A Review of Garry Wills' Head and Heart: American Christianities
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Dec 01, 2007 at 09:38:26 AM EST
Regular readers have no doubt noticed that I have recently been citing Garry Wills' new book, Head and Heart: American Christianities, a lot.  Well, there is good reason. Even at five hundred-plus pages -- I cannot recommend it enough as essential reading for readers of this site.
Garry Wills is a national treasure. As I previously wrote:
A Pulitzer Prize winner, perhaps no one is as prolific at writing on Church politics, Catholicism and American history with an independent mind than historian Garry Wills. He is one of a handful of writers with the necessary background (an extensive Jesuit education that included being a novitiate as well as earning PhD in classics from Yale) that allows him to authoritatively discuss subjects as diverse as Saint Augustine and Abraham Lincoln.

If you're looking for a good primer that chronicles Christianity in America, here is your book.Head and Heart records how Christianity developed in America, all the way from the Puritans to the current post-Karl Rove era of politics.  Perhaps most importantly, Wills provides us with valuable terminology. For example, right out the outset he explains the title within the context of the book's goal: to balance American Christianity's head (Enlightened) with its heart (Evangelical):

"Enlightened Religion," to describe the interdependence of thought and faith. He defines it as having "...its emphasis on reason, benevolence, tolerance and secular progress."


...professes a belief in "the laws of nature and of nature's God." It holds that reason is the tool for understanding those laws, and that humane conduct is what those laws teach.

He then contrasts this with "Evangelical Religion":

Evangelicals, by contrast, emphasize an experimental relationship with Jesus as their savior, along with biblical inerrancy and a mission to save others.

Doing Justice to the Founders
For our purposes, some of the most important chapters concern the Founders. Wills tackles Religious Right historical revisionists head on, particularly necon Catholic Michael Novak. For example, when discussing Founders such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison -- Wills cuts through the Religious Right's mythological casting of them as "crypto-Evangelicals, crypto-Jews, or crypto-Catholics. " Instead, he accurately describes them as Deists mostly Unitarian (as opposed to Trinitarian) in their religiosity. Wills even addresses their prejudices, citing examples of both anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism in their writings. But in assessing their impact , Wills looks at the bigger picture, concluding: "Whatever their faults, the Deists delivered us from the horrors of pre-Enlightenment religion, title enough to honor. They also founded this country. "

Wills also painstakingly establishes how Jefferson and Madison were indeed after establishing a Constitutional separation of church and state. Piece by piece, he takes apart the assertion of historian Philip Hamburger who has maintained that the Founders never intended a true separation in the First Amendment."  He does so by using both the Founders' own writings as well explaining their actions within, the historical context of the then-current backlash against The Great Awakening of 1730 through 1770--America's first period of Evangelical expansion.

The Transcendentalists
Another extremely informative part of Head and Heart deals with the Transcendentalist movement. Here Lincoln's faith is examined. And while it is clear that the Emancipator was a spiritual man, Wills demonstrates that he was not the proto-Evangelical of revisionist mythology. Instead, he was profoundly influenced by the abolitionist Unitarian Theodore Parker.  As the author observes at page 330:

What is relevant to discussion of Lincoln's religion is that the Transcendentalists were at a far remove from the Evangelicals. The religion of the common man (so called) was Evangelicalism. Lincoln was a champion of the common people, so there is a wish that his religion would be theirs. But it was not. He was aware, as Doris Kearns Goodwin and others have pointed out, that he was an uncommon man with a radically original mind. He was more at home in the conceptual world of the Transcendentalists than in that of revival preachers. Yet [historian Richard] Carwardine completely ignores the Transcendentalists while trying to make improbable ties to the Evangelicals.

Addressing the Rapture
Also of critical importance are the two primary chapters on the Dispensationalists. These are chapters twenty-one (Second Coming Theology) and twenty two (Second Coming Politics).  Wills first concisely explains the rise of Dwight Moody, John Darby and others who shaped Second Coming theology among fundamentalists. Then, while explaining shortcomings (mostly from a reliance upon erroneous translations of Scripture, specifically Matthew 24: 37-44) of this belief; how their thinking eschews societal reform (helps prevent the need to be born again) and is a presence still felt today through the likes of Billy Graham, James Dobson and others.  

But more importantly, Wills explains exactly how Rapture-based theology dovetails neatly with economic royalists who oppose economic reform (Why reform this world? All that would do is to help evil and delay the rapture). To that end, Wills gives examples of how conservative businessmen of the Gilded Age were the precursors of today's financial muscle for the Religious Right, who similarly use their wealth to finance Dispensationalists who do much to discourage both social and economic fairness.

Addressing a Post-Karl Rove World
Wills does a masterful job of taking the reader through the twentieth century, touching upon the Social Gospel, the Scopes Trial , the New Deal, and the coalescing of today's Religious Right. Although he does not go into great detail with certain key players (Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, for example) he instead focuses upon how changes in American society allowed these folks to come to the national forefront. The author then demonstrates how all these factors then converged and set the stage for the presidency of George W. Bush.

