One week after the 1984 Presidential election, while Ronald Reagan was still basking in the afterglow of a victory he takes as evidence that “America is feeling good about itself again,” the National Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Washington finally got a look at the 136-page draft of a “Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” The document is strong stuff, calling the current rates of unemployment and inequities of wealth a “moral and social scandal.” The draft pastoral letter already has stirred controversy equal to what greeted the bishops’ May 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear war. The timing of the debate over the nuclear letter could have made it a part of the Presidential campaign, though its role in that campaign (indeed, the role of the nuclear issue itself) was much less significant by October of 1984 than most observers predicted. In contrast, the committee of five bishops who drafted the letter on economics purposely kept secret their draft until after the election to avoid making it a campaign issue.

This restraint was all the more remarkable in a campaign season filled with talk about the proper relationship between religion and politics in America. While one side asked the television audience if they wanted the Reverend Jerry Falwell to be selecting the next justices of the Supreme Court, the other side wondered aloud what was happening to America if we could not allow little children to pray in school. President Reagan’s comment at a prayer breakfast at the Republican convention in Dallas that “politics and religion are necessarily mixed” became something of the centerpiece of this public drama, prompting columnists like Garry Wills and William Safire to lecture the President on the American Enlightenment background for the separation of church and state. Meanwhile, the week preceding the election saw in major newspapers the appearance of full-page “public service” advertisements in which the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation quoted Washington, Madison, Lincoln, et al. to the effect that “religion’s influence on public policy has had a long and distinguished history.” Everyone, it seems, is appealing to the authority of American history, of American tradition, to settle the question of religion and politics. Yet everyone who looks finds a different history or, at least, a self-serving history. Would it help to consult an American historian on this matter? What historian would dare enter this fray?

Enter Martin E. Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, author of more than 30 books, general editor of the University of Chicago’s History of American Religion series, and an editor and regular contributor to The Christian Century. Marty used his Christian Century column last October to correct or add historical perspective to several of the popular misconceptions about the American tradition of mixing politics and religion, noting that American churchgoers were no more willing for their clergy to take stands on controversial issues in the 1960’s than they are in the 1980’s, about 17 percent in both cases. The election came only a few months after the May publication of Marty’s Pilgrims in Their Own Land, his 500-page history of religion in America.  The publication of Marty’s most substantial historical statement to date might be a good occasion to ask both what are his views of our history and what are the ideological uses of that history.

“It is often said,” writes Marty in his Preface, “that Americans have amnesia: they do not know who they are, nor do they know their past.” Americans certainly have a sense of themselves as “a religious people,” but (laments Marty and every American historian I have ever met) “few learn what this means or how we came to be such.” The consequences of this elective ignorance are serious. If citizens choose to ignore or reject tradition, they are under its control nonetheless. “From the past come words, images, gestures, and choices that still inform and prod.” Knowledge of American history in this light becomes more than an amusing pastime, more than a storehouse of trivia for parlor games. It becomes a patriotic duty and, not the least, a tool for defending ourselves against those who use selected words of the Founding Fathers to sell us something.

Folklorists and anthropologists realize that it is the storytellers who have the most powerful grip on a community’s understanding of itself and of reality. It is the storytellers who give shape to the unordered flow of events, who (as Marty puts it) “put the name chaos on chaos” as the “first step in ordering.” Marty’s highly readable story about religion in America is aimed at a readership larger than the usual scholarly audience for institutional histories of religions. Toward that end, Marty banishes the usual scholarly footnotes to a concluding essay on “Suggested Reading” and chooses to tell his story through the lives of dozens of the leaders of the American “Pilgrims.”

One of the great delights on reading Marty’s history is that he redefines the cast of important characters. Present on stage are many of the familiar players—John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, J. H. Noyes, Joseph Smith, Walter Rauschenbusch, Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, and Will Herberg, among others. But Marty also tells the stories of religious leaders not usually heard from in American histories, people like Bartolome de las Casas, who (though he never set foot on the North American mainland) deserves to be remembered as the champion of the Indians in Europe, as the cleric who insisted upon the voluntary conversion of the Indian people of the New World.  Or like Wovoka (born Jack Wilson), the Paiute who created the short-lived revitalization movement known as the Ghost Dance religion. Some inclusions, such as Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez, will annoy some readers, and other readers are bound to complain that Marty inexplicably omits one or another obvious candidate.  But this is a good measure of Marty’s intent to challenge the accepted canon of which religions and which leaders “count” in American history.

These characters, major and minor alike, need a conflict to energize the action and set the plot in motion, and for that conflict Marty returns to what is really an old theme in American historical writing.  Marty takes his title from a phrase he finds in Jacques Maritain’s 1958 Reflections on America: “Americans seem to be in their own land as pilgrims, prodded by a dream. They are always on the move—available for new tasks, prepared for the possible loss of what they have. They are not settled, installed.” The people, their dreams, and the land are (for Marty) in a dynamic dialectic that creates “not merely ‘religion in America’ but ‘American religion,'” not merely European (or Eastern) faiths transferred to a new setting but something uniquely the result of the confrontation of a religion with American pluralism.

