Pseudo-Events Clash

More than a half century ago, historian Daniel J. Boorstin — a Ph.D. dissertation-adviser of mine — taught us to distinguish between events and pseudo-events. The latter, he noted, were staged to get media attention whether anything event-ful had happened or not.

On the border between events and pseudo-events are media reports on public opinion polls, reports that generate comment and no doubt have some influence on “event-events” like elections. Reports on polls concerning religious opinions often get sighted when we read or hear media accounts, and become topics in Sightings.

In recent weeks we’ve been over-battered by hard-news stories of religion, often in global contexts, so we’ll catch our breath and notice data from one of our many frequently-used sources, the Pew Research Center.

Reports on a survey in which 2,002 interviewed adults got to speak for a couple of hundred millions of us citizens, inspired somewhat confusing headlines: “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more” bannered David Lauter’s report (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 22) while “More Americans Support Mixing Religion and Politics” topped Tamara Audi’s summary and comment in the Wall Street Journal (also Sept. 22; see “Sources,” below).

Statistics in a short column can create a blur, so let’s simply focus on the report of an increase in the number of interviewees who welcomed more involvement by religious figures, including preachers (here code-named “church”), with controversial political issues (coded as “state”).

Both reporters background their story by noting that this increase occurs at a time when “institutional” participation in religion has weakened. Also easily extracted from their reports is a recognition that the cast of characters who want more preachers-preaching-on-politics has changed.

Readers with long memories will recall that in the fabled 1960s, it was religious leaders labeled “liberal” — e.g. on civil rights, the war on poverty, anti-war protests — who drew the most notice. Meanwhile, those called “conservative” were just beginning to rally for their causes — e.g., anti-legalized abortion, birth-control, homosexual rights, etc.

Back then, the “liberals” were accused of being too politically involved, while conservatives were pictured as soul-savers with more otherworldly interests. Never mind, or mind only momentarily, that these images were broad-brushed, and open to question and criticism.

Today, according to reports, those who want “more involvement” tend to make up the camp of those (mainly conservative white Protestants) who complain that their religious liberty is in jeopardy, thanks to moves by the “state” which, they say, impinge upon the rights of the “church.” November elections and at least two forthcoming Supreme Court cases will be “events” without “pseudo-” status. We’ll watch media coverage of these.

There are reasons for suspicion of polls, preachers, and commentators — including this one — but one reality stands out dramatically in this nation and in cultures often dubbed “secular.” Religion, however defined, observed, and exercised (or not) remains a vital feature of a world with which citizenries have to cope.

The national Founders, in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, drew some lines and set some broad ground rules on “church” and “state,” But they could not prevent citizens, singly or collectively, from kicking up vision-obscuring dust as they contend about issues of conscience, rights, and — we do well not to forget — power.


Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. “Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning: Growing Appetite for Religion in Politics.” September 22, 2014, Polling and Analysis.

Lauter, David. “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more.” Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2014, Nation/National Politics/Politics Now.

Audi, Tamara. “More Americans Support Mixing Religion and Politics, Pew Survey: Nearly Half of Americans Now Say Religious Leaders Should Express Views on Social, Political Issues.” Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2014, Politics and Policy.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

“I’m Spartacus!” — A Winning Strategy for the Churches

Most of us remember the Pepsi commercial showing a scene from the 1960 movie, “Spartacus.” One by one the slaves revolt, standing up and declaring “I’m Spartacus!” Kirk Douglas looks on with a tear in his eye, drinking his Pepsi in inspiration.

It worked for the rebels who stood up for Pepsi. I think it could work, as well, for the churches that say they want to welcome us wholeheartedly but don’t dare.

Whether the designation is called “Open and Affirming,” “Welcoming and Affirming,” “Reconciling in Christ” or whatever, only a brave few congregations in mainline denominations are coming out in full support of us. Many say they want to, yet timidly demur because they would face punishment from their denomination. How can this nonsense be ended?

I think we can, indeed, take a lesson from the friends of Spartacus. What if all the churches that really want to support full LGBT inclusion got together and stood as one? There’s no way a denomination would dare to persecute them if they took it on this way. They couldn’t discipline that many congregations at once without revealing themselves to be the bullies and tyrants they are.
We should, by all means, suggest this. We could call it the “I’m Spartacus” movement. There is strength and courage in numbers, and if all our allies stood together, they would be invincible.

“We welcome them!” one congregation would say. “So do we,” another would proudly second. “Us, too!” a third would chime right in. Before any steps could be taken to squash the declaration, all the true hearts of our allies would be revealed.

Why did it take a “mad man” (or woman) in New York City to think up such a bold idea? It’s been right under the churches’ noses all along.

“I’m Spartacus!” Think about it. In our community around this world, we have already discovered what unity and solidarity can do.

Setback for Presby Gay Clergy

Gay clergy in the Presbyterian Church will have to wait for yet another round of voting before they’ll be approved for ordination. A presbytery vote on removing the prohibition against gay clergy has failed – but by a closer margin than the last time a vote was held.

“The big story here is that many traditionally conservative areas of the country voted to accept gay clergy and lay officers in the church,” Tricia Dykers Koenig, national organizer for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said in the Dallas Morning News. “Our image of what it means to be created in the image of God is broadening.”

It’s only a matter of time before gays and lesbians will grace the pulpits of Presbyterian churches. The tide is turning!