Four daily newspapers greet the Martys at breakfast. The morning after the school killings at Newtown, Conn., 24 pages of these informed us, while zillions of twitters and tweets and TV and radio programs also addressed the tragedy.
Readers don’t need Sightings to spot traces of religion-in-public-life this time because coverage of it comes in blinding flashes when certain issues come up. So, just three reflections:
First, God showed up most vividly in language of the competitor to televangelist Pat Robertson’s assessment that God smote a wayward people in the Sikh-temple murders so recently. This week’s competition was broadcast by Gov. (and GOP presidential candidate and ongoing TV host) Mike Huckabee.
He wins, hands down, the prize for his absurdist judgment that “Newtown” should have been no surprise. Why?
Because our nation had “systematically removed God” from public schools. Hence, the schools have become a “place of carnage.”
So a capricious but vengeful God took revenge on 20 Newtown pupils, representative sufferers for all.
Second, and much happier, is something picked up by those who watched the reporting on Newtown and other places where sympathetic citizens crowded Catholic and Protestant churches and synagogues, and took counsel from priests and pastors and rabbis and abundant lay counselors.
They had no embarrassment convoking God or the gods in quiet attempts to console the heart-sick.
From the first report and through the weekend worship in tens and tens of thousands of communities, no one had to apologize for employing the language of faith.
But a question: if the sanctuaries are needed and the pews are full at times of crisis and horror, who will keep sustaining them, thus making them available while more of the spiritual-but-not-religious believers abandon them?
Third, instantly there was talk of gun control and the appropriateness of theological critiques or affirmations of God and religion in the inevitable debate which is to follow.
Students of rhetoric, liturgy, piety and passion know the odds against anything new happening in a nation of 300-plus million citizens with their almost 300-million known-of guns.
Using an expansive but not inappropriate definition of “religion,” those critical of the gun cultures will note that on this front there are plenty of sightings of religion-in-public-life.
In the Torah, pointed to the Golden Calf and its kine kind, the people heard: “These be your gods, O Israel.”
Who or what “be” America’s gods?
Listen to anti-gun-culture voices and you will hear questions: Whom do politicians fear more: the pope or the National Rifle Association? Why do most political leaders muzzle themselves when invited to critique the NRA?
Answer: they know that a peep of criticism can mean the end of a political career. Saying the wrong thing about abortion or homosexuality does involve some risk, but saying the wrong thing about guns is sudden death.
If, as these critics note, religion involves “ultimate concern,” myth, symbol, rite, ceremony, sacrifice, metaphysical sanctions, behavioral consequences and more, they can ask: Who has the most secure place in the heart or on the tongue of the defenders of all guns of all types in all circumstances? Is it God?
Here the various religious clusters, be they Catholic, mainline, evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, etc. etc. are quite impotent.
Maybe in some future historical dispensation we will hear and see new perspectives on the role of guns in our culture. But not in this one, as will be evident when post-trauma, the arguments begin.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.