Martin E. Marty: Religion Used to Be Private ... How Times Have Changed

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Marty is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he taught religious history.]

Exactly 50 years ago, as I was finishing graduate school, ready to enter the circle of historians who chronicled American religious history as a largely white Protestant preserve, my adviser introduced me to Will Herberg. Here was a Jewish-existentialist-theologian-sociologist who had just published "Protestant-Catholic-Jew." Herberg, through his classic book and his presence, planted a signpost to guide us into the pluralist understanding of the Americans' spiritual journey—and since then the effort to make sense of that journey has not ceased. Europeans, with whom so many Americans share religious heritages, are sometimes bemused to see us still going to church and synagogue, telling poll-takers that religion is "very important," and uniting to sing "God Bless America." But we are a believing people, a nation growing ever more diverse in belief and practice as the years roll on.

The American spiritual path does not resemble a straight line. Thirty years before Herberg wrote, fundamentalist and modernist Protestants squared off in conflicts like the Scopes trial, which pitched evolution against Biblical literalism. By the end of the 1940s and into the early years of the Eisenhower era, most people hardly remembered Scopes. The consuming years of the Depression, World War II and the beginning of the cold war led many Americans to put aside religious conflicts and tensions; there was enough to fight about without bringing God into the fray. They seemed content to see old battle lines among faiths erode while they religiously celebrated the American Way of Life.

Then, a year before "Protestant-Catholic-Jew" appeared, a U.S. Supreme Court decision helped trigger a civil-rights movement that had been quietly building, and a new signpost of change was planted. Faith was again politicized as it had been in the 1920s. From the fight against Jim Crow to the war on poverty to the protests over Vietnam, a broad coalition appealed to the Bible and other sacred books to justify their campaigns for social justice. On the right, believers worried about "godless communism" and, after a 1962 Supreme Court ruling, the end of prayer in schools, formed a competing camp....

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