The Rev. Dr. Martin E. Marty says he never mixes politics with religion. It's simply not a good idea.
Don't misunderstand. Marty, the author of more than 50 books and one of the nation's most prominent interpreters of religion and contemporary culture, doesn't hesitate when asked his opinion concerning the most controversial issues of the day. There is, however, a time and place for everything.
“The pulpit is not well served by any overt form of amateur politics and talk of the left and the right,” said Marty, who on Tuesday will speak twice at Union College to help the school's Protestant Campus Ministry celebrate its 25 th year. “People shouldn't have to look up at me in the pulpit, saying 'God's word means this and God's word means that.' You have to have respect for the laity. The pulpit should be a politicalfree ground.”
Ordained a Lutheran minister in 1952, the 77-year-old Marty hasn't slowed down much since concluding a 35-year teaching career at the University of Chicago in 1998. His books, including the 1970 National Book Award winner “Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America,” and his most recent work, “When Religions Collide,” have made him a much sought-after speaker for more than three decades.
“My wife and I say how these are the best years of our lives. Unfortunately, I just wish we had a lot more of them left,” Marty said recently from his home in Riverside, Ill. “But otherwise I do have an ideal life. I travel and speak probably more than I should, but people are always asking me. It's not like I'm calling them. They call me and I respond.”
Marty will speak at 11 a.m. Tuesday at College Park Hall concerning “Literate Faith for College Students,” and will offer another lecture at 7:30 Tuesday night in Memorial Chapel called “When Beliefs Collide.” The college community is invited to each talk free of charge. Cost of the luncheon to the general public is $40, with tickets for the evening lecture going for $10.
“Martin Marty is recognized as one of the foremost commentators on American religious life and culture,” said the Rev. Viki Brooks-McDonald, campus Protestant minister at Union. “He's the author of over 50 books and thousands of articles, and he's very enthusiastic about meeting college students. He insisted on it. He said he wouldn't come unless we found the time for him to sit down and meet with students.”
As highly regarded as he is as a speaker, Marty realizes he won't produce as big a turnout as some other public figures on today's college circuit.
“I may be famous in some circles, but I'm not a celebrity, so it's hard to ask a college kid to spend a few hours listening to someone he or she never heard of,” said Marty. “I won't attract a crowd like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, but neither will serious political scientists. But I love collegians, and if a few professors have alerted their class to my coming then I'm off and running.”
Marty was born in West Point, Neb., the son of Lutheran parents, and was convinced he heard the call of the ministry after working at a tuberculosis sanitorium in St. Louis.
“I went to seminary but really hadn't made a commitment yet until I started dealing with these poor women who were dying of TB,” said Marty. “That was my first taste of pastoral work. I was so inspired by these women, and the personal dimension this experience offered was quite attractive to me. I resolved then to go into the pastoral profession.”
When he was done at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Marty went to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and then the University of Chicago where he got his doctorate in theology. He served a Lutheran parish in the Chicago area for 10 years, and then began his teaching career at the University of Chicago. In 1956, he also began a long association with Christian Century Magazine that continues today as a featured columnist.
His legacy at the University of Chicago is clearly evident in the form of the Martin Marty Center, an on-campus entity founded in 1998 to promote “public religion” endeavors.
These days he will occasionally offer a Sunday sermon at his parish in Riverside, but likes to think of himself as just one of the members.
“I both enjoy and appreciate the church participation and worship, but I'll only preach a few times a year,” said Marty. “I do sing in the choir regularly, but that's not really an enhancement to the choir.”
The recipient of more than 70 honorary doctorates, Marty has also been awarded the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Scientists, and the Order of Lincoln Medallion, and has also been elected fellow of the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences.
Despite all the attention, Marty remains as friendly and as personable as ever, according to Brooks-McDonald, who first heard him speak when she graduated from the McCormick Seminary in Chicago in 1985.
“I've never met a nationallyknown speaker who was so easy and wonderful to work with,” said Brooks-McDonald. “He is as delightful as he is gracious.”
Marty had four sons and two foster children with his first wife, now deceased, and recently he married his college roommate's widow, and that union has brought another son into the family.
“Including the grandchildren, there's 27 of us,” said Marty. “All the writing I've done was done in a houseful of children. Family is very important to me.”
Marty doesn't answer questions with short sound bites, and instead offers responses that are usually complex and nuanced. Here are some of Marty's musings about issues of the day, both political and social.
The intelligent design vs. the theory of evolution debate: “Well, if I use the word 'silly,' that would end the discussion and that's not what I'm about. But as a believer I can say that I believe in intelligent design, and then add that it has nothing to do with science. To me it doesn't belong in the classroom, at least not in science class. A biology teacher better be teaching evolution. We can keep science pure and leave intelligent design to the social sciences and humanities.”
The Christian right: “The political dimension of the Christian right concerns me and sometimes frightens me. Some of the issues that the Christian right cares about I understand and am in sympathy with, but the overall thing that bothers me is their attempt to produce a Christian America. That contradicts our Constitution, and it's also unfair to a lot of people. It's not good for religion.”
The health of religion: “Some people want to replace bad religion with no religion, but that's not going to happen. Humans are programmed for religion. During The Enlightenment, people thought religion would disappear, but it's outlasted fascism, communism, nazism and Maoism. They've come and gone but religion prospers.”
Liberalism: “I'm not anybody's spokesman, but if people want to call me liberal, and that means I'm open to listening to other people, that's fine. But I don't really have any interest in the label.”
Tolerance: “The word has become quite wishy-washy. Today it means if I can get you to believe as little as I believe then we'll get along OK. I like the word 'hospitality.' I don't have to give up who I am, but I do have to listen to other people who may be different.”
Marty's visit to the Union campus is being sponsored by the John and Jane Wold Visiting Professorship in Religious Studies, First United Methodist Church of Schenectady, Grace Lutheran Church, and Union's Lamont Preacher Fund in cooperation with the Capital Region Theological Center.
More information may be obtained from Brooks-McDonald at 388-6618.