Religion Overwhelms in News

Sightings this week belongs to the “catching our breath” or “cleaning our glasses” category of columns

By Martin E. Marty|June 29, 2015

Sightings this week belongs to the “catching our breath” or “cleaning our glasses” category of columns. Note that for once it lists no sources or resources at the end. There are simply too many to cite. We cannot recall, in our sixteen years of “sighting” evidences of religion in the world of events, when there was such an abundance of truly important news and comment.

Recall this little sample from last week.  
Begin with the pope’s encyclical on climate change and the many negative political reactions to it. Before one could gain perspective on his major document and the meaning of the reactions, other sensations followed.

Second, the debates over the now-being-torn-down Confederate flag inspired valuable reflection on what is a symbol. Late philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously concluded a great book with a chapter “The Symbol Gives Rise to Thought.” That flag certainly did, and defeated defenders of the flag will not soon forget their “thought” about meanings associated with it and with the acts of displacing it. During the debates we also heard religious talk about sacrifice, “the soul” of the Confederacy and traditions associated with it. Most of the debates about heritage and hate was religion-related.

Quickly: third, we would not likely be talking about all of that were it not occasioned by a crime-for-the-ages, the murder of nine worshipping Bible-discussants in an African-American-based congregation in Charleston. The follow up to that profanation had, as an upside, the televised revelation to many white Americans and others who had little familiarity with “black” worship; these grieving congregants and millions like them had access to and could draw upon deep reservoirs of symbols, scriptures, and hope. In his eulogy the President drew on his own tradition, while addressing others as well, as he spoke of “grace,” which is not a conventional prime time topic. Referring to the murdered Pastor Clementa Pinckney, as a man of grace who graced others, he said, “According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.”

A day or two before, the nation had been transfixed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in support of the Affordable Care Act. Those who opposed it had found some religious reasons for doing so, while advocates evoked scriptural languages about care of the suffering and the pursuit of healing.

Before having had time to internalize what that all meant, the same Court ruled in favor of Gay Marriage, another judgment, if not for the ages, at least for our part of our age. Again, the pro and con forces and witnesses on this issue, (the “con” articulators more frequently), were pressed or inspired to make their case for “traditional marriage” or, on the other side, “rights,” by reference to impulses and languages long honored in religious circles and religious terms.

Thirty-six years ago some CIA leadership explained that it had not foreseen the Iranian (some said “Islamic”) Revolution because, while it had kept up on most things in Iran, it paid no attention to religion, because everyone knew that religion had no power in the modern world.

We learned otherwise, and many of us were since chartered and charged to pay special attention to the public dimensions and effects of religion locally, nationally, and globally.

In this fortnight just past, they/we once again had no difficulty portraying religion as relevant, crucial, destructive (e.g. ISIS), and, as witnessed to in a Charleston church, sometimes grace-filled. Amazing.

Martin E. MartyAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


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