Head and Heart

by Garry Wills

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Head and Heart

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The Puritans saw America as a “city upon a hill,” where the Gospel could be preached and lived, but it has been said that they fled England to escape religious tolerance. Haunted by the fear of hell, they opposed the paganism of African and Asian religions, the denial of Jesus in Judaism and Islam, and (in what would become a recurring theme in American thought) the Roman Catholicism their founders had only recently broken from. For all their extremism, the Puritans were not unintelligent. They founded Harvard College (now University), and their emphasis on the individual remains central to American thought. They were not alone in America, however, and Garry Wills describes the 1660 execution of Mary Dyer, a Quaker who insisted on preaching her version of Christianity. Within Puritanism there were dissenters, such as Samuel Sewall, who came to repent of his role as judge in the Salem witchcraft trials and wrote The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial (1700), an early attack on the institution of slavery, and Roger Williams, whose extreme devoutness led him to wonder if religion properly had any public aspects.

The Enlightenment began to influence America in the eighteenth century. John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (published anonymously in 1695) led the way to Unitarianism, a version of Christianity that accepted the Bible but denied the divinity of Jesus. Quakers such as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet (to whom Wills dedicates the book) used Christian and humanist arguments to oppose slavery.

The religious approach most favored by the Enlightenment was Deism, the belief in a “watchmaker” God who created the universe and set it in motion but then left it alone. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, were Deists. Jefferson went so far as to create a Deist Bible, eliminating the parts of the original Bible he could not accept and treating Jesus as merely a great teacher.

The Enlightenment worldview of the Founding Fathers led them to one of the most radical results of the American Revolution: the disestablishment of religion. Here again, Locke was a major influence, with Epistola de Tolerantia (1689; a letter concerning toleration). Locke’s approach was moderate, seeing religious tolerance as a Christian virtue and setting somewhat narrow limits on it. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, however, radicalized Locke’s view, writing into the Constitution as complete a separation of church and state as they could manage. Wills traces the development of disestablishment through careful analyses of Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” (1779) and Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785) and refutes the most common arguments that try to limit the neutrality of the First Amendment not only among religions but also between religion and absence of religion.

With the nineteenth century came Romanticism, which affected both the Enlightened and Evangelical aspects of American Christianity. The debate between Unitarian and Trinitarian versions led William Ellery Channing to publish “Unitarian Christianity” in 1819 and to establish Unitarianism as a separate sect within Christendom. However, the Transcendentalists, influenced by the Romantic emphasis on intuition and inspiration, found more and more of Christianity unacceptable. In his Harvard Divinity School address (1838), Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that Unitarianism should have jettisoned the belief in miracles along with the Trinity. The Transcendentalists imported an element of nature mysticism, derived from Hinduism; influenced writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman; and helped popularize abolitionism, but as Wills notes, they resembled their Puritan forebears in seeing themselves as individualists, yet joined by a mission from God, leading a mission into...

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the wilderness.

Meanwhile, the same Romantic emphasis on feeling led to the Second Great Awakening, a revival of religious fervor, particularly among Methodists. Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop, had been a Loyalist during the American Revolution, and he refused to take an oath to the revolutionary government. Still, he remained in America, sending circuit riders all over the nation and its territories. Asbury was one of the first religious leaders to encourage African Americans to form churches, leading to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In the mid-nineteenth century, slavery divided the American churches as it divided the nation, with religious leaders on both sides claiming divine favor. After the Civil War, the revivalist spirit of the Second Great Awakening was continued by a new generation of preachers, notably Dwight L. Moody, who built an evangelist empire with the support of robber barons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Cooke.

Under the umbrella of Moody’s movement, a new approach to the doctrine of the end times arose. Most America Protestant theologians had believed that the Second Coming would follow a millennium of improvement, in which America would lead the way, but in the late nineteenth century Reuben Torrey and John Nelson Darby popularized the doctrine of dispensational premillenarianism. Darby introduced the concept of the Rapture, in which virtuous Christians would be taken to Heaven, followed by Tribulation, the final conflict between Good and Evil foretold in the Book of Revelation, and then the Final Judgment. Though, as Wills demonstrates, the scriptural justification for the concept of the Rapture is dubious, the concept has proven extremely popular. In the 1910’s, Lyman and Milton Stewart produced a series of twelve volumes of essays titled The Fundamentals, which led to the term “fundamentalism.”

