It seems like every week, especially in this political season, you can find a letter in the daily paper stating that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values. This is fiction. The delegates to the Philadelphia convention were all Deists except for a lone Methodist. The famous portrait of George Washington kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge? Never Happened. Indeed, according to James Madison, who knew Washington well, the Father of Our Country never expressed any opinion about religion at all that he could recall.
These and other provocative observations abound in “Head and Heart: American Christianities” (Penguin, hardcover, $29.95), the new book by Roman Catholic historian Garry Wills.
Wills, a former seminarian who is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University and the author of the recent best-seller “What Jesus Meant,” has turned his penetrating insights to the interaction of what he refers to as the two poles of American Christianities: Enlightened Religion and Evangelical Religion, the respective Head and Heart of the title.
Wills argues that some of the greatest achievements in American history have been when the two poles merged to produce, for example, the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights movement of the '60s and '70s. Along the way, Wills offers observations and criticism that some may find fascinating and others may find incendiary.
American history in Wills' view is characterized by cycles in which evangelical thought and politics became ascendant only to come crashing down around them. Prohibition, the Scopes Monkey Trial, the televangelist scandals of the '80s and today's various and sundry scandals involving sex and/or money in the conservative movement are consistent historical outcomes of evangelical ascendancy.
George W. Bush and Karl Rove and “faith-based” politics come in for exceptionally scathing treatment in “Head and Heart.” As Wills puts it, “The Right Wing in America likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and — more to the point — highly biblical. This was not true of that or any later government — until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present.”
Roger Williams did not, as was taught to me, invent the concept of the separation of church from state. Williams thought the church ordained by Jesus had ceased to exist and thus one had no recourse but to submit to secular authority. Wills examines at length the gradual evolution of the notion of God as benevolent to toward his creation through the writings of Locke, Hume, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. He examines the writings of Jefferson and Madison prior to the passage of the Bill of Rights and arrives at the conclusion that both men agreed that freedom of conscience is protected by the First Amendment and religious establishments are forbidden by the same. To that end, Madison opposed using public funds for chaplains and did not think churches should be tax-exempt. Jefferson refused to issue religious proclamations. How times have changed.