Garry Wills discusses his book Head and Heart: American Christianities.
A prolific thinker and writer on history and faith, Wills tackles the evolving roles of the multiple denominations of Christianity throughout American history. He sees an ongoing tension between reason and emotion, which he believes is necessary and inevitable, and is clearly visible in the fervor of the religious right pitted against the enlightenment values of separation of church and state- Politics and Prose
Garry Wills (PhD Yale, 1961) is an adjunct professor and cultural historian whose many books include penetrating studies of George Washington, Richard Nixon, the Kennedy family, Ronald Reagan, and religion in America.
His numerous prizes include the Merle Curti Award of the American Historical Association, the National Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and an honorary doctorate from the College of the Holy Cross.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and cultural historian Garry Wills discusses the origins of America's separation between church and state, and argues that this relationship has worked to the benefit of both interests.
This is a true scholar that we have here this evening, he is not only a true scholar but he is also a goodgood guest, I have to thank him, Garry because every time that we have asked him to Politics and Prose hehas very graciously come and I think that now we have had him for about 12 times, the risk is verysmall when we ask Garry Wills to come to talk about a book because we just know that it's going to beinteresting. Garry Wills has had a long career teaching at North Western University about 45 years, heis retired now and so that he is he is still very much writing also he is doing some traveling thesebut he is very much writing so I think that - at least I hope that another year we will have it - well issueanother invitation and that he will be back again. Over the years of his writing he has won a PulitzerPrize and the National Book Critic circle award for "Lincoln at Gettysburg". He has also won theNational medal for the humanities. He has also won the National Book Critic circle for "InventingAmerica". I looked up one thing on the web that I found about Garry Wills which I was just amusedabout and I thought I just want to share with you and this is John Leonard the critic for the New Yorktimes describes Garry "Garry Wills is like a combination of H.L. Mencken, John Locke and AlbertCamus". Do you lean any more heavily toward one than another? You duck on that. So this evening, heis here to talk about his new book "Head and Heart". You can call it reason and passion, intellect andemotions, enlightenment and the evangelicals. But in the title it came out meaning exactly the samething "Head and Heart." And so what Garry Wills is going to do this evening, is he is going to give usan an overview of a long history of Christianity that started right back with our original puritans andbring us right up today now because that he has, he ends up having some very insightful things to sayabout the Bush administration and how that they have used the evangelical, the passion and part ofChristianity to in some kind of dangerous ways to get a little bit too close to creating problems aboutthe separation of church and state. So I am delighted to introduce Garry Wills and he is going to talk for20 or 25 minutes, take questions - questions please go to the mic and then when we are allthrough, he will sit down here and sign copies of the book. Thanks for coming.Thank you very much, it's good of this wonderful book store to give God equal time. We know nowfrom senator John McCain that in his words the constitution established the United States of Americaas a Christian nation, that goes a little bit farther even than Andrew Carnegie who in a famous storysaid to his friend Mark Twain "You may not like it Mark that you have to admit that this is a Christiancountry" and Twain said "well I know that Andrew, but so is hell" and we don't boast about that. TheDalai Lama unfortunately doesn't agree with Senator McCain. When he came to Chicago to speak atthe field museum he asked to the director, "Please don't ask me to give a lecture. I don't like to givelectures because everybody goes to sleep and then I go to sleep. I like something more lively so wouldyou ask some people to sit on the stage with me?" who know something about me and ask questions.So I was one of those appointed and we met with him before hand and he said "please don't be toodeferential that again puts everybody to sleep, ask me hard questions". Well that was a hardassignment, I couldn't think of any hard questions but I did ask him this if you were returned to yourcountry, what would you do different? And he said "I would disestablish the religion".The American situation is the proper one and the very as he was going out, I said to him, "for thatdon't you have to have had an enlightenment?" and he said "Ah there s the problem" and his very nextbook said that Buddhists had not faced up sufficiently to the challenge of modern rationality andscience, so he was trying to get to the point where we began, we were blessed in being formed duringthe enlightenment with the separation of church and state, Madison and Jefferson both said, "if youseparate religion from the state, it will promote and protect religion.", it will no longer be contaminatedby political pressures, corruption, appointments it will be free in its various aspects to compete, toadvance itself and then that turned out to