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The Right-Wing Christians

1.

Some people think the following two propositions cannot both be true: (1) The founders of the United States believed that churches should be protected and encouraged. (2) The founders of the United States believed that government should not assist or support churches.

In fact, there is nothing contradictory about these statements. As Garry Wills puts it in his new book, Head and Heart: American Christianities, the founders were as much “interested in keeping religion free from corruption by the state” as in keeping “the state free from corruption by religion.” They kept a distance between church and state because they thought separation would be better for both.1

But what, exactly, does separation mean? Does it mean that a figure of baby Jesus cannot be placed on public property next to Santa Claus? Does it mean that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed in a courthouse? Or that parochial schools should not enjoy tax exemptions? Or that government funds should be withheld from universities or hospitals affiliated with one or another religious denomination?

The authors of the Bill of Rights, which in the First Amendment forbids Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” did not answer such questions. In fact, they could not imagine them. Until the mid-nineteenth century there were no Catholic schools in the United States. Christmas was not yet a consumer holiday with rituals and symbols of its own, and, since virtually all colleges began in some measure as sectarian institutions, the distinction between public and private was barely expressed. Late in his life, James Madison, the most forceful opponent of religious establishment among the founders, remarked that

it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation, between the rights of Religion & the Civil authority, with such distinctness, as to avoid collisions & doubts on unessential points.

And so the fine distinctions have been left to the courts, where lawyers and judges have kept busy for centuries arguing church–state cases—from the question of whether the post office should move the mails on Sunday to the issue of whether children may pray in the schools.

In the early years of the republic, Europeans watched the American experiment in church–state separation with amazement. As early as 1781, the French émigré Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur remarked that in the Old World, sectarian “zeal…is confined” till it explodes like “a grain of powder inclosed,” while in the New World it “burns away in the open air and consumes without effect.” Fifty years later, his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Christianity maintains more actual power over souls in America than anywhere else”—a “peaceful ascendancy” of which he approved, and which he attributed to the “complete separation of church and state.” In short, religion flourished in America because, by and large, government left it alone.

2.

Garry Wills thinks this American tradition of benign neglect is under threat, and so he has written a book to defend it. He sees the threat coming from evangelical zealots who believe that the history I have just sketched is a lie. Such people—“Christian people,” as the televangelist Pat Robertson calls them—believe that the true history of the United States has been stolen and needs to be restored to our textbooks and schools. They believe (or, at least, they claim to believe) that Congress, courts, and schools have been taken over by infidels and turned to such infernal purposes as legalizing abortion and teaching evolution. Therefore, Robertson says, “Christian people” must win “back control of the institutions that have been taken from them.” As the best-selling evangelical novelist Tim LaHaye puts it, our “history was deliberately raped by left-wing scholars for hire.”2 Presumably it was Satan, in the guise of an academic department chair, who did the hiring.

As a member of the devil’s party, Wills is not likely to have much effect on those who belong, by their own estimation, to the party of God—except, perhaps, to confirm their convictions. For one thing, it is relatively easy for members of the Christian right such as Robertson and LaHaye to pluck quotations from the founders that seem to back up their alternate “Christian” history. For example, they can point out that John Adams included

a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service.

They can quote the iconoclastic Ben Franklin asserting “the Excellency of the Christian Religion above all others ancient and modern.” And they especially like to cite George Washington, who frequently thanked God for watching over the revolution and blessing the republic.

Never mind that Washington listed “liberty of conscience” among the precious “immunities of citizenship.” Or that he rarely spoke of sin or Christ, and described God with terms like “Grand Architect” of the universe and “supreme Dispenser of every Good”—the clockmaker God of deism, a very different deity from the alternately wrathful and merciful God of gospel Christianity. Thomas Jefferson, even less orthodox, predicted

the day…when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

So Wills is certainly right that the founders were far from being evangelical Christians, and that the preponderance of what they wrote puts them on the side of pluralism and tolerance. They believed in a Creator, but did not think of him as a personal God urgently concerned with individual salvation. They said little about hell and damnation. They had no interest in apocalyptic prophecies about the imminence of the “end times.” They tended to be more philo-Semitic than anti-Semitic, and even tolerated atheists, as when John Adams credited the Jews with having done “more to enlighten and civilize the world” than the Greeks, and insisted that “government has no Right to hurt a hair of the head of an Atheist for his Opinions.”3

But none of this is likely to matter to the “Christian people” against whom Wills is writing—which gives his book the odd feel of being partly an attempt at persuasion and partly a polemic against the unpersuadable. And because he is as convinced in his views as his opponents are in theirs, the effect is to ratify rather than challenge their view of America as two nations with a history of mutual estrangement.

