Garry Wills
Garry Wills; drawing by David Levine

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.1 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 regard,” Wills quotes him as saying that “the American mind is by nature and tradition skeptical, irreverent, pluralistic and relativistic,” and that it abhors all absolutes. This makes Schlesinger “an American historian for whom much of American history simply does not exist,” according to Wills.

Given the nature of his subject, it was only natural for Wills to emphasize the presidential election of 1988 and to draw many of his illustrations from it. In the first place it was so thoroughly saturated with religious issues, conflicts, personalities, fanatics, candidates, scandals, and demagogues. Then, too, that it had just taken place serves his purpose of proving the persistence of religion in politics. And thirdly, he had covered the election as a full-time journalist, and knew it thoroughly. He turns also to other events and periods of American history for valuable evidence: to the Puritans, to Jefferson and Madison, to slavery, to Lincoln, to the Scopes trial, to the Civil Rights movement. But because of the prominence given to 1988, some of his critics have wrongly assumed that election to be his real subject and unfairly accused him of wandering randomly to other matters and losing his way.2

As Wills observes, “Preachers and politicians were stumbling over each other in the 1988 campaign.” Among the several televangelists involved, Jim Bakker, whose support George Bush earnestly sought, got caught in a sex scandal. Jimmy Swaggart, with alleged political aspirations of his own, added some kinky variations to his sex scandal, to which he very tearfully confessed on the TV screen. Gary Hart, not a preacher but a one-time Yale theology student, vigorously denied his philandering until forced to confess. He also tried to hide his strict religious training as a Pentecostal Nazarene and manipulated his identity in other respects, including his name and age. Sinning could be forgiven by sinners, as witness Bakker and Swaggart, but believers could not forgive the denial of belief by a one-time believer.


Pat Robertson, son of a US senator from Virginia, made his political career by exploiting rather than denying his Pentacostal ministry. After lurching from one false start and embarrassing failure to another for several years and winding up an ordained minister, he gained a footing in TV evangelism with his own network and eventually a huge following of willing donors and devout believers. A timely miracle, in which he orchestrated a television prayer that diverted Hurricane Gloria from the heads of the righteous, enhanced his reputation enormously. In the Iowa primary of the 1988 race he stunned Republican professionals by coming in ahead of George Bush, and for a time made the Robertson campaign “look like a miracle of holy opportunism.” From that point on to the end, Wills says, miracles turned against him. Lee Atwater arranged Bush’s wooing of rival southern religious leaders and miracle workers who orchestrated the wholesale rejection of Robertson by his own South. And that was the end of Pat.

Jesse Jackson, another ordained minister from the South, was the left-most candidate in the race as Robertson was the most right-wing. Both stressed issues of school, family, drugs, and crime and quoted in support of their views the same scriptural passages. But while Pat tended to play his piety down, Jesse played his up—and that greatly to the advantage of his cause. Ironically, however, both the nominal extremists moved toward the center and to moderation during their campaigns, both of them seeking to prove their core constituents to be legitimate members of the body politic and convince their constituents that they could gain their ends by the political process. Robertson emphasized his nonreligious credentials as businessman and blunted the otherworldly edge of his fundamentalist rhetoric by overtures to the secularism he regularly deplored. Jackson worked hard among the black gangs and crime addicts to pull them into the political process and matched Robertson’s cautious diplomacy on race. Both extremes thus implicitly endorsed the system and helped give legitimacy to authority.

With a characteristic flourish of the oxymoron (e.g., “the ignorance of the learned”) Wills says that “the real extremism of the 1988 campaign was voiced at the winning center of the political spectrum.” While it is hard to picture the winner as centrist on any right-wing issues, it is obvious that neither Jackson on the left nor Robertson on the right would have dared give voice to the racial, religious, and nationalist extremism that George Bush used so freely and shamelessly in his campaign. He served up the standard clichés both in unadorned simplicity and in artful but unsubtle mixtures. An example of the latter was his use of the Pledge of Allegiance at the Republican nominating convention. The key phrase in that document, “Under God,” is used as title for Wills’s book. (Incidentally, he tells us, the phrase was not added to the pledge until the Eisenhower administration.) Bush’s use of the delegates as a congregation to repeat the pledge in unison, along with other evangelical rites, bears out the analogy of a nominating convention with an evangelical camp meeting. Bush was not “born again,” nor was he born or educated in that tradition, and his familiarity with it might best be attributed to the nest of fundamentalists and Birchites into which he settled in Texas or to his southern advisers. At any rate he rarely overlooked a right-wing religious or moral issue that could be turned to his political advantage, and there were a lot of them: school prayer, pornography, homosexuality, abortion, on and on.

