The faith in the political
The social historian and essayist Garry Wills is one of our most lucid public intellectuals, and no one working today writes more clearly or with greater authority on the intersection of religion and public life.
“Head and Heart: American Christianities” is a major contribution to the national debate over separation of church and state and ought to be read by anyone perplexed by the current interplay of religion and politics.
If you’ve wondered whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was right when he said recently that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” whether other Republican presidential candidates’ views on evolution are electorally relevant, what effect Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Methodism has on her social views or whether a candidate’s stand on abortion must determine your vote, then this is your book.
Wills’ argument is that American history has been marked by an oscillation between Enlightenment and Evangelism -- between head and heart. He contends that the fruitful tension between these two poles contributed directly to the U.S. Constitution’s single wholly original contribution to the political tradition: “disestablishment of the official creed and separation of church and state.” It is precisely this innovative separation, Wills contends, that has allowed religion to flourish in America as it does nowhere else in the developed world. It’s also why he finds the hostility toward separation evinced by George W. Bush and the religious right so alarming.
Beginning with the Puritans, whose views and turbulence he outlines with great clarity -- and at great length -- Wills moves through the Great Awakening of the early 18th century and the Enlightenment backlash that followed it. Speaking indirectly to the assertion of McCain and others about the Constitution’s purportedly Christian origins, Wills points out that at the time of the founding, historians estimate that only about 17% of Americans professed formal religious adherence, a historic low point. The framers were deists, who believed in a divine providence knowable only through reason and experience and not prone to intervene in the affairs of men.
The reaction of the Great Awakening provided an American Unitarian boost that made Deism the religion of the educated class by the middle of the 18th century. Legal scholar William Lee Miller writes that the chief founders of the nation were all Deists -- he lists Washington, Franklin, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Paine, though many more leaders of the founding era could be added (Benjamin Rush, John Witherspoon, David Rittenhouse, Philip Freneau, Joel Barlow, Aaron Burr, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, Tench Coxe, to name some). Their agreement on the question of God crossed political and geographic lines. Federalist and Republican, North and South, an Adams and a Jefferson, a Hamilton and a Madison -- all were professed Deists.
Wills agrees with Perry Miller’s contention that the founders were of a “liberality of spirit which must forever and properly remain a scandal to the rank and file of professing American Christians.”
He points out that "[b]elievers in America as a Christian nation do not much like Jefferson the Deist. But they like his Declaration of Independence because of its reference to ‘the laws of nature and of nature’s God.’ Though this was not a legislative document, it is more useful to them than the supreme legislative document of the United States, the Constitution, which . . . does not mention God at all.”
Even in his own time, “Jefferson attracted lightning,” Wills writes. “That is why he is the person most talked about in the area of religious freedom. . . . Physically, Jefferson towered over the minute Madison by almost a foot. Symbolically, his stature is even greater. But this deflection of primary attention to Jefferson has given an advantage to those who oppose or minimize the separation of church and state, since Madison is the best defender of that constitutional innovation -- more consistent than Jefferson, more radical and more influential. Jefferson revered the First Amendment. Madison wrote it.”
As president, Madison, like Jefferson, declined to proclaim days of prayer or fasting, was skeptical of military chaplaincies and even opposed allowing churches to incorporate themselves, reasoning that the grant of corporate status, with its protections and written bylaws, violated the separation principle.
Wills moves chronically through U.S. history, outlining the ebb and flow of enlightenment and evangelism through the decades and centuries, pausing throughout to provide thumbnail sketches of the significant personalities involved.
Eventually he comes to the Bush administration: “The right wing in American likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and -- and more to the point -- highly biblical.” This was not true of that or any later government -- until 2000. Wills is particularly shrewd in delineating Karl Rove’s part in bringing this about: While crediting the former White House advisor’s mastery of electoral technologies, Wills argues that “his real skill lay in finding how to use religion as a political tool . . . . He shaped the hard core of the Republican Party around resentments religious people felt over abortion, homosexuality, Darwinism, women’s liberation, pornography and school prayer . . . . Rove made the executive branch of the United States more openly and avowedly religious than it had ever been, though he had no discernible religious belief himself. His own indifference allowed him to be ecumenical in his appeal to Protestants, Catholics and Jews.”
The Protestant wing of this coalition, Wills writes, was predisposed toward Bush, but Catholics were the big electoral prize. Pollsters have noted that Catholics who regularly assist at Mass are more socially conservative and open to GOP candidates. Moreover, Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the influential journal First Things and a convert from Lutheranism’s evangelical wing, was a fixture in the Bush White House.
As Wills points out, Rove made abortion the “linchpin” of his strategy to bring Catholics and evangelicals -- antagonists historically -- into accord within the Bush coalition. Other conservatives were quick to see abortion as common ground. William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote, “The truth is that abortion is today the bloody crossroads of American politics. It is where judicial liberation (from the Constitution), sexual liberation (from traditional mores), and women’s liberation (from natural distinctions) come together. It is the focal point for liberalism’s simultaneous assault on self-government, morals and nature.”
Wills observes that what “made abortion so useful to Rove is the fact that it is the ultimate ‘wedge issue,’ because it is nonnegotiable” -- a position dictated by the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
“Fair enough. But is abortion murder? Most people think not,” Wills writes. What follows on that is perhaps the most lucid and relevantly learned concise discussion of abortion as a moral/theological question as you’re likely to read anywhere. Once again, Wills’ deep mastery of the primary sources and his respect for them as a believer himself lend his argument a compelling authority. He points out that Catholic opposition to abortion is a recent development.
“Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments -- or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount -- or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils.” For that reason, Augustine, whose knowledge of both Jewish and Christian scriptures was encyclopedic, wrote, “I have not been able to discover in the accepted books of Scripture anything at all certain about the origin of the soul.”
Similarly, Thomas Aquinas, “lacking scriptural guidance,” relied upon Aristotle’s natural philosophy. “So he denied that personhood arose at fertilization by the semen. God directly infuses the soul at the completion of human formation,” Wills writes.
“Much of the debate over abortion is based on a misconception, that this is a religious issue, that the pro-life advocates are acting out of religious conviction. It is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for either defending or condemning abortion. Even the popes have said that it is a matter of natural law, to be decided by natural reason. Well the pope is not the arbiter of natural law. Natural reason is.”
Part of what lends “Head and Heart” its particular force and authority is that Wills’ own encyclopedic knowledge of the separation question, of the history of religion in this country and of religious believers’ theological convictions is complemented by profound reflection and a deep affection for both the American tradition and religious belief. The noun “affection” is consciously chosen because one suspects that part of the reason Wills recognizes our historical tension between head and heart so readily -- and finds it so fruitful -- is that he has rehearsed it in his inner life. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the author’s distaste for the current state of affairs not withstanding, his conclusion is optimistic.