As always, Wills builds his arguments on a foundation of astonishingly wide and deep learning. Many of his books, characterized by an unusual combination of nuance and narrative momentum, have been studies of individual figures—from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Lincoln, and, most recently, the historian Henry Adams. This time he has filled his book with scores of thinkers, preachers, and reformers—from the early Puritans to Quaker abolitionists, to present-day “dispensationalists” who view the Bible as a literal account of history. The result is a book that is both an informative tour of American Christianity (mainly Protestantism) and a tour de force of intellectual history.

But the version of American religious history one encounters in this book—a dialectic of “head” vs. “heart”—has been told before, by such historians as Sidney Mead (whom Wills cites) and Joseph Haroutunian (whom he does not cite).4 In retelling the story as a welcome victory by “head” over “heart,” Wills is squarely in the mainstream historiographical tradition, which tends to tell the story as the rise of reason at the expense of “heart” religion.

His most eminent predecessor in telling American religious history as a contest between head and heart was the great intellectual historian Perry Miller, whose two volumes The New England Mind (1939–1953) gave a subtle account of creeping rationalism taking over from what Miller called the early Puritans’ “Augustinian strain of piety.” Miller was distinguished not only by his erudition and brilliance but by the fact that his sympathies were with the losers. Wills is also erudite and brilliant, but he prefers the winners. Miller was a self-professed non-believer, but he lamented the transition from the idea of grace as a miracle conferred on man by an immanent and mysterious God to the idea of virtue cultivated by man at a distance from a remote and detached God. Miller admired the gathered churches of early New England as efforts to realize a holy community. He interpreted the nineteenth-century Transcendentalist and Romantic movements in America as revivals of the pietistic religion that had been lost to the Enlightenment.

Wills, by contrast, is a believer who writes of America having been “delivered…from the horrors of pre-Enlightenment religion.”5 He condemns Miller’s intellectual hero, the latter-day Puritan Jonathan Edwards, for being more disturbed by the lascivious behavior of local boys who got their hands on an anatomy book than by the outrage of slavery. He accuses the historian Richard Carwardine of “cherrypicking” his sources in order to demonstrate Abraham Lincoln’s affinities with the evangelicals of his own time. He describes the Gilded Age revivalist Dwight Moody as a “show-biz” forerunner of today’s mega-church ministers, who gave up his early social activism in favor of an unholy alliance with robber barons. If Miller could be sentimental about the old heart religion, Wills’s view of it is colored by his disgust at the vulgar evangelicalism of our own time—so much so that he sometimes undercuts himself with his own indignation.

Wills’s readers have come to expect a combination of analytic power and passionate advocacy—both of which this book amply delivers. But sometimes the result can be a certain starkness in the portraiture. It is true, for instance, that Jonathan Edwards was not an outright abolitionist (there were very few in his time), but he did oppose the Atlantic slave trade long before it was prohibited in 1808 (when Edwards had been dead for fifty years), arguing that although in the days of the ancient Israelites, God may have “winked” at slave-trafficking, he does not “wink at such things now.”6 Edwards’s own son, and his disciple Samuel Hopkins, were both inspired by his late-life treatise The Nature of True Virtue, and became leading clerical voices in the antislavery movement—long before some of the enlightened ministers such as Henry Ward Beecher and Phillips Brooks, whom Wills admires.

As for Lincoln, there is a case to be made, as Carwardine has capably done, that he had a lifelong affinity for a kind of Calvinist determinism (“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”), which may, in fact, have owed something to his childhood experience of hearing “hard-shell” Baptists preaching a doctrine of predestination. And although Moody was doubtless some of the unsavory things Wills says he was, the schools he founded near his home in Northfield, Massachusetts, have evolved (as the Northfield–Mount Hermon School) into an impressive institution with a commitment to racial tolerance and civic engagement that owes much to Moody’s influence.

Head and Heart sometimes gives the impression that everything admirable in American history is the fruit of the Enlightenment, and everything coarse and stupid is the legacy of evangelical Christianity. Of course, as Wills well knows, evangelicals played a large role not only in the antebellum abolitionist movement and in later reform movements aimed at ameliorating the brutal conditions in which industrial workers and their families were forced to live. Evangelicals have taken part in social reform from the Great Awakening to the civil rights era—and while Wills does not leave them out of the progressive story, he relegates them to a minor role. The result is a book that feels animated, at least in part, by anger, and when we arrive at the final section, entitled “The Karl Rove Era,” the source of the anger is revealed.

3.

