March 14, 2005
Reich vs. Religion
Martin E. Marty
The text for this morning's meditation comes from Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor during the first Clinton administration. Reich writes: "The great conflict of the 21st century may be between the West and terrorism. But terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The underlying battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernist fanatics; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind allegiance to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism is not the only danger we face" ("Bush's God," The American Prospect, July 1, 2004).
James Skillen is full of red-faced, high-blood-pressure anger over Reich's "red-faced, high-blood-pressure anger," as am I in my own moderate Swiss way. Skillen finds Reich writing against conservative religionists: "Reich's concern over the politicization of churches and other non-profit organizations is quite legitimate," but it comes embedded in "such anti-religious extremism that one can hardly distinguish it from religious bigotry itself." Skillen faults Reich for seeing "only two roads one can follow, the old road to a dark hell or the road to a sane, rational, and nonreligious life in this world" (Prism 2005). And fault him, Skillen should.
Ho! all ye evangelicals, fundamentalists, Pentecostalists, Baptists, conservatives, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, African-American Protestants, and "Others"! Many of you/us do have high views of biblical authority. Some of you/us may be rude and crude and even exclusivist in expressions of support for them. But consider this question: In organizations like World Vision, Bread for the World, Opportunity International, and groups to their right who support allegiance to a higher authority and response to truth as revealed in scripture and dogma, how many people could Reich find who also exclude response to science, reason, and logic, people who look like "fanatics"? (Answer: some.)
The line from Reich that concerns me most involves his nineteenth-century view of some nineteenth-century faith of those who "believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence beyond life ...." That kind of distancing otherworldliness was pervasive back when Karl Marx and his colleagues saw religion as the opium of the people -- a pie-in-the-sky distraction from earthly concerns. It was still characteristic of many conservative Protestants ("evangelical," "fundamentalist," "Pentecostal") about whom I was writing in the 1950s.
But has Reich not noticed that almost all of these religionists today certainly do make bold and often charitable moves in the present world? Is Reich, at whose side I would often find myself politically, not aware of how "this-worldly" many evangelicals have become?
Some days some moderates wish this kind of religion would retreat into otherworldliness. Yet, for all their often egregious faults, religionists, including those who believe in "an existence beyond life," are in there pitching in this life, as agents of mercy unambiguously and justice ambiguously -- only some of them misguided.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications,
and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.