is hidden by the primary interpreter of those histories Marty himself, who is still an apologist for his own kind of American Protestantism. Marty is a better historian than he is interpreter of that history for the present and an apologist. Unfortunately I see little evidence of anyone willing to read Marty against Marty. Though, I'd be interested if anyone knows about any work that does so. So, now Marty and the current reception of his work makes more sense to me, and I think it is unfortunate because there are insights in his works that could prove useful to us Christians who want to be more than American or Pluralist and who are willing to risk irrelevance and powerlessness in culture society and politics for the truth of the Gospel. A hard pill for any Christian of any stripe to swallow, but one I think we must if we are to be true to the Faith once delivered to the saints.