MAY 6, 2002
Bad Timing, Worse Deeds
-- Martin E. Marty
These ought to be good days for "institutional religion." Signs in many directions point to fresh curiosities about religion. The Religion and Ethics News Weekly television people and U. S. News and World Report in April released poll data whose bottom line is obvious: Americans think of themselves as "religious" and find various ways to follow their curiosities, and to nurture their interests. Religious institutions ought to be beckoning and attractive.
On the intellectual front, those of us who monitor these things have much to notice. It is impressive to see how frequently The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, now charters and publishes articles on religion and higher education, or quotes from other magazines on such subjects. The current Wilson Quarterly, has a perceptive article by Peter Berkowitz on John Rawls, "the preeminent academic moral philosopher of the last 50 years," who had "often seemed to encourage the view that while liberals must tolerate religious faith, it would be unreasonable for them to profess it." But in recent work Rawls "provides reasons to believe that far from being the antithesis of freedom, religious faith of a certain sort may be the basis of our respect for freedom, the very thing that renders our respect rational." The article merits more extensive comment and we will offer some soon.
To hurry to this week's point, however: at the very moment when spiritual hungers could well be redirected to and partially satisfied by religious institutions, many fronts of "organized religion" seem all but calculated to test the faith of the faithful and drive off tentative seekers. The sexual-abuse-by-priests and cover-up-by-bishops front is too familiar a subject, but headlines about it are not alone. Where scandals are not sexual they tend to be fiscal.
A headline in last Monday's Wall Street Journal, for instance, read "Anderson Trial with Baptist Foundation Is Set to Begin." The Baptist Foundation of Arizona is charged with having run a Ponzi scheme that bilked 11,000 hopeful and presumably pious Southern Baptists out of an estimated $700 million. If the charges hold, we will learn that a bunch of crooks exploited faith and church and piety. They stole. Such bunches can appear in any institution. No one at Southern Baptist headquarters, we must presume, licensed, initiated, endorsed or promoted the criminal front. Yet publics that were suspicious of "organized religion" grow more so, and the faithful have reason to be faint-hearted. Expect more monitoring by religious leaders on all fronts, but winning trust back will be difficult.