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The faith in the political

Head and Heart American Christianities Garry Wills Penguin Press: 625 pp., $29.95

October 10, 2007|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

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.

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