Idolatry, the American way?

By Martin E. Marty
June 26, 2008

Let Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege summarize Charles Marsh and his Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Cultural Captivity : "A professor of religion at the University of Virginia and a devout evangelical, Marsh believes that the politicization of Christianity in recent years—using the good names and moral commandments of the church to 'serve national ambitions, strengthen middle-class values, and justify war'—has been spiritually disastrous for evangelicals in the United States.

Conservative American Christians, he claims, have forgotten the difference between 'discipleship and partisanship.' They have 'seized the language of the faith and made it captive to our partisan agendas—and done so with contempt for Scripture, tradition, and the global, ecumenical church.' The result has been a oollapse into spiritual unseriousness, as Christians have 'recast' their faith 'according to our cultural preferences and baptized our prejudice, along with our will to power, in the shallow waters of civic piety."

Agreed. All (basically) true. So say significant numbers of evangelical pastors, theologians, professors, journalists, and activists. They have entered a new stage of criticism, or moved beyond criticism, as piles of recent books attest. So the interest in Marsh, who wants to "take stock of the whole colossal wreck of the evangelical witness and then try to rebuild a more authentic Christianity in its place," focuses on what he would do and how he would do it.

Linker, in a review titled "The Idolatry of America," admires much of Marsh's work and goes a long way with him, but then criticizes Marsh for his over-reaches. They are theological and political, and have to do with how theology relates to politics.

The New Republic, which published the review back on 23 April 2008, usually tends to the secular or Jewish world of books, so it is impressive to see it give four dense pages to genuine Christian theological debate, with big names featured. As Linker sees it, Marsh makes too much of two twentieth-century giants (pin-up boys in the Marty house), Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Barth, after a slow start, threw his weight behind the anti-Nazi clergy movements, criticized nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Protestant liberal theology for tailoring God to meet the political needs of the bourgeoisie—and so American evangelicals have done, summarizes Linker, taking "their theological cues not from the Bible or the Church Fathers but from Karl Rove and Michael Gerson."

Not so fast, or not so far, writes Linker: Barth overdid his critique of German liberalism, and Marsh overdoes his comparing and analogizing of American evangelical capitulations to those German pastors who supported Hitler. (I agree: too much.) As for Bonhoeffer, the dissenter whom the Nazis executed one month before the war ended, Linker sees him as a hero — he'd better! — but does think Marsh is too ambivalent when he sees comparisons between clergy in Germany and evangelicals here today.

"The implication is there," because — and this is Linker's main point — Marsh expects too much, is too lofty in his expectations, too unwilling to settle for the ambiguities and messiness of being a believer and a citizen in the kind of world we have. "We should be grateful to Marsh for reminding us of the nobility of the true believers."

But, Linker adds, the fixation on purity, with which evangelicals at large were charged, now is applied to too-pure Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Marsh. The people just named help us deal with this.


(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

**With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.**

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