One can hardly blame him. The cynicism, arrogance, and hypocrisy of recent Republican strategists—along with what Wills once called their “holy opportunism”—are hard to overstate.7 The authors of several recent books have stated it about right—among them Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), who wrote that many evangelicals “may talk Christ, but they walk corporate,” or Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, in The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (1996), who anticipated Wills in making a careful case for the founders’ commitment to “godless politics.” Perhaps the most alarmist of these books is Chris Hedges’s American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2006), which is so convinced that we face a neofascist conspiracy in the guise of Christian pietism that, in homage to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), it could just as well have been entitled It Is Happening Here.

All these books, including some portions of Wills’s, feel a little dated. He notes the fall of Rove (whose full name, deliciously enough, is Karl Christian Rove), who resigned last August from his position as the President’s deputy chief of staff while under investigation for possible illegalities, including in the Valerie Plame case. But the book’s final chapter, entitled “Life After Rove,” has the feel of a late interpolation. The Rovean idea of “faith-based government” was, Wills says, always a “house of cards” due for collapse. It had been saved by a number of lucky breaks (no doubt true believers would call them providential)—such as the cluster of retirements from the Supreme Court that encouraged the Republican base to turn out for a presidential candidate who promised a conservative majority on the Court, and by the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader, who may have delivered Florida to George W. Bush in the election of 2000.

With Rove now gone, political candidates (not only Republicans) still feel obliged to talk lots of “God talk”—something that amazes Europeans today as much as the peaceable diversity of American religion amazed them in the nineteenth century. And it remains the case, as the Huckabee surge has shown, that in some parts of the country political candidates (especially Republicans) must watch their right flank for fear that their Christian credentials will be questioned. Perhaps nothing says as much about the evolution of American presidential politics over the past half-century as the fact that when Michigan Governor George Romney ran for the Republican nomination in 1968, no one seemed to care that he was a Mormon. The key issue was his notorious remark, upon returning from a military briefing in Vietnam, that he had been “brainwashed.” Some forty years later, before he suspended his campaign, his son, Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, was dogged by the question of whether a Mormon is really a genuine Christian.

Yet surely something fundamental has changed since the evangelical heyday of the 1980s and 1990s. There have been revelations of infidelity, homosexual behavior, and illegal drug use by ministers and politicians who made their careers by touting “Christian values.” After the election of 2006, when the Rove machine failed to deliver on its promise of a “permanent Republican majority” and Democrats regained control of Congress, we have witnessed such improbable sights as Pat Robertson endorsing Rudy Giuliani for the Republican nomination, Rick Warren, minister of America’s most mega megachurch, hosting Hillary Clinton at his third annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church, and rising concern among evangelicals about the fate of the environment, including global warming. In short, what might be called the hard Christian right overplayed its hand, and there is evidence that at least some evangelicals are now in a mood of reflection, if not retreat.8

Wills’s book implies a cyclical theory of history that suggests an explanation for what is happening. In an interesting passage near the end of his book, he remarks that the three great surges of evangelical influence in American history—the Second Great Awakening early in the nineteenth century, the ascendancy of fundamentalism early in the twentieth century, and the rise of the Christian right in our own time—have all been brief, indeed, each one briefer than the last. In each case, a burst of religious hubris was followed by repudiation by the broader culture. In the case of the Second Great Awakening, the correction took the form of schism in the churches over the issue of slavery; in the early twentieth century, it was provoked by the folly of Prohibition and the embarrassment of the Scopes trial.

In our own era, the chastening of the Christian right has followed upon a number of excesses, perhaps represented most clearly by the attempt of certain Republican strategists, led by Tom DeLay (another former high-flyer who has fallen from grace), to exploit the case of Terry Schiavo in order to press their “pro-life” agenda. It turns out that Americans—conservatives as well as liberals—are uneasy about government meddling in intimate matters of private life, which is why there seems to be an emerging consensus that government should keep its finger off the hottest of the hot evangelical issues, abortion.

There is an analogy between Wills’s cyclical theory of religion and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s well-known view of American politics, put forward in The Cycles of American History (1986), as a series of pendulum swings from right to left, and left to right, with longer resting periods in the middle. In an earlier book written at the outset of the cold war, Schlesinger had called this American comfort zone The Vital Center (1949), by which—at a time when many intellectuals still believed in the promise of the Soviet Union—he meant a via media between unchecked capitalism and brutally enforced state socialism.

Among Schlesinger’s heroes was the neo-Calvinist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Wills treats (briefly) as a thinker who, though he “spoke for Enlightened religion, humane and rational,” made his “real mark by reviving one of the doctrines—original sin—that had been repudiated by the Enlightenment.” Wills takes the idea of sin seriously, and recognizes the problem for liberal Christianity when it jettisons the idea of the fall while trying to retain the idea of a redeemer. This is one of the few places in Head and Heart where Wills acknowledges not only that evangelicals are capable of overreaching, but that Enlightenment rationalists, too, have overreached—and may sometimes need a correction of their own.

