Martin Marty

The Religious Life of the Public / the Public Life of the Religious
Thursday, February 21, 2008

There were truths eternal in the gab and tittle-tattle.
There were real heads broken in the fustian and the rattle.
There were real lines drawn:
Not the silver and the gold,
But Nebraska's cry went eastward against the dour and old,
The mean and cold.

--Vachel Lindsay, “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan”

Martin Marty is a phenomenon (a word well chosen by his friend Bill Moyers to describe this formidable historian, professor, pastor, editor, and author of more than 50 books)—intellectually, physiologically, and metaphysically. Nearing the completion of his eighth decade, Dr. Marty still rises before dawn each day to read four newspapers and the Moravian Texts, to walk 10,000 steps (he measures), and to repair to his studio to write—all before fortifying himself for the rest of the day’s work with a post-lunch seven minute nap.

Born in West Point, Nebraska, where he received his elementary education in a two-room schoolhouse, Marty was ordained into the Lutheran ministry in 1952 and served as a pastor in that faith for more than a decade before beginning a 35-year residency on the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he held the position of Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor. Distinguished it was—and continues to be: Marty’s contributions to academic and public understanding of religion in American life have been recognized by the bestowal of some 60 honorary degrees, the National Humanities Medal, and the Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In one of his most influential books, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (1977), for which he won the National Book Award, Marty divides his history into two distinct periods, beginning with what he calls the Evangelical Empire of 1776-1877, and transitioning into “the Protestant Experience.” Through the latter period he traces the nation’s theological evolution by examining such factors as how the removal of indigenous peoples, the appropriation of land in westward expansion, the post-Civil War rise of denominationalism, and the influence of the urban-immigrant environment led to the ascendancy of religious pluralism.

One of many endearing aspects of Marty’s writing and teaching is his willingness to do it in response to others’ request—to be “at the disposal of the need of the moment.” Accordingly, it is singularly appropriate—and gratifying to the evening’s honoree—that Dr. Marty delivers his talk as this year’s Ricardo J. Quinones Distinguished Lecturer. Established in honor of the founding director of the Family of Benjamin Z. Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, the Quinones Lectureship brings to the CMC campus some of the world’s preeminent intellectuals, writers, and public figures. Tonight Dr. Marty’s diponibilité lands him in the distinguished company of previous Quinones Lecturers Shelby Steele, James Q. Wilson, Harvey Klehr, and Paul Barolsky.