Americans need to pay attention to the country's religious past for the sake of identity and self-knowledge, according to an eminent religious historian.
"We should restore teaching of religion in schools, if not for church purposes, as a historical tool," said historian Martin E. Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. "I truly believe in the natural inclusion principle, and when it comes up we make great advances. We fight about school prayer, but I think that's beside the point, really."Remember the `Grapes of Wrath'?" he asked. "The family was told it could take no souvenir when it moved. They said, `If we can't take our past with us, how will we know who we are?'
"We're like that. And if we look at our past, we learn about our present and future. For instance, I believe the American past teaches us we don't necessarily have harmony if we agree that the majority is the correct religion - regardless of what the majority is at the time. In the words of James Madison, `It forces people to be hypocrites, knaves and fools if we don't separate church and state.' "
He cited the example of the Civil War, in which both sides claimed the Bible.
Marty was in Salt Lake recently to present one in a series of Tanner-McMurrin Lectures on the history and philosophy of religion at Westminster College. He is the senior editor of the "Christian Century," and editor of "Context" and "Church History."
"There's a danger," he said, "if the highly committed people are not very civil and highly civil people are not very committed. Those who are highly committed sometimes don't care if they tromp on others along the way. But others often have a general wishy-washy belief in tolerance that, carried to extremes, often leaves society open to various totalitarians."
American churches are grappling with their roles in international affairs, he said.
"Violence has become the pictures of reality by which we live. If we are challenged, we have nothing and if something comes along to disturb the picture, we mess up the disturber. And religion is being used as a reinforcer. You can do almost anything if you can proclaim that God backs you.
"The least tolerant wars were the ones where both sides were convinced that God impelled them. So the task is to get the other side of religion to the fore.
"A mother who sends her little boy out as part of a human chain to clear minefields didn't become a Muslim in order to kill her little boy."
In America, Marty said, 10 to 15 percent of the population generally turns out to be "hardcore" on both sides of controversial issues like abortion or gun control. The other 70 percent need to be kept informed, fluid and interactive, he said.