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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

By Garry Wills
The Penguin Press, 626 pages, $29.95
The myth of American as a Christian nation


In his gargantuan new book, Head and Heart, Garry Wills chronicles four centuries of Christian influence on American public life from the Puritans to the presidency of George W. Bush.

Mr. Wills’ thesis is that the American system of strict separation of church and state outlined in the Constitution “proved to be the great protector of religion, not its enemy.”

Church-state separation was not a given when settlers began arriving in the New World. In fact, the opposite was true. Even after the American Revolution, most states supported Christianity in various ways and some imposed a religious test for holding office.

But the founders took a bold step when they drafted the U.S. Constitution and did not once mention God, “an omission that was startling, and highly criticized at the time,” Mr. Wills writes. It was unprecedented to launch a new nation “with no officially invoked divine protection.” During the Civil War, Christians campaigned to amend the Constitution to declare America a Christian nation. Instead, “In God We Trust” was added to money, and later during the Cold War “under God” was inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance -- steps that likely would have dismayed the founders.

Mr. Wills rebuts the widely held belief that the founders were men of deep religious conviction. Most were deists who believed in God on a rational basis without reference to revelation or scripture. Mr. Wills says that the famous painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge is based on fiction.

The author’s erudition is evident in this latest of his many books, which include What Paul Meant and What Jesus Meant. He has a firm grasp of religious history, although this latest book is so long (552 text pages) and stuffed with so many names and long-forgotten religious detours that it likely will tax the patience of many readers.

Throughout the nation’s history, Mr. Wills argues, there has been a division between enlightened religion of the mind, with its emphasis on science and nature, and evangelical religion of the heart, which stresses a direct relationship with Jesus as savior, biblical inerrancy and a mission to save others.

America began as a Protestant nation. As late as 1860, more than 95 percent of the houses of worship were Protestant. “To be a papist,” Mr. Wills writes, “was to be in league with Satan himself.” Virulent hatred of Catholics lasted well into the last century; fires and intimidation against Catholics were common. A Catholic convent school in Massachusetts was burned to the ground in 1834.

Mr. Wills describes the bitter church debate over slavery, which split Christian denominations like no other issue. Slave owners took comfort in knowing that Jesus never criticized slavery and that Paul told slaves to be content with their lot.

By the 1830s, Mr. Wills writes, “leaders in the South were calling slavery a positive good, something to be made permanent, indeed a divine institution.” The issue split the major Protestant sects, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, “like some historic meat cleaver.” Mr. Wills says little about the Catholic church’s position, although he notes that all 11 Catholic bishops in the region supported the South in the Civil War.

Mr. Wills summarizes 20th-century landmark debates such as Prohibition, the Scopes Trial, abortion and the evangelical goal of seizing control of the White House.

Conservatives have long argued that America was launched as a Christian nation, but this was not true “until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present,” Mr. Wills says. Under the current Bush administration, he writes, evangelical organizations have been allowed to draft bills and to place their own people in government posts to implement legislation.

“The White House was alive with piety,” Mr. Wills writes, adding that more than half of the White House staff attended Bible study groups.

As befits his role as a scholar, Mr. Wills has given us a massive, well-researched review of the nation’s Christian history, filled with long excerpts from key documents. He profiles scores of religious figures, such as Dwight Moody, John Nelson Darby, Lyman Abbott, Billy Sunday, Fr. Charles Coughlin, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham. But in shoveling so much material into these pages, the author dilutes his central theme, which is that religion has thrived precisely because government has not interfered.

Head and Heart implicitly warns that under President Bush the nation has turned in a dangerous direction by intermingling church and state -- something the founders feared and tried to guard against.

Bill Williams is a freelance book reviewer in West Hartford, Conn. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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