The most blatant masterpiece of demagogy framed for George Bush, especially in the TV ads, was the symbolic use of Willie Horton. That scary face instantly brought home the stereotype associating race and rape for which the code word was “crime.” Its ostensible purpose was “the silver bullet,” as Lee Atwater called it, for destroying the reputation of Michael Dukakis, who issued “weekend passes for convicted criminals.” It is true that the devil was known in Puritan lore as a Black Man, but the religious component of the Horton image pales to insignificance compared with its crude and vicious racial message.

On the religiosity front, Dukakis is presented as Bush’s opposite number. While his Republican opponent skillfully and cynically plucked every chord on the harp, religion remained for Dukakis “a force he did not even know was in play.” For him and his advisers, “God was not in their computer.” In his personal life religion had no place. His immigrant parents left the Greek Orthodox church; he married a Jewish divorcée—and they did not have their children baptized. Politics was a matter of “programs,” “pragmatism,” and “competence” and had nothing to do with religion. His favorite history book was Commager’s The American Mind, and he became “the first truly secular candidate we had ever had for the presidency.” Yet for ten months after September 1987, the polls showed Bush trailing him by as much as seventeen points. And then the proof that he was “tone-deaf on human matters” came home to the public. Most dramatically it was revealed in the “eerie serenity” of his reply in the second presidential debate to the question about his stand on capital punishment if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered. In Wills’s opinion, “Dukakis never knew what hit him in the 1988 campaign.” This may overstate the case, but surely such issues played a large part in his defeat. It was not the Greek immigrants’ boy but the heir to wealth and privilege that Americans took to their heart as spokesman of their faith.


With the present as prologue to the past, we are next taken back to mid-seventeenth-century America, which the learned millennialists of that time, both here and abroad, declared destined to be the scene of Armageddon, the final battle. The New World was to see the end of history, the Second Coming, the apocalyptic showdown, the fulfillment of sacred prophecy. For the settlers of the New World, this was the “mission into the wilderness,” or part of it. Though fulfillment has lagged far behind prophecy, the millennial heritage of the founders has by no means died out. What with the end not only of a century but the end of a second millennium just around the corner, we would seem to be in for a rash of prophets in the next decade. Already in 1990 we have a Mrs. Prophet, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, taking her followers underground in Montana in anticipation of the impending deadline.

Early nineteenth-century Americans are said to have been “drunk on the millennium,” and that was by no means the end of it. There followed the Millerites awaiting the Second Coming in 1843, and the heritage of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Disciples of Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses periodically revived in the Bible empires of Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham. Three American presidents, James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan, were brought up in the Disciples of Christ faith, founded by the millennialist Alexander Campbell. Both Vice-President Dan Quayle and his wife, Marilyn Tucker Quayle, were reared by parents who are devout followers of Colonel Robert Thieme of Houston. Contemptuous of hallelujah shouters, Thieme, as presented by Wills, is a formidable fundamentalist, creationist, and millennialist who overawes his followers with his biblical learning. Modern millennialists like Jerry Falwell find rich apocalyptic support in the menace of nuclear annihilation.

At various times scoffers, intellectuals, and secularists have made attempts to discredit fundamentalism by ridicule. The one that got the greatest publicity was the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, where the defendant had defied a state law against teaching evolution. Clarence Darrow for the defense and Henry L. Mencken as orchestrator of the press took up cudgels against William Jennings Bryan, counsel for prosecution. “The thing to do is to make a fool out of Bryan,” advised Mencken, who despised him. And that, said Darrow, was “My object, and my only object.” Bryan was the foremost leader of reform politics of America with an unparalleled list of populist reforms to his credit. His long-term opposition to Darwin was directed at what was later known as Social Darwinism, but he foolishly permitted himself to be called as an expert witness on the Bible and that allowed Darrow to discredit him as a biblical literalist. Mencken and Darrow departed Dayton believing they had won a victory. What they had done instead, Wills points out, was to drive publishers to eliminate Darwinism from the textbooks for a generation and thus strengthen the hand of fundamentalists.

Religious and biblical imagery has often suffused great American historical events but sometimes with quite antithetical impulses and results. In the Civil War it was fiercely evident on the Union side in the accents of John Brown, but it took on contrasting tones in the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln. Julia Ward Howe best expressed the apocalyptic militancy of Brown in her “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was appropriately set to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” She had “seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” the Second Coming, that is, and her ensuing imagery is right out of Saint John’s Revelation, from “the grapes of wrath” and “the terrible swift sword” to “burnished rows of steel” and “men before the judgment seat,” and on to “Glory, glory, halleluiah.” Lincoln’s imagery was equally biblical, but it was drawn more from Saint Luke than from Saint John. He avoided moral righteousness and vengefulness, condemned the sin of slavery but not the sinner, and shared the guilt with the South: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It was the bond of pain and expiatory suffering he offered that immortalized the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.