At one point, he quotes a famous remark by Niebuhr’s brother, the historian H. Richard Niebuhr, who characterized liberal Protestantism as religion reduced to telling how “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” This is the very antithesis of evangelicalism; liberal Protestantism is a religion whose appeal is cerebral rather than emotional, and that does not satisfy people who hunger for transcendence. Some form of heart religion is more likely to meet those needs.

And so it has done for many Americans—yet with a remarkably small incidence of religious hatred or violence compared to what has been wrought by fundamentalist zealots in other parts of the world. To be sure, there have been outbreaks of anti-Catholic violence, persecution of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnessess and other “heretical” sects, and the usual periodic flare-up of anti-Semitism. There have been bombings of abortion clinics and acts of terrorism perpetrated by pseudo-religious groups. But on the whole, American history is notable for the absence of pogroms and religious wars. Perhaps this is because Americans deflect their worst impulses into racial hatred or xenophobia—but, all things considered, the experiment in religious liberty started by the founders has worked remarkably well, and evangelical Christians have been both beneficiaries and benefactors of it.

Garry Wills has written a powerful account of this American experiment—part celebration, part polemic against those who would deny or subvert it. The best parts of his book, such as the excellent pages on Puritanism, of which he writes that “it was formed to defend a pre-Enlightenment religion, but would forge tools later useful to the Enlightenment,” are those where he shows how “the intellectual and the experiential forms of religion tug against each other” while working in tandem.

It may be that America has been at its best when the two sides—what Wills calls the “two force fields” of head and heart—come into synthesis, as they did during the struggle against slavery, when evangelicals and liberal Unitarians joined forces, or during World War II, when a resolute secularist like Lewis Mumford decried his fellow liberals (in April 1940) for failing to understand that there are “modes of insight into man and into the cosmos which science does not possess,” and which “the liberal did not suspect.”9 Perhaps one may hope that such a synthesis is once again forming today, and that the latest episode of culture war between the party of belief and the party of reason—both of whom could use some Christian humility—is coming to a close.

Letters

In The Name of the Father May 29, 2008

  1. 1

    The Pennsylvania lawyer and delegate to the Constitutional Convention John Dickinson explained in 1768 that the mingling of religion with politics works against civic peace, having led throughout history to “feuds, animosities, and persecutions” that “have deluged the World in Blood.” According to James Madison (“Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” 1785), religious establishments work with equal force against the interests of religion by fostering “pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity.” These and other statements of the founders on religion are conveniently gathered in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton University Press, 2005.) Hutson’s useful book is intended as a response to the various “quote books” published by evangelical presses, which offer selections of strongly pro-Christian remarks by some of the founding fathers. Examples include Stephen Abbott Northrop, A Cloud of Witnesses (American Heritage Ministries, 1987) and Steve C. Dawson, God’s Providence in American History (Rancho Cordova, California: privately printed, 1988).

  2. 2

    Quoted in Hutson, The Founders on Religion, p. xvii. James Kennedy, founder of the “Evangelical Explosion” movement, puts it this way: the idea of America as a nation committed to secular values is a “great deception…used to destroy much of the religious freedom and liberty this country has enjoyed since its inception.” Quoted in Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2006), p. 70.

  3. 3

    In one respect, the founding fathers and some of today’s evangelicals are in agreement. The reason Adams favored the restoration of the Jews as “an independent nation” in “Judea” was to hasten the day when they would lose “the asperities and peculiarities of their character” and become “liberal unitarian Christians.” In other words, the best thing about the Jews was that, in time, they would cease being Jews. In this and other respects, the founders’ tolerance had limits: for example, they had no use for Catholics, since they were certain, as John Adams put it, that “Liberty and Popery cannot live together.” See Hutson, The Founders on Religion, pp. 20, 41, 126, 127.

  4. 4

    Mead’s major work is The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (Harper and Row, 1963). Haroutunian’s is Piety versus Moralism: The Passing of the New England Theology (Henry Holt, 1932).

  5. 5

    The only time when I have seriously disbelieved in the existence of God,” Wills has written, was in his first year of study in a Jesuit novitiate. See Why I Am a Catholic (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), p. 31.

  6. 6

    See Kenneth P. Minkema and Harry S. Stout, “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740– 1865,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 92, No. 1 (June 2005).

  7. 7

    In an essay, “Coffee-Cup Apocalypse,” reprinted in Wills’s collection Under God: Religion and American Politics (Simon and Schuster, 1990).

  8. 8

    See Frances FitzGerald’s article in these pages, “The Evangelical Surprise,” The New York Review, April 26, 2007.

  9. 9

    Mumford, “The Corruption of Liberalism,” The New Republic, April 29, 1940.

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