I am sure that I have written this before at GetReligion and I am sure that, before long, I will write it again. However, there is some truth in the old Godbeat saying that for most American newsrooms, the formula for a page-one religion story is “three anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin Marty.”
But there is a reason that Marty (click here for more info) has become a brand name in religion news. Actually, there are several good reasons. One is that his knowledge base is very broad, which often happens with historians who have written 50-plus books. Second, he can speak ordinary English about complicated subjects (and often be witty at the same time). Third, he is famous for answering his own telephone. Fourth, he writes about 2,000 words a day and all of them are published — somewhere.
Finally, the man is often two or three beats ahead when it comes to seeing the obvious and then putting a spotlight on it.
Thus, I would like to note that the Baltimore Sun just published a very fine essay titled “Religion’s flame burns brighter than ever: What happened to the world’s transition to secularism?” It was written by Timothy Samuel Shah of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and Monica Duffy Toft of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
But I would also like to note that Marty voiced the major theme of this essay — in very blunt terms — back in a 2002 lecture that I heard him give to students, journalists and ministers at the University of Nebraska. He has also been saying the same thing for a decade or two, only now more people are noticing because of the march of world events.
So what is Marty’s big idea? Here’s how I stated his thesis in a 2002 Scripps Howard column:
Truth is, most Western leaders have long believed that religion would inevitably fade, he said. Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.
“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. … “The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”
Countless despots have learned that faith cannot be killed with force. This is especially true outside what Marty called the “spiritual ice belt” that extends across Western Europe and North America. …
In the mid-1990s, Marty directed a massive project to study the “militant religious fundamentalisms” on the rise worldwide. It concluded that the leaders of many such groups would resort to military action, when they failed to achieve victory through constitutional means. And if military might was not enough, Marty noted that the study warned that “they may very well take no prisoners, allow no compromises, have no borders and they might resort to terrorism.”
This brings us to the essay by Shah and Toft, which states many obvious facts in a place where the rarely appear — the pages of a solidly left-wing American newspaper. Here’s a large chunk of the heart of this story:
Global politics is increasingly marked by what could be called “prophetic politics.” Voices claiming transcendent authority are filling public spaces and winning key political contests. These movements come in very different forms and employ widely varying tools. But whether the field of battle is democratic elections or the more inchoate struggle for global public opinion, religious groups are increasingly competitive. In contest after contest, when people are given a choice between the sacred and the secular, faith prevails.
God is on a winning streak. It was reflected in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shia revival and religious strife in postwar Iraq, and Hamas’s recent victory in Palestine and Israel’s struggle with Hezbollah in Lebanon. But not all the thunderbolts have been hurled by Allah.
The struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s was strengthened by prominent Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond K. Tutu. Hindu nationalists in India stunned the international community when they unseated India’s ruling party in 1998 and then tested nuclear weapons.
American evangelicals continue to surprise the U.S. foreign-policy establishment with their activism and influence on issues such as religious freedom, sex trafficking, Sudan and AIDS in Africa. Indeed, evangelicals have emerged as such a powerful force that religion was a stronger predictor of vote choice in the 2004 U.S. presidential election than was gender, age, or class.
Much has changed, admit the authors, since the infamous Time cover in 1966 that asked “Is God Dead?” That was a logical question for people in elite academia. The question never made sense in Middle America. It is a question sure to be pinned on bulletin boards in the headquarters of Islamists, for obvious reasons.
The article shoots down other myths. Education does not make people less religious. Prosperity does not do the trick, either. Vague, muddy faiths keep fading, while traditional forms of faith appeal to young and old.
There is much that can be debated in this piece. But the central question echoes what Marty has been saying for years. Feel free to send the URLs for these pieces to your local newspaper editors and ask them how this reality is reflected in their newsrooms and in their future plans for their news pages.