It is Martin Marty’s custom to rise at 4:44 a.m. for coffee and prayer, while awaiting the familiar thump of four newspapers on his porch.
A week ago, America’s most famous church historian prepared for a lecture in Nebraska by ripping up enough newsprint to bury his table in headlines and copy slashed with a yellow pen.
A former WorldCom CEO kept teaching his Sunday school class. A researcher sought the lost tribe of Israel. Believers clashed in Sudan. Mormon and evangelical statistics were up — again. A Zambian bishop said he got married to shock the Vatican. U.S. bishops kept wrestling with clergy sexual abuse. Pakistani police continued to study the death of journalist Daniel Pearl.
Marty tore out more pages, connecting the dots. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey feared an Anglican schism. Public-school students prayed at flagpoles. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explored the border between church and state. And there were dozens of stories linked to Sept. 11, 2001.
“When I read newspapers, I see religion all over the place,” said Marty, whose University of Chicago Divinity School career has led to 50-plus books and countless media appearances. “This has always been the case. I simply think it has been easier for others to see this reality during the past year.”
For decades, Marty has been America’s most quoted expert on the question: “What is religion news?” But the University of Nebraska’s journalism school challenged him to answer a new question: “Is There Any Non-Religious News After 9/11?”
It is certainly harder for journalists to avoid religion now, said Marty. This is true from Washington to Islamabad, from Wall Street to Hollywood. But the deeper reality is that Sept. 11 didn’t change anything. It only made the power of faith — as a healing force, as well as a deadly force — more obvious.
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, in a forum for journalism students, ministers and media professionals. “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. Soon, Africa and Asia will be sending waves of missionaries to the West.
Meanwhile, most of the world’s hot spots are occurring where Islamic expansion is colliding with the growth of traditional Christianity in the Third World. While the world watches Afghanistan and Iraq, the insiders are watching Nigeria and Indonesia.
It’s all part of the same story.
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.”
How should networks and newspapers respond? It would help, said Marty, if they hired more journalists who are trained to cover the complex and emotional world of religion. But that response is no longer adequate, after Sept. 11.
“What I am talking about today is not a call for a huge flood of religion reporters. We need some. We need more,” he said. “We need space in which they can write. …
“But we are past that, right now. We are now dealing with issues that all journalists are going to have to try to understand. … The horizons of religion and the news have touched and we all have to realize that, now.”