In God We Trust

Under God: Religion and American Politics

by Garry Wills
Simon and Schuster, 445 pp., $24.95

Garry Wills is at pains at the outset of his book to demonstrate the persistence, not to say dominance, of religiosity in contemporary American life, “a marvel of religiosity, for good or ill.” He is quite aware that this view places him at odds with opinion widely prevailing among his peers in and out of the academy. He frames his provocative challenge in the opening sentence of his introduction: “The learned have their superstitions, prominent among them a belief that superstition is evaporating.” And in a later aside: “No ignorance is more securely lodged than the ignorance of the learned.”

The “secularization” of American life alleged by the learned is said to result from the spread of urbanization, social mobility, education, technology, and scientific knowledge. With the irresistible advance of these forces, especially the secular explanations of the universe by science, religion is expected to wither away completely. In the face of impressive evidence to the contrary, however, one is reminded of the outcome of Marxist predictions about the withering away of the state with the advance of socialism. The evidence is that American religious beliefs, including orthodoxy and fundamentalism, with deep roots in the past, have remained remarkably stable through the last half century.

Wills uses available survey data of pollsters and specialists in the sociology of religion on this point. They show, among other things, that nine tenths of Americans say they have never doubted the existence of God, four fifths expect to be called before God on Judgment Day, eight in ten believe God still works miracles, seven in ten believe in life after death, half of them believe in angels, and more than a third in a personal devil. As compared with other nations, 40 percent of Americans attend church weekly and only 14 percent of English and 12 percent of French people. Among all nations surveyed, only the people of tiny Malta outdo Americans in the high rating they give to the importance of God in their lives.

All of which is calculated to make secularists appear rather foolish for overlooking such appreciable percentages of our fellow citizens in our scholarly reckonings. At the expense of two historians, out of the many he might have chosen, Wills rubs the point in. He quotes Henry Steele Commager’s The American Mind as arguing that since the American mind is pragmatic, optimistic, and secular, and since religion represents a “flight from reason,” it is impossible that Americans can really believe in the outworn creeds they profess: “For three hundred years,” Commager wrote, “Calvinism had taught the depravity of man without any perceptible effect on the cheerfulness, kindliness, or optimism of Americans.” For Commager, “no American could believe that he was damned,” and all true Americans “preferred this life to the next.” The church was “something to be ‘supported,’ like some aged relative whose claim was vague but inescapable.”

Wills is even harder on Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Ignoring his declaration that “I hold religion in high …

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Letters

Religion and American Historians May 16, 1991