Marty’s is, as I said, a very traditional approach to the historical explanation of American experience. The Puritans discovered early that their vision of a “City Upon a Hill” had to deal somehow with the land, space, and (most importantly) the freedom of choice the New World forced upon their dissenters’ consciousness. Frederick Jackson Turner took the occasion of the 1890 census and the Census Bureau’s conclusion that there was no longer a distinguishable border between settled and unsettled America to propose his now famous “frontier hypothesis” (1893). Turner accounted for the unique character of American democratic institutions by noting the salutary effects of frontier conditions upon human habits, values, and institutions. There have been many emendations of Turner’s thesis over the years, such as David M. Potter’s shift of attention from frontier conditions to abundance (in People of Plenty, 1954) and George W.  Pierson’s insistence that the crucial element shared by both Turner’s frontier and Potter’s abundance is the “m-factor,” mobility. Marty’s central image of a “restless” dialectic between the American people, their dreams, and the land is testimony to the persistence of Turner’s thesis in American historical thinking.

But Marty introduces an important difference. Whereas Potter and others who look upon the American landscape, abundance, and mobility as the context for the exceptionalism of American institutions (including the religious) were writing out of an assumption that there was a basic consensus among Americans about the meaning of the American “experiment,” Marty is writing in 1984 from the perspective of historians who saw the consensus shattered in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Put differently, Marty’s history discards the older notion of consensus, of a shared national character, in favor of a conflict model of American social order, still preserving Turner’s emphasis on land, movement, and choice.

The implications of Marty’s idea can be seen if we unravel from the longer story the strand having to do with “public religion” in America. From Marty’s point of view, the actual political revolution was minor compared with the other two revolutions Americans accomplished near the end of the 18th century. The first was a radically altered conception of the proper relation between church and state, and the second was the creation of a “republican religion. . . not of revelation but of reason.” Marty cautions the modern reader that in order to understand the documents of the creation on the American republic, we must acquire the “new vocabulary” the founders used to talk about religions and philosophy. “The new vocabulary,” writes Marty, “pointed toward an Age of Reason where there had been an Age of Faith. The mind mattered more than the heart, reason more than revelation, morals more than miracles, public virtue more than private salvation.”

Marty wisely sees that at times the new republican religion was an ally of the denominations, at other times a competitor in the marketplace of faiths. Benjamin Franklin was most vocal in his call for an American “public religion” that blended Christian ethics, nondenominational deism, and Enlightenment natural science and political theory, and Washington and Jefferson used the Presidency as a pulpit for spreading the republican religion. But James Madison emerges as the central figure in Marty’s tale, for it is Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785) that Marty credits with the final push for the disestablishment of state churches in the United States. One of the most remarkable accomplishments of that document was Madison’s treating religion as an “opinion.” Madison had “made a virtue of the American necessity that came with its diversity. Public religion proposed a broad faith to blanket the Republic and then to some extent wanted the churches to survive but to keep cancelling each other out. Madison decided that the best (and only) security for religious liberty lay in what he called ‘the multiplicity of sects.'”

Marty believes Madison was correct to entrust the security of the republic to a diversity of interests but incorrect in supposing that the “public religion” would serve forever as the neutral canopy protecting the sects. The denominations have since then seen the Enlightenment civil religion as a particular faith that must compete with the denominations in “the open market of opinions.” Nevertheless, the American public religion can be found in our public documents, in the rhetoric of Presidential addresses from Washington through Lincoln to Eisenhower and Kennedy, in our legal system, and not least in “its passion in the cries by citizens at the deepest crises of American life.”

I dwell on these few pages of a 500-page history because I believe the key to understanding Marty’s vision is to see his Madisonian faith in security through the conflict of diversity. In fact, Marty’s history weds Darwinian natural selection with classical economic theory in some surprising ways. Consider, for example, this passage about the Great Awakening of the 1740’s: “Along with the fresh accent on personal experience, the voluntary experience, and the freedom of choice that followed itineracy, the new movements left a legacy of competition for souls” (emphasis added). And, later, “free enterprise had come to the world of religion.” For Marty, the Second Great Awakening “was a textbook example of free enterprise in the marketplace of religion, a competition in which the fittest survived.” To be sure, some of this rhetoric belongs to the period itself, but these passages and others convince me that Marty trusts conflict among competing sects, because he is certain that a free market of religious opinions is the safeguard of our freedom to hold all kinds of opinion.

This is why Marty is basically so optimistic about American culture in the late 20th century and why he is able actually to embrace modernity and all its choices. “America’s has been a story of the dialogues with the land, with new peoples, with pathfinders of vision,” he writes, “pioneers who conspired to prevent Americans from becoming spiritually ‘settled,’ even within traditions.” For Americans, it is the attempt to preserve a tradition that takes effort. Where some would read American diversity and rate of change as chaotic, Marty sees strength. The spiritual pilgrimage of Americans need not be toward the integration and simplicity our modern lives seem to lack; rather, the “restless pilgrimage” itself, the sense of an experiment not finished, Lincoln’s notion of Americans as an “almost chosen people,” these are the frames of mind closest to what American experience means.

Marty’s history will be “unsettling” to those readers who think America needs to put the brakes on modernity’s secularism and restore traditional religious values, for Marty follows Madison’s example by making virtues out of conflict, choice, competition, experiment, and change. But his point is that these are virtues workingfor, not against, the vitality of religious faith in America. We might say that religious faith in America is strong because of, not despite, the secular character of its government. Folklorists and others who study American lives in their face-to-face settings see this vitality and could lend testimony to Marty’s confidence that Americans will not permit politicians or clergy or even historians to “settle,” finally, what must remain “unsettled.”