AUGUST 11, 2003
Martin E. Marty
When religion was "a private affair," it showed up in cartoons only in innocuous forms. Occasionally there would be representations of happy-go-lucky if slightly sappy, and certainly harmless, parsons. In The New Yorker the self-important Episcopal or other mainline clergy made appearances from time to time. Visual analogues to the popular -- and almost never funny -- minister-priest-rabbi jokes were another comic device that a nervous society relied on to take pressure off and keep distance from religions-as-dangers. The bounds of benignity were seldom transgressed.
Not so in our time, now that religion has "gone public" with a vengeance. When televangelists of a certain sort had trouble keeping their zippers up they were spared no more than were governmental officials who manifested the same weakness. When bishops forayed into controversial areas such as criticism of "the bomb," one form of dealing with the economy, capital punishment, a gun culture, or abortion, they found that their clerical collar was no protection against being satirized. When the touchiest subject in the field of religion-in-public got exposed to view a few years ago, sexual abuse by clergy and cover up by bishops, no mitered one from Boston west was spared.
Fair enough. When clergy and other religious representatives venture into politics, entertainment, commerce, and more, they subject themselves to the same standards as people in other vocations. My favorite cartoonist (and friend) Mike Peters, who smiles in "Mother Goose and Grimm" daily, weekly does bi-partisan, non-partisan cartoons on politics. This non-malicious man once told a crowd of us about his vocation: he wakes up in the morning knowing he will be paid for producing cartoons "with malice aforethought."
So it is no surprise that intrusive and extrusive "public religion" gets treated with increasing frequency and boldness. I am leading up to a May 7 Non Sequitur cartoon that keeps showing up when I ruffle through my files. It shows St. Peter (or some likeness) at the gates of heaven and a squat new migrant to the place about to cross the threshold among the clouds. Before him is a sign that reads, "Welcome to Heaven Keep Your Religion to Yourself." Peter explains, "Ironically, that's what makes it so peaceful here."
Religion which, as such, used to get a free ride in the media when it was noticed at all -- showing "works of mercy," announcements of ground-breakings, ordinations, potluck suppers -- now is seen as an agent of not always creative conflict; of opinion often abrasively "prophetic," not well grounded; as speaking in the name of humility but manifesting the self-importance of the speaker.
In Chicago recently, a couple who paid for a brick in a public park wanted to engrave it with a "Jesus" message. Their action stirred a legal battle and much furious debate when the Park District forbade such implicit evangelizing on "everybody's" property. Like so many such ventures, it evoked some credible arguments on both sides, plus community-disrupting passion, to no good ends. St. Peter at heaven's gate could have given counsel: noise your religion abroad elsewhere.
There is a creative side to the jostling religion engenders in the public sphere; but the aggressively and insensitively religious have to know of the stakes they raise.