Head, Heart, Soul, And State

At the New York Times, Emory historian Patrick Allitt reviews Gary Wills’ book. From what I can gather, Wills misses the point, contradicting himself in the bargain.

Allitt writes:

Disestablishment, embodied in the First Amendment, was, he argues, “a stunning innovation” and “the only original part of the Constitution.” He emphasizes too that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” was designed just as much to protect the churches from the state as vice versa.

Certainly the last sentence reflects a practice that’s worked so well that the idea of a theory like the one suggested seems good enough to be true. But just as surely the idea that disestablishment is the only original part of the Constitution is stunning only in its originality. In its bizarre implausibility it is simply uninteresting. So fast we return from disestablishmentarian hyperbole to separationist theory:

Historians and sociologists for nearly a century have wondered about America’s resistance to secularization. Why, they ask, has religion thrived so much more in America than in the rest of the industrialized democracies (where, by now, only tiny minorities still go to church)? Because, says Wills, religion is not entangled with the state. Both benefit from separation, and neither is distorted by the other. Conversely, he believes that both have suffered from periodic attempts to reduce the separation, like Prohibition in the early 20th century or George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives in the early 21st.

Don’t take Wills’ word for it. This is straight out of Tocqueville, who gives Catholicism the due that Allitt finds wanting in Wills’ account.

Wills never loses sight of contemporary affairs, and readers will have no doubt where his political sympathies lie. The book ends with a long attack on Bush, Karl Rove and their manipulation of religion in the interest of the Republican Party. He finds their use of the Terri Schiavo case particularly offensive, a form of pandering to religious extremists. By contrast he sees Barack Obama as a candidate whose ideas about the use of religion in politics are just right. A lengthy quotation from one of Obama’s speeches seems to affirm Wills’s views about the different roles churches and politicians should play in confronting problems, like AIDS, that have both moral and political dimensions. He ends with the argument that throughout most of the nation’s history, attempts to force particular religious views into political life have been beaten back. He interprets the outcome of the 2006 election as a rebuke to Rove’s theocratic tendencies.

I presume Obama’s just right because his idea of using religion in politics is to subjugate it to his political creed, instead of keeping faith and state apart as Wills seemed so badly to have desired just three paragraphs ago. Curious. If Wills, or anyone else, thinks that Obama might do anything to Bush’s faith-based initiatives but raise them to new hights of diluted Christianity and abstract spirituality in the intimate service of a therapeutic, Americanist political creed, I come to preach the bad news.