But the Bush presidency and its focus on Karl Rove's manipulation of Evangelicals is not pinnacle of this book. Instead, the future is. Throughout, Wills focuses on two conclusions: First, Evangelical religious movements never go away, but ebb and flow; and secondly, that sometimes a combination of both views of Christianity yields good results.

Wills believes that just as there was and adverse reactions to the Great Awakenings, we are now entering a similar period of reaction. To this end, Wills cites environmental concerns among various Evangelicals. He then observes  that sometimes when reason-based faith combines with more emotionally driven faith, positive change can come about. Wills cites abolition and the civil rights movement as his primary examples (the combination of the thought of progressive churches and the zeal of African-American evangelical churches being the winning formula).

Wills is certainly pro-choice. And he makes a compelling case that outlawing abortion will not have the Religious Right's desired goal of ending artificial termination. Instead, he uses the historical context of Prohibition of how women will go underground to have the procedures done, possibly creating another lucrative business for organized crime much as outlawing the sale and transportation did after World War one. Additionally, he strongly challenges the Religious Right's theological opposition on abortion, noting that that such hostility is derived not from Scripture, but from natural law principles.

The book has some shortcomings, but they are few and far in between. A thorough discussion of natural law principles and its non-theological inspiration would have strengthened several of the author's arguments, particularly concerning biological matters. It would have also been more helpful to have terms such as "latitudinarianism" and "justification" better explained (for the first half of the book a reader not schooled in theological terminology might want to have a search engine handy).  But these are minor matters in an otherwise important book; required reading for those who want to better understand how we got to today's culture wars--and better yet, having a guide to recognize historical revisionism from historical fact.

In various places in head and Heart, specifically when discussing the legacy of the Scopes Trial, Wills makes a case for the Enlightened faithful to reach out to the Evangelical faithful. For example, he points out that after the Scopes Trial Evangelicals retreated into their own world but were far from decimated. Wills believed that in the wake of this humiliation, instead engaging in humiliating demonization of all Evangelicals, perhaps an opportunity was lost to reach out to many of its followers.

Wills is not saying to surrender Enlightened principles--far from it. And yes, there are certain folks on the other side who cannot be trusted (both the IRD and the Moon organization immediately come to mind), but as Rev. Czik demonstrated with global warming, there are bridges to be built.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Dec 01, 2007 at 09:39:50 AM EST

It was excellent, and I found it worth adding to my library.

by khughes1963 on Sat Dec 01, 2007 at 03:26:57 PM EST
All 500+ pages? Man, can you read!

Do you agree that it shoud be required reading for the Talk to Action audience?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Dec 01, 2007 at 06:29:51 PM EST

I think Garry Wills gives a perspective on religious faith that we don't often see covered in the news, or even in history classes. I mentioned to my father that if Garry Wills ever visits Notre Dame (I understand that Garry Wills is on Northwestern's faculty) that my parents should go see him. Dad liked what he read of Papal Sin.

by khughes1963 on Sat Dec 01, 2007 at 07:13:24 PM EST

Wills' book does sound like a must read, especially - in terms some of my interests, the background of Gilded-Age funding of Dispensationalists.

by Bruce Wilson on Sat Dec 01, 2007 at 08:31:26 PM EST
This was a part of the book that really blew me away (the other, discussing the Founders). The parallels between those who funded Moody and those who now fund the IRD are quiite striking. Talk to Action readers will see this immediately.  

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Dec 01, 2007 at 09:05:16 PM EST
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.
(This is from the New American Bible.)

by khughes1963 on Sun Dec 02, 2007 at 04:15:27 PM EST

I recently read Pollock's old biography of Moody; but there's not much in there at all about his "second coming" views, and the link to CI Scofield (whom Moody employed as a pastor at Northfield) is glossed over very quickly.

There is one book which has more on Scofield and Moody, but unfortunately it's written by one of Rushdoony's allies. This means you have to wade through pages of neo-Confederate and Dominionist BS pick out the useful nuggets of information: Joseph Canfield, The Incredible Scofield and his Book. Canfield suggests secret plotting by the Plymouth Brethren to get Moody on board, but there's more innuendo than evidence provided.

by Richard Bartholomew on Mon Dec 03, 2007 at 03:34:55 AM EST

Richard, I think you'll like what you find here. Wills uses an historian's approach in explaining not only who Moody was, but how he still affects today's Religious Right.

As Fred says, it is vital that we know as much about our opponents as possible. Knowledge is power. This book does quite a bit to help accomplish this goal.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Dec 04, 2007 at 07:27:42 AM EST

to repect your recommndations and opinions very much, Frank, so I shall read this book at my first opportunity.

by nogodsnomasters on Mon Dec 03, 2007 at 09:34:41 PM EST
Because of the volume it may take a bit of time, but for what you'll get out of it, it'll be time well spent.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Dec 04, 2007 at 04:14:57 PM EST

Thanks for giving us this book tip! It seems to be a fairly interesting book and I will try to get the time to read it soon.
Kate, IT Professional currently working on the Female Enhancement Online Pharmacies project.
by Kate R on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 07:55:37 AM EST

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