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Book Review

Fringe Chirstianity in American Politics

Under God: Religion and American Politics by Garry Wills

Simon and Schuster, 1990, 445 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Terry Morin

What do Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, William Jennings Bryan, R.B. Thieme, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Augustine's thoughts on sex and marriage, Mario Cuomo, and Fuller Theological Seminary have in common? Biblical Christianity? Sorry. Fringe Christianity might more accurately characterize these religio-political figures given room in Garry Wills' eight-part survey of the "religious element" in American political life. The survey includes politicians who have either understood and exploited the religious element, e.g. George Bush, William Jennings Bryan; those who ignored the religious element, e.g. Michael Dukakis, or attempted to redefine it, e.g. Gary Hart, and who suffered accordingly. The survey of the political landscape of post-Revolutionary America is complemented by a survey of the religious figures who have contributed to the form, and in most cases, the pathology of the posited "religious element".

In the book's Introduction the author attempts to give evidence for the existence of a "religious element" in the American electorate, and to explain why it continues to either evade or embarrass the learned, the political commentators, and the media. Wills quotes a number of polls and pollsters to the effect that religious preferences are the strongest indicators of political preferences among the indicators available for polling. The author doesn't indicate the specific nature of the correlations, and whether the correlations make sense. As to why the nomen-klatura of America are routinely surprised by the resilience of the "religious element" to the intellectual imperialism of the Clarence Darrows and Carl Sagans, Wills is incredibly gracious. It so happens, says Wills, that politicos and journalists are very timid, and very ignorant about religious matters due to their great respect for the Constitutional separation of church and state. In Wills' view, journalists assume that the Constitution hermetically seals Christianity into a politically-irrelevant ghetto, and that the integrity of the seal would be violated should the existence of the ghetto be acknowledged, studied, and written about. An interesting hypothesis to be sure, but I can think of simpler, and more personal reasons to explain why men would stop their ears at the mention of certain topics.

Part One, titled "Sin and Secularity," meanders over seven chapters before dropping the reader into something called "innocent secularity," a legitimacy in irreligion which ought to be recognized by all, according to the author. At this point, the epistemelogically self-conscious Antithesis subscriber picks himself up, wipes himself off, and parts company with author Wills. Book reviewers are not permitted to leave, so on we go. Near the end of Chapter 7, Wills charges that only recently have evangelicals taken to calling innocent secularities by the name of "religion". It is not fair, according to the author, to say that the atheist, card-carrying Greenpeace member is actually committed to a God-hating religion. Why can't they be nice secular humanists? Why can't religion just stay in its ghetto? Sorry Mr. Wills, that's not a Biblical option. Two other comments are in order for Part One of the book. First, the author ought to leave Greek word studies to Col. Thieme. Wills' definition of teleios leaves, shall we say, something to be desired. Second, Wills sketches the transformation of Gary Hartpence, the Nazarene wonder-boy, to Gary Hart, the libertine and candidate. For students of perfectionist streams in church history, the case of Gary Hart is one more example of latent antinomianism lived out in those who must continually redefine sin for the sake of satisfying their perfectionist ethic. The list of the fallen did not begin with Hart and will not end with him.

Parts Two through Four treat the Scopes "Monkey" trial, premillenial dispensationalist eschatology, and various charismatic leaders. Much of the detail is embarrassing, even if the foibles are those of distant relatives, theologically speaking. Wills' judgment of that part of the ghetto can be summarized by the closing lines of Chapter 14: "The problem with evangelical religion is not (so much) that it encroaches on politics, but that it has so carelessly neglected its own sources of wisdom. It cannot contribute what it no longer possesses." You can almost hear the dirt hit the coffin.

Part Five covers religion in Black America. No such treatment would be complete without a profile of Jesse Jackson. Among other things, Wills makes a case that Jesse Jackson's coalition was a major factor in the defeat of Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. Part Six continues the debate over the Bork nomination into the discussion of pornography and censorship. Interestingly, Wills defends the Puritans against charges of sexual moronism. He writes, "The Puritans of New England were brutally frank, in ways that would shock people misnamed for them in later ages. Theirs was an open, scriptural morality enforced by literal investigations that would be hard to cover in family newspapers even now." In Wills' view the Puritans were blamed for the labors of Victorians.

Part Seven is titled "Politics and Abortion," and explores the political connections and liabilities associated with abortion. The survey includes Mario Cuomo, the late Francis Schaeffer, and Randall Terry. Again, on the matter of when human life begins, Wills accuses the evangelicals of doing theology on the run. He points to Augustine's confusion on the matter as evidence that Psalm 139 has not, historically, been understood to teach that human life begins at conception. You'll have to read it for yourself.

Part Eight is a paeon to the glories of disestablishment; dises-tablishment of religion, that is. Given Wills' choice of religious figures, we can all thank God for any obstacle keeping any one of them from the exercise of political power. But that's not what Garry Wills is talking about, either here or elsewhere in the book. Wills, as a journalist and representative of the nomenklatura, offers to acknowledge the "religious element" represented by evangelical Christianity. What he asks for in return is that evangelical Christianity acknowledge its status as one element among many, and accept the legitimacy of innocent secularity. Looks like a white flag to me.


Terry Morin (Ph.D.; University of Michigan) is a Fellow of History at New St. Andrews College.


Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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