General story Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Conversations about hard truths

A man waves an American flag as he watches a July Fourth parade in the village of Barnstable, Massachusetts, on July 4, 2014. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar
"God Bless America," written in sand with an American flag.

Photo courtesy of Maria Dryfhout via Shutterstock

“God Bless America,” written in sand with an American flag.

David Gushee celebrated July 4th with a much-discussed piece in his “Christians, Conflict & Change” column on the so-frequently helpful Religion News Service.

This week Sightings uses Gushee as a single source and relies on Wikipedia  as a terse introduction. Well-known as a front-rank evangelical ethicist, he is beloved of the evangelical left and dismissed/hated by the evangelical right. His July 4 comment inspired furious argument, as typified by exchanges in the 142 comments (as of this writing) and elsewhere on the web and in print. Inevitably, almost all of these were framed as argument—which means they are proposed as provocations or theses to defend. I prefer to take them as frames for a conversation, which means they may be re-framed as questions, designed to stimulate thought and back-and-forth reflections.

His column was on “Seven hard truths,” and we’ll take up six. (The seventh dealt with the current political campaign, which Sightings chooses never to sight. We think of it as the great African-American pitcher Satchel Paige thought of fried food when he warned against it: “It angries up the blood.” And we don’t need more of that here.)

So, Gushee’s first: “America is more divided than ever.” Wrong, as other respondents have responded: it’s a friendly neighborhood brawl compared to the Civil War and its before-and-after times. Still, Gushee did us a favor by bringing this up to evoke reflection in the really, really divided America we are experiencing now.

Second, “American economic anxiety is profound and millions are in crisis.” Yes and no, about the second half of the statement, and leaders of American-religion-in-public-life have not yet done well in internalizing and bringing spiritual and material resources to bear on the miseries and anxieties of those suffering most. But, says this Depression-era Baby, “American economic anxiety” is simply this decade’s version of the chronic anxiety which rich and poor alike share about money.

Third, “American racism is alive and well.” Obviously. We know that racism so often is rooted in religious outlooks and religious outlookers, tending to seek the ‘stranger’ to attack, find that the racial ‘other’ serves well. Observers of our recent tragic scenes can also see that many sorts of religious expression can be, and sometimes are, a resource for positive change. Keep the conversation going, on this one.

Fourth, “America is bruised from chronic, unsuccessful foreign wars.” Indeed. Gushee: “On foreign battlefields, we haven’t had a clean, successful ‘win’ in a very long time.” Win? The Mexican and Spanish-American wars were clean and successful, but are we proud of our part in them? What would winning look like now? Gushee is right: We are ripe for “political exploitation” but also for “Real, fresh leadership, with new vision.” How would it and we “win” success in today’s global scene?

Fifth, “America’s political system is broken.” Agreed. What part can religious groups play in beginning to repair it?

Sixth, “America’s conservative religious leadership has a less attractive moral vision than big businesses like Coke and Delta—and they keep lining up on opposing sides.” Here Gushee has a home-field advantage, in Georgia, to observe and comment, as he (having “changed” and lined up with LGBT causes) sees business interests acting more morally than the prejudiced, shouting religious moralists are doing. It’s hard to picture this proposition being addressed through conversational exchange instead of violent argument. But Gushee is used to commenting on that scene. So, back to you, Dr. David!

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.

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