Scholar inspired by reply: 'I am a citizen'

Scholar inspired by reply: 'I am a citizen'

Not long ago, noted religion scholar Martin Marty heard an interview on National Public Radio about a generous doctor who had continued working for free in poor communities after retirement.

When asked why, the doctor replied, "Because I am a citizen."

To Marty, that simple yet powerful statement contrasted greatly with the divisiveness found too often in religion and politics today.

"That really struck me," he said this week. "It was really ascribing a whole way of life which can incorporate the religious and the nonreligious. Nobody asked him, 'Are you Unitarian, are you Catholic, are you an atheist, are you a Jew?'"

The doctor didn't say, "I have citizenship," or "I am a patriot," Marty added.

"Having citizenship is what we fight about," he said, whereas "citizen" is a broader category that includes a pattern of "civility, morality and ethics."

Marty, the author of 60 books and recipient of the National Humanities Medal, will deliver the annual Marjorie Hall Thulin Lecture in Religion at the University of Illinois this evening.

His free talk, which is open to the public, is entitled, "Because I Am a Citizen: Religion and the Common Good in Today's America." It will begin at 8 p.m. in the Knight Auditorium of Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., U.

A Lutheran minister, Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He taught for 35 years, chiefly in the divinity school, where he established and directed the Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion. It was renamed the Martin Marty Center when he retired from teaching in 1998.

His career extends far beyond university campuses. He has served on two presidential commissions and won the National Book Award for "Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America." He was a columnist and senior editor for Christian Century, an ecumenical biweekly magazine on Christian faith and contemporary life.

In the 1960s he actively opposed the Vietnam War. One of his close friends is television producer Norman Lear, who credits Marty with clarifying the central themes for Lear's nonprofit advocacy group, People for the American Way — tolerance, pluralism, free speech, religious liberty and church/state separation.

In a tribute at Marty's retirement, both Lear and friend Bill Moyers joked about Marty's prolific writing.

"When I reached his office, his secretary said, 'Oh, Mr. Lear, Dr. Marty just sat down to write his new book. I couldn't think of interrupting him until he's finished. Would you care to hold?' I couldn't hold, so I called back in 11 minutes. He had just finished."

Marty decries the current state of political campaigns, "when nobody listens to anybody." Rather than arguing, and pitting extremists against one another, "think how much better politics would be if we listened to each other," he said.

Marty said he is "intensely political" in his own views, and his son, Don Marty, is a state senator.

"I'm aware of the wonderful things politics can do, but it can't be done through shouting at each other," he said.

Religion and politics are a volatile mix, he said, with President Obama unable to satisfy critics who question his Christianity and candidates afraid to take a controversial stance for fear of angering a religious constituency. Both religion and politics need to be "depolarized," he said, and being a citizen can provide common ground for the left and the right.

In a recent column, Marty took on Fox commentator Glenn Beck, who had criticized churches that promote social-justice work.

Churches, synagogues and other organized groups provide a means for citizens to engage with each other and work together as citizens, he said.

In the past, church congregations included people who were there because it was the nearest Catholic or Methodist church, and they had to get along with each other somehow, he said. They may have had vast political differences, but they made it work and often grew to like each other.

Today, he said, more and more people are leaving mainstream congregations because they disagree with certain stances on homosexuality or the ordination of women, for example. They're gravitating to churches that share their political views, "so everybody is on the left or the right. I don't think that's good for religion or politics," he said.

Much better, he said, to have citizens with a range of views.

"The company of strangers — that's what a good church is, what a good club is, what a good VFW is, if people with very different types are there," he said.

On the web:

Marty's website:

Faculty page at University of Chicago:

Tributes from Bill Moyers and Norman Lear:

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