The Rev. Dr. Martin Marty, speaking at Sylvania United Church of Christ on Sunday (Jan. 20), said America’s past and present is marked by a unique paradox: “The United States is the most secular nation there could be, and the most religious nation in the industrial and western world.”
That sort of puzzlement is what drew Marty from being a Lutheran pastor to becoming one of America’s foremost historians.
He said a British historian explained their career choice well: “I became a historian because I find everything so odd, and I wonder how it got that way.”
Marty, 84, earned a doctorate degree from the University of Chicago, where he taught religious history for 35 years.
He has received more than 80 honorary doctorate degrees and has written more than 60 books.
Marty gave the opening talks in Sylvania UCC’s 2013 Bill Chidester Lecture Series on Jan. 19 and 20.
With a spritely mix of scholarship and humor, Marty said the United States’ unique structure separating religion in civil life is one that will never reach a point where all the questions are answered and all disputes settled.
“We are constantly dealing with the unsettled – and I would argue unsettleable – issues,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever come to a point where we’ll say, ‘Now we have figured it out.’ There are always new factors.”
America’s founding fathers were well versed in history, basing their vision of the new country from what they gleaned from ancient Greek, Roman, and European cultures.
The American colonies’ motto, Novus Ordo Seculum, -- “A New Order of the Ages” – was “a really, really gutsy thing to say when you’re a bunch of people just making your way over from Europe and you don’t know each other,” Marty said.
But the founders wanted to take a different path by ensuring that Americans had freedom to worship without the government establishing a religion.
James Madison, whom Marty described as “a really cool guy” who “never raised his voice” and rarely showed any emotion in his writing showed his temper in a letter to a friend who asked, “How can you have morality if you don’t have an official religion?”
In an uncharacteristically response, Madison used the phrase “the diabolical, hell-conceived principle by which the government stipulates religion,” Marty said, revealing the level of importance he ascribed to the issue.
Marty said America’s demographics made it a Christian nation at first and then a Judeo-Christian nation, but that has changed in recent decades.
“I think one of the great events in modern American history is often overlooked,” he said. referring to changes in U.S. immigration laws in 1965.
Prior to 1965, quotas were based on 1924 restrictions favoring western Europeans. But the rules were changed by Congress, allowing more immigrants from Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world.
When the new wave of immigrants arrived in America, they brought much of their culture and their religion along with them.
People have a fear of strangers , or xenophobia, Marty said, and so there is suspicion about new citizens who are not from the familiar Judeo-Christian heritage.
“It is constantly evolving and it will never be easy,” Marty said.
And yet, he pointed out, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament command people to practice xenophilia, or love of strangers, which is often translated as hospitality.
“It is an obsessive theme in the Scriptures,” Marty said. “In the Old Testament, you had to be welcoming to the aliens or stranger. Why? Because you were strangers to the enemies. Almost nothing was a bigger problem to God’s promises than that.”
In the New Testament, he said the Book of Hebrews says you might be entertaining angels without knowing it and you have to practice hospitality.
“I think that’s the theme that we constantly have to keep learning because we always think we can keep strangers at a distance,” he said.