be true, there was an explosion of religion after the adoptionof the constitution.You know there is a myth in America especially on the right that we began as a very religious country,and we become less and less so ever since, that's exactly the opposite of the truth. After the firstawakening the 30's or 40's of the 18th century, that fizzled and we reached the lowest level ofreligious profession and practice we have ever had in the 1770's precisely at the time when theconstitution was drafted. But at the beginning of the 19th century, the Methodist explosion occurred andthe great thrust into the west took a whole group of circuit writers, preachers and there there weresoon more Methodist ministers than postal workers even though the post office was the biggestgovernment agency at the time. So it has protected America and we have been in terms of bothprofession and practice extraordinarily religious for developed country, the most developed religiousdeveloped country that there has and as I say, it's been growing ever since. We had never been morereligious than we are at this very moment.So a lot of people say "how religious is America?" I would want to ask rather "what kind of religionbecause at various times in our history, there had been various emphases about the ones I called "Headand Heart". There has been enlightened religion that is a religion that takes seriously the claims ofreason, of science and still is the religious community and the Evangelical community whichemphasizes more of the individual conversion to Jesus and is rather suspicious of reason and says thatwe have to follow what God says and not try to impose on him our ideas as if our reason didn't comefrom God. So we have had in the past these two emphasis in the predominantly protestant culture ofAmerica up until 1936.Those are what I call the two Christianities they are the two protestant Christianities that have had thesway in most of our history. We can see it very soon in for instance the contrast between betweentranscendentalism a religious mysticism about nature which took very seriously the claims of reasonand the revival movements of the early 19th century which were much more a matter of emotion,individual connection with Jesus and things of that sort. Now the two ran along together, but everynow and then one surges ahead of the other to some degree and there have been three principle surges ofEvangelicalism. By an accident that's probably not quite an accident, they have occurred at thebeginning of successive centuries, the 19th, 20th and 21stAt the beginning of a new century sometimes there is a an air of change in the air but moreparticularly there were specific kinds of change going on in these three episodes and when peopleasked recently why has there been this tremendous growth of fundamentalism all around the world inrecent years, Martin Marty of the university of Chicago was given a lot of money and a lot of scholarlyhelp to study that problem and he said "the catalyst for fundamentalism is disorienting change whenpeople feel that their basic roots are being torn out. Then they revert to what they consider hardfundamental beliefs and try to fend off the challenges of the new".At the beginning of the 19th century, it was the surge west, the tenuous connection with old traditionsback east that made people out on the circuits revert to a more evangelical religion and that took aform that would not be replicated because it was a self starting religion, it didn't rely on thegovernment, it didn't rely on eastern hierarchies. You got ordained by the spirit, by the reaction of the crowd at therevival, it funded itself, it didn't ask for any money from the government. Well that changed in the 20thcentury, the fundamentalist movement that came along the idea that to be a real Christian, you haveto believe five fundamentalists, or 15 fundamentals or 12, you have to believe in the literal inspirationof every part of the scripture, you have to believe in the virgin birth etc. they turned to the governmentand relied on it. They wanted the government to enforce religious beliefs, for instance to ban theteaching of evolution in schools or to ban the consumption of alcohol or to ban the delivery of the mailon Sunday. All of those were fundamentalists causes and the government to some degree went along.The third surge which we are in right now was caused the beginning of the 21st century by thetremendous technological changes that had come across the world like the globalization, the socialchanges like feminism and recognition of gay rights and things of that sort and that has led to a kind ofcutting off of the world, the fundamentalists now don't trust the schools or they will give sex educationthat's not abstinence only, they will teach Darwin, you know, they won't pray together and so theywithdraw their home school, when you are finished with home school, you are send into these Christiancolleges that were there but are growing or now are newly founded - Patrick Henry and Regions andAve Maria and Thomas More and they have infiltrated the government, they they are recruiters forthe agencies the regulatory agencies and congressional staffs, draw heavily on this group thatthat considers the outside world a menace and wants to use the government to punish that outside worldto have only abstinence only education to ban contraceptives and foreign aid to fight against abortion, tofight against gay rights etc.Now what's fascinating to me is that the the life span of these surges is has gotten shorter