Tracing the heat, light of American faith

Review Religion

September 30, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

Head and Heart: American Christianities

By Garry Wills

The Penguin Press / 552 pages/ $25.95

Religion in America, according to Garry Wills, has oscillated between "two tendencies, two temperaments." In the 18th century, Enlightenment religious culture embraced reason, benevolence, tolerance and pluralism. Its core value, the separation of church and state, was enshrined in the United States Constitution. Enlightenment religion was a radical departure from Evangelicalism, which emphasizes faith, biblical truth, and an experiential relationship to Christ. A religion of emotion, whose characteristic institution is the revival, evangelicalism has appealed to the masses throughout much of American history.

A prolific author and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Wills provides a sweeping examination in Head and Heart of these "two poles of religious attraction," from the Puritans to the presidency of George W. Bush. Acknowledging that tensions are inevitable, Wills adds - as so many before him have - that "an absolute or sterile division between them is stultifying." Without a productive balance, Enlightenment religion becomes "desiccated and cerebral, all light and no heat." And Evangelicalism becomes "mindlessly enthusiastic, all heat and no light." Fortunately, at pivotal moments in American history, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams and Martin Luther King Jr. "combined the best in both tendencies," drawing on Gospel love and a rational analysis of spiritual imperatives in culture, politics and society.

Wills does not always strike that balance himself. A partisan of the Enlightenment, he has a polemical agenda. His critique of Evangelical religion, past and present, is often timely and persuasive. But he seems less interested in understanding evangelicals - or giving them credit for the enlightened political positions they have taken - than in pillorying their "primitive," "polarizing absolutisms."

Drawing on an avalanche of scholarly work, Head and Heart demolishes the claim of the Radical Right that America was founded as a "Christian nation." The Founding Fathers, Wills reiterates, were "deists," not evangelicals. Their omission of God from the Constitution was deliberate. Quoting extensively from their public and private papers, Wills documents the Founders' zealous commitment to religious toleration. Although they "were not perfectly consistent on matters of church and state," Jefferson and Madison expressed grave doubts about establishments of religion in the states as well as the federal government, prayer day proclamations, government-appointed chaplains, and the exemption of churches from taxation. In 1824, Madison wrote that a connection between religion and civil government "is injurious to both."

Spot-on about "the Godless Constitution," Wills' survey of enlightened and evangelical religion in the 19th and 20th centuries is less satisfactory. He writes, at length, about Southern evangelicals' refusal to denounce slavery. He does not, however, give equal time to the role of Second Great Awakening revivalism on the abolitionist movement. Or analyze how abolitionists supplemented reason with their faith-based polarizing absolutisms. Similarly, he concludes that the civil rights movement was "an Enlightened project" because white Southern churches opposed it. But he does not adequately explain how black (and white Northern) evangelicals melded religious beliefs with active support of racial justice.

In assessing the faith-based politics of the Bush administration, Wills vents his spleen. He shows that Bush "talks Evangelical talk as no other president has" - and has based the nation's science and health policies on the doctrines of the Christian Right. Bush urges schools to provide instruction in "intelligent design" along with Darwinism on free speech grounds. "By that logic," Wills writes, flat-earthism ought to be taught as well. On global warming, embryonic stem cell research, the morning-after contraception pill, abortion, and the Terri Schiavo Law, "evangelicals call the tune for Bush." The National Park Service, Wills reveals, authorized sale of a book claiming the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah's Flood-and has not released a draft guide for park employees which contains the findings of geologists.

It's difficult to overestimate the influence of evangelicals on the Bush White House. But Wills may have done it. "Faith-based certitude," he asserts, drives foreign as well as domestic policy. As his smoking gun, he cites a talk delivered in several churches by Gen. William (Jerry) Boykin, an obscure deputy undersecretary for defense intelligence. Satan, Boykin insisted, not Saddam or Osama - was America's real enemy: "he wants to destroy us as a Christian nation." Although Bush indicated that Boykin did not represent his point of view, Wills sees great significance in the fact that the general was "not silenced, demoted, removed, or even criticized."

Evangelical extremists, Wills suggests, may have gone too far and alienated the moderate middle. He takes heart from the call for a new civility by former Sen. John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and an outspoken opponent of abortion. And from the comments of Rick Warren, evangelical pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, that religion is not the monopoly of one political party. "The way to a post-Rove world is open," Wills concludes. It's a hope rooted as much in faith as on reason.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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