Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2010-04-29

Church-state specialist Martin E. Marty drew on historical episodes and figures to clarify aspects of the topic for audiences at Samford University April 27-28.


His talks were presented as this year’s Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State, a series sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and hosted by Samford.

Being in favor of separation of church and state does not mean being against religion, said Dr. Marty, respected interpreter of religion and culture and author of 50 books, many of them on the topic.

“There are strong impulses in society to say that you serve religion by protecting and privileging it,” said Marty, but there is a difference in protection and privilege, which is defined as a right or immunity granted as a benefit.

“There are all kinds of ways to protect religion without privileging it,” he said.

Marty told how 18th century French philosopher Montesquieu--who wrote that religion is more harmed than helped by favoritism--influenced the writers of the U.S. constitution on matters of separation of church and state.

“Montesquieu never visited America, but they were reading him,” he said of the 55 founding fathers who gathered in Philadelphia, Pa., for the Constitutional Convention.

In his writings, George Washington used 28 different names for God, such as First Architect, but not one was Biblical, said Marty.  “They were looking for language that would enlarge the context.”

The founders, he said, solved the religion problem by not solving the religion problem.

During the three-part series, Marty also told how writings and beliefs of Benjamin Franklin and James Madison played roles in matters of religious liberty.

To some extent, the quality of indifference, such as that exhibited by Franklin, contributed to the lack of religious references in the constitution, he said.

Franklin was religious, but didn’t like the dogma associated with it. Nor did he like defining religions, and opposed zealotry and fanatics, said Marty, noting that zealousness and difference both play a large role in religion.

“Religion in the end almost always calls for profound, sustained passionate commitment,” said Marty, an ordained Lutheran minister who taught for 35 years at the University of Chicago, primarily in the divinity school.

A degree of indifference helped move along the framing of the constitution, which involved people who had convictions, but who had to made decisions and eventually go home.

Although Franklin once questioned why the framers did not have morning prayers to help them in their task, the idea was scuttled, in part because there were no funds for a chaplain.

Too, said Marty, the framers knew it would get them in trouble.  “They were passionate people, but they knew that introducing religion into the setting would get them in trouble.” The situation, he said, “was a close-up of how it would be in the republic.”

Madison, said Marty, predicted that it would be difficult to trace a line of separation between the rights of religion and civil authority without collisions and doubts.

Although little is known about his religious stand as an adult, Madison saw no need for a religious protection clause in the constitution, but later became a key figure in writing the first amendment.

It’s not easy to trace the line of distinction, said Marty, citing current court cases such as those involving military endorsement of chaplains and lobbying by Catholic bishops on healthcare reform.

“Madison anticipated that it would be impossible to trace a line of distinction in all cases,” said Marty. “A wall may be slender and have holes, but it’s a wall. Madison said that a line wasn’t something you could storm. And, you could see people on the other side.”

“Separation is important, and whenever we talk of convergence we must recognize potential problems,” said Marty, who said Madison advised defending rights of religion, but not privileging religion.

While at Samford, Marty also spoke to several student groups and classes.

The annual lectureship was established in 2004, when the Shurdens, of Macon, Ga., made a gift to enhance the programs of the Baptist Joint Committee. The lectures are held at Mercer University every three years and at another seminary, college or university in other years. The Shurdens both taught at Mercer for many years.

The BJC is a 73-year-old religious liberty organization dedicated to defending and extending religious liberty for all. 

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 66th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 104th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,683 students from 47 states and 19 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.