MARCH 24, 2003
Attesting, Contesting, and Protesting
Martin E. Marty
Sociologist Henri Desroche in Jacob and the Angel* offered "a triptych corresponding to three functions" of religion in society: "attesting," "contesting," "protesting." A self-affirming society that confirms its own existence has religion "attesting," serving an integrating function. That's the normal state of affairs. In a society that is examining its own premises, "religion appears as a differentiating function but stays within the limits of 'contesting' the status quo." Religion in a society that is denying, challenging, and refusing its own right to exist then has a "protesting" function.
Even in Vietnam War protest, few clergy religious leaders were in the third ("revolting and subverting") camp, which would mean ready to tear up the U.S. Constitution and replace it with utopia or anarchy. Most "contested" in the name of biblical and Declaration-Constitution texts, calling the society to be true to these, as the contesters read them. As the moral case for the war faded, most leadership and much of the public stopped "attesting" its prolongation. Later, with peace, came "attesting" again.
The majority of citizens during a war, like now, are attesting. Even many religious leaders who did not find the new "preemptive war" doctrine compatible with Christian "just war" theory will do less contesting, and will focus on the moral issues of running the American Imperium after it. Most religious leaders opposed the Gulf War, but we overheard them counseling and praying more than prophesying once war came. Most will do so now, too. They prayed for their members in service and for the military. They prayed for the children of Iraq, and will again -- 41.1 percent of our enemies in Iraq are under age fourteen. If the war lasts until next weekend, some will then again pray for the enemy -- not to take pressure off Hussein but to help take the pressure of hate off their hearts.
In recent interviews, we were often asked why clergy were so out of step with the pro-war citizen majority. What will be the cost to congregations and church bodies after the war, since, from the pope on over, most Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Episcopal bishops; their jurisdictional counterparts in other bodies; and many of the vocal theologians "contested?" Response: clergy are usually somewhat "out of step" with citizenry. What is new? Question, in turn: whether they are right or wrong, should it ever be otherwise? Should those who lead never bring an angle of vision (global, biblical, etc., again, right or wrong) to contest what every nation does so readily: attest to its own virtue and policies? A follow-up: no, the faithful will not disappear. Some will change. And leaders will keep caring for souls of attesters, contesters, and protesters.
Worry when they are simply in line, in step, always justifying.
* Henri Desroche, Jacob and the Angel: An Essay in Sociologies of Religion (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1973).