Martin Marty and American Pluralism: An Interview

Martin Marty and American Pluralism: An Interview

For many who are interested in American history, Martin Marty needs no introduction. For nearly half a century, Marty has explored the diversity of American religious life as an academic as well as an ordained Lutheran minister. The author of more than sixty books and over five thousand articles, Marty is currently the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He is also a participating scholar in the Scholl Center’s ongoing “Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America” program, which is funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges grant. As a part of the “Out of Many” program, Marty will be delivering a public lecture in the Newberry’s Ruggles Hall on Tuesday, June 26 at 6:00 p.m. The talk, titled “Pluralisms with a Big ‘S’: The American Versions,” is free and open to the public, and no registration is required. You can find more information here. In advance of the talk, Marty agreed to talk briefly with the Scholl Center about how themes from the “Out of Many” program fit within his scholarly work.

Scholl Center [SC]: Throughout your career as an author, minister, and academic, you have paid considerable attention to the robust diversity of America’s religious history, as well as the specificities of your own religious tradition. What inspired this dual focus?

Martin Marty [MM]: New York Congressman John Canfield Spencer, soon after the nation’s founding, noted “the extreme division of sects [which is almost without limits].” If there were one religion, as throughout history elsewhere, he wrote, it would persecute dissenters. “If there were but two religions, we should cut each others’ throats. But no sect having the majority, all have need of tolerance.” James Madison argued that the security for civil and religious rights consisted “in the multiplicity of sects… .” So it has been. That takes care of that, in the American agenda. But people do not live by mere “diversity” or “tolerance” or “multiplicity.” Citizens have lives to live, deaths to fear, sacrifices to make, acts of love and justice to exercise, truths to seek. These are often and perhaps usually related to our ultimate concern, which for most is mediated through religious communities and texts. Figuring out how to live with both “the many” and “the one” by telling stories has struck me as a worthwhile life’s work.

SC: How did the study of religious “pluralism” emerge as a focus in your work? When did you first encounter it as an object of study?

MM: As a boy I lived in a town that had half as many residents (700) as does the skyscraper in which I now live. While we did not “cut each others’ throats,” we were either Czech Catholics or German Lutherans and that was that. A few Jews lived in a small city eleven miles away and thousands of Blacks lived ninety miles away, but we didn’t bump into each other. Today Mexicans, Vietnamese, Hmong, and many others live in these little Nebraska towns. In prep school years in Milwaukee, classmates and I encountered some of the problems and pleasures of experiencing diversity and needed to make sense of them. When asked why I am an historian, I quote a British historian and apply his confession to myself: “I have found everything very odd, and I wanted to learn how it got that way.” Hence, the study of “pluralism.”

SC: How have the meanings and uses of “pluralism” changed in the years you’ve studied it? Does pluralism have a history?

MM: Look it up: “pluralism” until the middle of the twentieth century meant either a philosophical option or a church administration policy. People point to “diversity” and may be saying no more than ‘ “Wow! look at all that stuff out there.” But the reality of diversity in a republic demands or encourages some “rules of the game.” The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the charter for these, and they get worked out daily through the informal actions of citizens, the acts of legislatures and courts, the rituals of life, and the stories we tell and hear. All these are messy, unsettled and never satisfying to all, but all the alternatives are worse. Especially those of us with religious interests have responsibilities to work through the game of pluralism.

SC: Taking a long view of American history, do you think we are entering a particularly pluralistic moment?

MM: In the long view two trends coexist and compete. In a free society, “diversity” grows and so does pluralism. Immigration, the search for personal and communal identity, inventiveness in the context of religious, racial, ethnic, class, and cultural communities, grows. At the same time, thanks to–let’s name some–intermarriage, mobility, fear of duplicating the murderous examples of religious conflict as we see it in global affairs, weariness over such conflict, and the working out of fresh patterns of interaction and appreciation of “the other,” enhanced in a world of mass media–all these cause erosions of the boundaries among sects and interests. So inventions of new positive relations in a world of conflict are always being developed. And in a world where generosity, hospitality, and ”the common good” beckon, the game of pluralism remains promising.


Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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