Tuesday, March 25. 2008
Garry Wills: Head and Heart: American Christianities (2007, Penguin Press)
My first encounter with Garry Wills was Nixon Agonistes, a long book that dealt so sympathetically with the great political monster of my formative years that I always figured Wills for a deep conservative. This sympathy helped Wills expose deep veins in the America that made and was exploited by Nixon, which made the book valuable as history and informative as political theory. I always imagined that Wills' book on Reagan did the same service for a younger generation, but found Reagan so transparently false that I never saw the need to dig deeper, let alone appreciate any nuances in his political culture. (Probably a mistake, given how Reagan has been canonized. The next thing I read by Wills was his book on John Wayne's America, another book that met America more than half way. Lately I've gathered that Wills' politics are on the liberal side, if not necessarily on the left. (He did write a book called Confessions of a Conservative in 1979, so I may not have been so far off.) His essay on Bush's Fringe Government is one of the basic keys for an understanding of a third generation of Republican monsters. But most of what Wills has written about recently has been religion. I have a copy of What Jesus Meant, and will get to it shortly. At least it looks agreeably short.
His latest is a history of Christianity in America, Head and Heart. I took a look at the book in the store, my first notion to look up what he had to say about Mormonism, a prime example of 19th century American protestantism's penchant for sectarian invention. But the index has no entries for Mormons, Latter Day Saints, or Joseph Smith. Wills evidently has something else in mind. Patrick Allitt, in his New York Times Book Review, explains that Head and Heart follows the gnarly threads of Enlightenment deism (head) and evangelicalism (heart) through American history, ending in a current-day political tirade. Not sure from the review whether the book is worth spending much time with, but I wanted to comment on one paragraph in Allitt's review:
Actually, I think that if you go back to the eve of World War II you'll find that America was more/less as secular as western Europe. Two things happened then that made all the difference in the world. The first is that the American and European experiences of the war were vastly different because the devastation took place in Europe (and Asia), not here, where America underwent an economic boom and an enthralling sense of solidarity. If you're inclined to attribute varying fortunes to God, you're likely to feel blessed in America and cursed in Europe. Postwar Europe was very disillusioned with the dominant civilization that had brought two such damning wars upon itself, and religion was one particularly disposable part of that. America suffered no comparable loss of faith.
The second thing was the Cold War. For various reasons, after WWII the US establishment adopted a strategy of opposing Communism all around the world, and one propaganda tactic they found useful was to build up religion as a bulwark against Marxist atheism. At the time, the US was dominated by the Democratic party, which had attracted imperialist-minded businessmen as far back as Wilson. The Republicans decided to join in, and even tried to outflank the Democrats on their right, and they were successful enough to pin the Democrats' backs to the wall. Most of the "under God" pledges and slogans date from the early Cold War period, the same stretch of time that brought us Taft-Hartley and McCarthyism. This had many effects, one being that it made religious belief mandatory for anyone with political aspirations. Without any sort of political legitimacy, atheists were forced to the sidelines, and Christian opportunists were able to press for ever more public testaments of faith. Troubled people are easily attracted to religion, especially in this self-reinforcing framework of a "nation under God," questioned by only the most marginal of characters.
I'm not saying that Wills' point about separation of religion from politics isn't valid. It certainly is true that the lack of a legally established church opens up the market for faith-based hucksters. Anyone in the market for religion can find plenty of options to choose from. By keeping religion personal, it also limits most folks' concerns about others' beliefs, letting most religions go uncontested. Wills is also right that when religious figures do push too hard they generate a backlash, and that's when people do start to publicly challenge religion. That has started to happen in response to Bush and the Republicans. But the question of America vs. Europe is pretty clearly political. We have been very slow to realize the costs of taking such an extreme anti-Communist stance following WWII -- one that put the US in league with fascists, militarists, and clerics all over the world, united primarily by their opposition to workers and peasants, a strategy that turned us into the world police for the protection of international capitalism.