Another moral upheaval of American history that was shaped and expressed by religious sentiment a century after the Civil War was the Civil Rights movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) consisted of black evangelist preachers, and without them and their black churches and the religious forces that possessed their race the movement is impossible to imagine. According to a Gallup poll of religious attitudes, “American blacks are, by some measures, the most religious people in the world.” A militant wing of the movement believed religiosity a handicap to the aggressiveness against whites needed for victory over the oppressors. Martin Luther King, Jr., knew better than that. He made religion the essence of the crusade and a Lincolnian serenity of forgiveness the secret of the appeal in his “I have a dream” homiletics.

After King’s murder there followed a secular apocalypse of burning cities and ghettos and a drive by militants to organize violence and vengeance in the name of Black Power. In the meantime a struggle for the mantle of Martin King went forward among religious factions typified in Wills’s account by two leaders, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. They were both black preachers from the South, but of quite different styles. Young’s parents were prosperous middle-class citizens of New Orleans who “wanted to escape black culture.” He was trained up north in a Congregational-style theology, a world away from that of black Southern Baptists with whom he was to work. “The civil rights movement was no romantic thing for me,” he told Wills. “I treated it like a business. I was no adolescent, after all; I was married, with three children.” Jesse Jackson was despised by some of his rivals and others as a schemer and demagogue, but he came nearer to capturing the following of King than any of his rivals, and he used many of King’s methods and appeals, though his platform was more radical. “No other candidate was so open in his religiosity,” according to Wills. He pairs Young with Jackson in somewhat the manner he pairs Dukakis with Bush.3

The singular importance of religion in the political history of America begs for some explanation. One theory stresses the absence of an established church. The nearest Wills comes to that view is probably in his chapters on Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, subjects on which he has already published authoritative books.4 Jefferson did not propose religious freedom to hamper religion, as his enemies charged, but to free it from tyrannical control and misuse, and its believers (as well as nonbelievers) from hypocrisy and coercion. Madison was even more consistent and effective (though his words were less memorable than Jefferson’s) on the separation of Church and state. Together Jefferson and Madison combined democratic and “free-market” arguments for removing religion from control of both state and priesthood. Purity of religion was served by “free argument, raillery, and even ridicule,” while competition would “oblige its ministers to be industrious [and] exemplary.” Madison would say, according to Wills, that our churches are still not too separate from political support: “They should be freer still, which would make them more powerful and, paradoxically, more political.” And that, he thinks, is “one of the American paradoxes we can be most proud of.” Disestablishment, “more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on the earth.”

The persistence of the past in the present is a perfectly legitimate subject for historical inquiry. Yet historians are ill prepared to pursue it, since the present is closer to the brink of the future than historians properly dare venture, unless they were eye-witnesses themselves. The recorded evidence from participants and eye-witnesses of recent events is rarely available. One criticism of Garry Wills has been that he sometimes writes as a journalist. But it was his work as journalist that made him an eyewitness and participant in many recent events here recorded. Historians would prefer testimony from more witnesses and participants, to be sure, and usually get it by waiting for present to become past. Even so, they do not often get witnesses so keenly observant as this one, one better informed about the past he is comparing with the present.

Critics will inevitably make something of Wills’s Roman Catholic faith as a source of bias. He freely admits that his book about religion in American politics “has dealt primarily with Protestant, and especially evangelical, Christianity” and offers as the reason, that “The influence of that form of religion has been so preponderant.” Protestants of all sorts make up three quarters of the believers as against one quarter Catholic. (He might have noted also that he has devoted another book to Catholics and politics.)5 This would help to explain the large number of Protestant demagogues, right wingers, and charlatans in these pages as compared with Catholics of the sort. It is only fair to say, however, that while the number of Catholics mentioned who could be so characterized is quite small, Catholics do not escape criticism. And on the other hand Protestant clergy and leaders can be held up for praise and admiration. Wills’s religious training, six years in a Jesuit seminary, is made most evident in his numerous digressions into theology and eschatological erudition. We hear rather a lot about Saint Augustine. But Wills can refer to “the horror of the medieval papacy” as readily as Lord Acton can write about absolute power.

It would have seemed helpful in placing the American varieties of fundamentalism in contemporaneous perspective had he given more attention to outbursts of this religious phenomenon in other parts of the world. In recent years fundamentalist movements have broken out almost simultaneously in some form in all quarters of the globe except Western Europe and have often engaged in violence and bloodshed, within the faith as well as between faiths. Acknowledging their importance, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has commissioned an extensive worldwide study of fundamentalism that is nearing completion. A comparable phenomenon is the resurgence of old orthodoxies long suppressed under Communist rule. On October 13 the reviewer stood with a tightly packed congregation of the faithful in St. Basil’s Cathedral where the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church opened religious services there for the first time in more than seventy years. Outside a mighty sound truck overwhelmed Red Square and the Kremlin with the priestly chorus for hours.

No other writer would have—or for that matter could have—done the powerful and convincing study of what he calls “the struggle for a nation’s soul” in the way Garry Wills has done it. Others will have different criticisms to make and omissions to deplore. But surely few can deny the power of this book and the illumination it has to offer its readers.

This Issue

February 14, 1991