September 7, 2004
Martin E. Marty
"Gott strafe [tr:punish] England, and God save the King. God this, and God that, and God the other things. 'Good God,' said God, 'I've got my work cut out.'" God spoke in doggerel during World War I. Now, when both, and almost all, political sides are sure they are speaking for God (or chiding the other for not speaking the way they do about God), God, to my knowledge, has not responded in doggerel, limericks, poetry, or raging prose -- but only with silence. Having ducked the uses and misuses of God on the platforms and interviews in Boston and New York, events now happily behind us, I can report on what I was doing during the latter.
To wit, reading Barbara A. McGraw's Rediscovering America's Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America (SUNY Press, 2003). Professor McGraw of St. Mary's College of California has written an under-noticed, but worthy-of-attention, argument designed to help change the circumstances of public discourse; she offers what she calls a "rediscovered" "Sacred Ground[ing]" for national debates. I insert an "-ing" there because she does not mean "ground" as in soil, earth, land, place, so much as an alternative to what she calls "over-arching world-views," which bias and ideologically imprison the main contenders in national disputes today. They do not hear or understand each other (and therefore hate each other), and divide the citizenry, because they have not discovered this "Sacred Ground."
It is a large claim, but one we cannot take up here; Sightings can, now and then, notice a book but does not have the space to review. (If you want to be in touch with Prof. McGraw, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.) I think she'd like to hear from you, as she welcomes controversy, toward the goal of diminishing controversy of trivial sorts.
She strikes me as being a bit too sure of her "Ground," and is likely to get pounded by some of the big folks (Rawls, Stephen Carter, etc.) that she did not hesitate to take on. She suspects that those who do not have an explicit and overt religious bias (e.g., the parties of the Religious Right, whom she treats rather tenderly) have quasi-religious metaphysical commitments. They and a third party, the would-be moderate "accommodationists," would rather not be seen as having established their own "Sacred" overarching world-views. They would also insist that these are not to be labeled religious, as they tend to want to banish religion from the field of public discourse.
McGraw makes her case on the basis of John Locke, whom she privileges among the many who influenced the founders. In order to avoid relativism, she also turns to the "original intention of the founders," who, she argues with more cogency, should be given some privilege. She thinks there is neutral space in America's "Sacred Ground;" a space which she sees as less of a "Civic Public Forum" and more of a "Conscientious Public Forum." For McGraw, it all comes down to privileging the conscience of the individual.
Conscience. Individual. Freedom. Will the groups, associations, and tribes that make up the parties that she describes ever agree to individualize and perhaps atomize their communities of interest enough to talk? I wish I shared her optimism. For now, I'd say: "Nice try!"
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.