Dr. Martin E. Marty, the "Dean" or "Pope" of the American Mainline was in Grand Rapids this weekend, and we were there for a great booktable. Dr. Marty was speaking on the 2008 presidental election, but his excellent remarks trancended the 24-hour punditry of the cable news cycle and delved deeper into the larger role that religion plays in our political life. Some higlights:
1. Dr. Marty claimed that maybe only one or two of the founding fathers could really been claimed to be "born-again Evangelicals" in the manner often claimed. Of course, this makes a little bit of sense given that the Evangalicalism of the time was still somewhat nacent in both England and America, and that the emphasis conversion as an easily claimable experience was not to gain full flower for 25-75 years. Still, it seemed that the crowd would naturally assume from his remarks that the founders were just like them. Since there are really only 2 major parties in American Protestantism, the other founders must have been Mainliners? Yet, I'm not sure that this hope is borne out by the facts, as the liberalism that has come to dominate the Mainline was just as embryonic as Evangalicalism was at the time.
2. Probably the best moment came as Russell Kirk's wife, Annette Kirk asked Dr. Marty about the impact of the "five cities" of Western Civilization (Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Paris) on the civic life of America today. Dr. Marty thought for a minute and said that to really understand what was happening, you needed to add a sixth city, Geneva. He asserted that the Constution and our national understanding really owed more to Calvin mediated throught he Scottish Enlightenment than to any of these other places. As he was in Grand Rapids, he thought that it was appropriate to point this out. I'm not sure if anyone else caught the irony of Dr. Marty (a Lutheran) telling Annette Kirk (a Catholic) that she needed to look to Reformed Philosophy to understand American life today!
3. The best story: Dr. Marty hosted a large multi-year fundamentalisms study at U of Chicago. At the very end, they held a reception to honor the director of catering for her accomidation of the dietary requests of 20+ different sects. The woman said that while Dr. Marty and his collegues did their best to be impartial with regard to the different faiths, she had to play favorites. She said that of all the groups, she liked the Christians best. Why? Because they eat everything! Quite a good endorsement, and pertinent to my wife, who is working on a book on the theology of food.