Church and State

Under God: Religion and American Politics.
by Garry Wills.
Simon & Schuster. 445 pp. $24.95.

It Is impossible, Garry Wills contends, to understand American politics apart from religion; yet the media, and most political commentators, show a “willed ignorance” of the subject. He is quite right. In 33 chapters discussing various political figures—including some who ran for President in 1988—events in American history, and such contemporary issues as abortion, pornography, and feminism, Wills undertakes to redress the balance.

Had Wills kept his own views in check, he might have produced a worthy book, for there are parts of Under God in which he is both a skillful reporter and a shrewd analyst. Thus, in dealing with Gary Hart, Wills carefully explores the Holiness movement and the morally strict Church of the Nazarenes in which Hart was raised. The perfectionist impulse in his religious background is something which Hart as a presidential candidate wanted to hide even as it shaped his own behavior, including his strained discussions of his publicized adulteries. As Wills observes, Hart “made himself a powerful symbol of the problem presented by a secular politics cut off from its past moral vocabulary.”

As for the Democrats’ 1988 presidential nominee, Wills finds Michael Dukakis so completely estranged from faith of any kind as to have become “the first truly secular candidate we had ever had for the presidency.” It is hard to disagree with this, or with Wills’s remark that it was precisely Dukakis’s secularism that blinded him to the force of campaign issues involving the Pledge of Allegiance and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In turning to the American past, Wills discusses at length the Scopes trial of 1926 in which a teacher, backed by the ACLU, challenged a Tennessee law forbidding state schools from teaching evolution in biology courses. “Almost everything about the Scopes trial has been misrepresented,” writes Wills, and he proceeds to debunk the conventional wisdom which holds that Scopes’s lawyer, the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow, together with the writer H.L. Mencken, whose reports on the trial excoriated the locals as know-nothings, won there a great progressive victory over the dark forces of religion. Belying such a simplistic reading is the fact that William Jennings Bryan, who appeared for the prosecution, was a man who, although opposed to the Social Darwinism of Darrow and Mencken, integrated “progressive politics and evangelical moralism.” Unfortunately, declares Wills, the Scopes trial “sealed off from each other, in mutual incomprehension,” these two forces which “had hitherto worked together in American history.”

In a series of chapters that are perhaps his best, Wills discusses the millennialist impulses in American politics and their Puritan origins. Particularly noteworthy is his chapter on Lincoln, in which he analyzes that President’s use of biblical imagery, especially of apocalypse, to frame the issues of slavery and union, while also emphasizing the central place occupied by the Declaration of Independence in Lincoln’s political theology.



But these are the better moments in Under God. Too often Wills is less the discerning analyst than the leftist Catholic advocate. For example, he notes of Mario Cuomo’s much-discussed 1984 speech at Notre Dame on abortion that it “was bound to be unsatisfactory” since Cuomo, even as he accepted the Church’s teaching as personally valid, failed to show any enthusiasm for it. “He merely receives it passively in his own case—despite the fact that this particular teaching indicates that murder is being committed.” But then instead of documenting how Cuomo as an elected politician has continued to avoid facing the issue of abortion as murder, Wills faults him for failing to adopt a “communal” approach that would include “better education on contraception” and “wider distribution of condoms.” Wills concedes that such an approach is at odds with the Church “line” on abortion, but argues that the line itself is “obsolete.” In short, he wants not only contraception and condoms but a different Catholic Church.

Elsewhere in Under God the author’s politics work some quite astonishing effects. Thus, Wills is so enamored of Jesse Jackson that he witlessly endorses such effusions by Jackson as this:

Conservatives and progressives, when you fight for what you believe, right-wing, left-wing, hawk, dove—you’re right from your point of view, but your point of view is not enough. But don’t despair. Be as wise as my grandmama. Pool the patches and the pieces together, bound by a common thread. When we form a great quilt of unity and common ground, we’ll have the power to bring about health care and housing and jobs and education and hope to our nation.

So great is his approval of “Preacher Jesse” that Wills never stops to ask just how conservatives and progressives, Right and Left, hawk and dove, can all be right, much less how they can lie down together in peace.

Wills credits the defeat of Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork to voter-registration drives in the South undertaken by Jesse Jackson. Of the communities that formed ranks against Bork, he writes that they constituted “the real moral majority in America,” and he urges the Democratic party to align itself with this majority of the “disadvantaged,” adding that “most groups in America think of themselves as disadvantaged in one way or another.” Yet it hardly needs saying that far more was involved in Bork’s defeat than voter registration, and Wills’s psychological estimate of how Americans think of themselves reveals nothing more than how he thinks they should think of themselves. Here his infatuation with Jackson drives him not only to dubious analysis but to suicidal (for Democrats) political advice.



Wills concludes his book with an unsatisfactory treatment of church and state. It is now “our task in a society of increasingly complex articulation,” he declares, “to complete the effort of [James] Madison in removing religion from state ceremony and proclamations.” But he does not specify what he means by this—presumably he would join with the ACLU in trying to ban every last crèche and menorah from the public square, every last amen from public schools and the halls of Congress. And he fails even to note, much less to address, the much larger issues of religion and politics before the nation today: should the public-school system remove not only religious belief but also instruction about religions and religious history? Should states provide or refuse relief to taxpaying parents who send their children to parochial or church-related schools? More generally, should states make accommodations in their laws that take into account the religious beliefs and practices of the American people?

Wills is not unaware that in our society litigation has become a form of politics by other means. But he offers little discussion of the varieties of litigation that have affected religion and morality. Nor does he examine the impact of relevant judicial decisions, especially by the Supreme Court. He simply denies that “recent court decisions have made religion less important or effective in America or even in our politics.”

Yet a study of these decisions bears on any sound analysis of the origins of the religious Right, which organized in large part for defensive reasons. More fundamentally, it bears on any judgment about the historic ability of the American people—an ability weakened dramatically in the past fifty years—to decide questions of moral and inevitably religious significance through the ordinary political process. These and other matters will have to await a writer as informed religiously as Garry Wills but politically less tendentious.

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