While fundamentalism favored an avoidance of the public sphere, other Protestants, particularly Episcopalians and Congregationalists, supported the Social Gospel, an attempt to invoke biblical standards of justice and mercy in programs to improve the condition of the poor. While the Social Gospel seemed dangerously radical at the time, it now seems (to historians such as Richard Hofstadter) somewhat tame and meliorist and fatally compromised by its alliance with American imperialism in the name of an effort to bring the supposed benefits of the American way of life to the rest of the world, welcomed or not.

Prohibition represented a major triumph for Protestantism. It is seen as a rural, Evangelical movement, emphasizing the old hostility to Roman Catholics and a newer distrust of the cities, but Wills notes the contribution of progressive and reformist Protestants, such as Frances Willard, who took over the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and broadened its program to include woman suffrage, the eight-hour workday, and federal aid to education. Meanwhile, evangelists such as Billy Sunday were bringing their message to ever more Americans.

In the 1920’s, Evangelicalism suffered a sudden reversal. The Prohibition they had fought so hard for was disastrous, leading to an increase of lawlessness, and two new embarrassments appeared. The Fundamentalists had noticed their doctrine of biblical inerrancy was threatened by scientific developments, particularly evolution, and where they had sufficient political power, they passed laws against teaching the dangerous theory in public schools. This led to 1925’s Scopes trial, in which Clarence Darrow cross-examined William Jennings Bryan, perhaps America’s most famous Evangelical, about his belief in the literal truth of the Bible, and left him looking like a fool. The 1928 presidential candidacy of Roman Catholic Al Smith brought to the surface an ugly element of anti-Catholicism in much of Protestant America.

Victory in World War II was followed by an attempt to downplay religious differences, to see America as a tolerant Judeo-Christian culture. The tolerance, however, was not universal; one reason for the unity among a variety of Jews and Christians was to oppose godless communism, and all forms of godlessness were felt to be outside the consensus. When a series of Supreme Court rulings took religious display out of the public schools, the Evangelicals were particularly offended.

A more serious fissure came from the nation’s continuing race problem. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education raised the conflict to a new level. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a student of such Enlightenment Christians as Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr, used the rhetoric of Evangelicalism to call for an end to segregation. The Civil Rights movement ushered in what Wills calls the Rights Revolution, with women, gays, Catholics, Native Americans, and Latinos challenging their place in the great consensus.

Evangelicals were particularly offended by much of the Rights Revolution, seeing abortion and homosexuality as sins and patriarchy as a biblical value. They had been willing to stay out of politics, but they felt that their rights were being attacked, and they began a counterrevolution. One battlefield was the schools. Under the direction of Texans Mel and Norma Gabler, Fundamentalists set up a pressure group to remove offensive concepts such as evolution, multiculturalism, and relativism from schoolchildren’s textbooks. Evangelical Francis Schaeffer proclaimed that secular humanism was a religion and thus that its ideas had no more place in public education than did sectarian dogma. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition became powerful political outlets for Evangelical resentment. A series of professedly Christian presidentsRichard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clintonseemed to offer promise but left the Evangelicals unsatisfied.

All this leads up to what Wills calls the Karl Rove Era. The election of George W. Bush in 2000 brought in a president of perhaps more Evangelical belief than any of his predecessors and an unprecedented effort to win the support of Evangelicals at the expense of almost all other groups. That program includes federal money for social services going to sectarian organizations with only a pro forma effort to keep it from being used for sectarian purposes, support for the teaching of creationism in the public schools in the guise of intelligent design, and, when Evangelical support was most direly needed, support for a so-called defense of marriage amendment to the Constitution mandating that marriage be between precisely one man and one woman. Wills sees such an effort as an overreach similar to that of Evangelicalism in the 1920’s and urges that the intelligence of Enlightenment and the spirit of Evangelicalism unite again as they have in the past for the public good.

Revisiting territory he first explored in Under God: Religion and American Politics (1990), Garry Wills’s Head and Heart: American Christianities presents a thorough and detailed, perhaps at times ponderous, account of the history of Enlightenment and Evangelicalism, their leading figures, and their conflicts, from the Puritans through George W. Bush. A Christian himself, Wills documents the important point that, contrary to the prevalent folklore about America as a Christian nation, the Founding Fathers went to great lengths to introduce a revolutionary new philosophy of disestablishment, where church and state did not interfere with one another.


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Booklist 104, no. 1 (September 1, 2007): 4.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 15 (August 1, 2007): 781.

Library Journal 132, no. 15 (September 15, 2007): 66.

The New Republic 237, no. 7 (October 8, 2007): 57-60.

The New York Times Book Review 157 (December 9, 2007): 10.