eachtime, first one ran for about 30 years at its peak and what did that end was slavery, the north and southevangelicals fought over slavery but the bible absolutely bans slavery according to some in the northand it approves slavery according to some in the south and that's how we got the southern Baptists asopposed to northern Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists.So slavery did that in, they lost their credit in the 1830's because they fell apart squabbling amongthemselves. What did end the fundamentalists in the 20th century was that their reliance on thegovernment hurt them, prohibition which was their great triumph turned out to be a disaster, it wasunenforceable or illegally enforced or discredited in all kinds of ways, the Scopes trial discredited theanti-Darwin movement. Various kinds of anti-evangelical movements succeeded, so that one fizzledout too.The current one I think is fizzling out faster after about a ten year ten year span because this has beena reaction against the use of government by the religious right. A good example of that is the way theright could dictate absolutely dictate to the government not to interfere in the life support system ofTerry Schiavo. Congress hastily drew up a resolution that was almost immediately declaredunconstitutional. The President who hates to break up his vacations rushed rushed back toWashington and got up in the middle of the night and he hates to get up in the middle of the night andsigned the thing. 81 percent of the American people thought that was wrong. And they are showingtheir displeasure with the number of the other initiatives. Moderate evangelicals themselves like JohnDanforth have become have come to criticize the movement. There is a general feeling that we havegone too far, too fast on this one. So it's hopeful, that seems to me that this one will have the shortestspan of all three. It's already beginning to decline rapidly I believe.The more interesting thing of all is that we don't have to surrender ourselves to being just one or the otherthe emphasis on the head and the emphasis on the heart. They are combinable. They are never absoluteopposites. They all share some fringe overlap. But at important times in our history they havethey have come together. One of those that I spent a good deal of time on in the book is the 18thCentury Quaker attack on the people who said, "You cannot be an abolitionist because the Christianscripture and the Jewish scripture both approve slavery and neither condemns slavery."Well, people like Anthony Benezet and John Woolman said, "You don't have to believe everythingliterally in the scripture, there are parts of it that are time bound and not really connected with themoral core of the book, after all God was not a cosmographer. He is not trying to teach us astrophysicswhen he wrote the Bible, and so we don't have to believe in the literal creation of the world in six days.St. Augustine didn't believe in that." So they were able to break what had been a stranglehold on theanti slavery movement. If you criticize slavery, you are criticizing the Bible, you are going against God.They were so successful that at the beginning of the 18th Century all the northern colonies had slaveslegal holding of slaves. And very many famous people held slaves. Jonathan Edwards did, BenjaminFranklin did, a number of northern heroes held slaves. It was not solely a southern phenomenon. By theend of the 18th Century, largely through their activities, none of the colonies except one stillapproved of slavery, still allowed slavery, and that one stopped in a decade or so. So that was oneexample of blending the head and heart. They were rational but they were very pious too.Another example is Abraham Lincoln. He was a skeptic at first, certainly a man of the head. He nevereven used the name Jesus or Christ in all of his writings in life. But during the war he became more andmore religious. And the religion that he was quoting from almost entirely, was the Jewish scripture,not the Christian. And that put him in harmony with the black religion of his day, because the blackreligion of his day agreed with the Jewish scripture from which it drew most of its spirituals, that thewhole people are under God's care. The whole people wander. The whole people are carried in the ark.The whole people reach The Promised Land. That was their approach to religion. It was against theCalvinist individualism; you go out and get saved all by yourself.So when Lincoln me Fredrick Douglass, who was another head and heart person, he was atranscendentalist, but he had also been a preacher and a Sunday school teacher in his younger days.They hit it off instantly, although they had had some misgivings about each other before they met. Andwhen Lincoln gave the second inaugural address, it was entirely this approach to the religion that"We have all sinned. We have all committed the sit of slavery. We have all suffered for it. We are allhoping that God's justice will be vindicated."There are other cases of this head and heart. Dr. Martin Luther King was a Nieburhian Theologian andon the head side but also a Baptist preacher and someone nurtured on the spirituals. CesarChavez, Dorothy Day, there has been a whole number of religious figures who combined the head andthe heart. We haven't had so many just recently, but as I say I hope we are coming to the end of thelatest surge of evangelical interference in government and we will begin again to enjoy the blessingsthat the Dalai Lama told us we should. Thanks.