An Antidote for Christian Theoconservatism

Edd Doerr

Head and Heart: American Christianities, by Garry Wills (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59420-146-2) 626 pp. Cloth $29.95.


“The Federal Constitution was, in short, the eighteenth-century equivalent of a secular humanist text. The delegates [to the Constitutional Convention] were not a very orthodox group of men in any doctrinal sense. The only born-again Christian among them was probably Richard Bassett of Delaware . . . who said nothing at the Convention.” So writes distinguished historian Garry Wills in Head and Heart: American Christianities, a magisterial, richly detailed, and invaluable exploration of the history of religion in America from the colonial days to the current faith-based government, which he calls the “Karl Rove Era.”

Wills explains the Puritan Evangelicalism of this country’s beginnings and then traces the development of what he labels “Enlightenment Religion.” He shows how the mid-eighteenth century Evangelical Awakening paved the way for the “Enlightenment Religion” of the principal Founders. He writes, significantly, that “It was not the Awakening that fostered the Enlightenment, but the reaction against the Awakening.”

Wills agrees with religious-studies expert William Lee Miller that “the chief founders of the nation were all Deists—he [Miller] lists Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Paine, though many more leaders of the founding era could be added (Benjamin Rush, John Witherspoon, David Rittenhouse, Philip Freneau, Joel Barlow, Aaron Burr, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and Tench Coxe, to name some).” Wills concludes that “Whatever their faults, the Deists delivered us from the horrors of pre-Enlightenment religion, title enough to honor. They also founded this country.” Thus history gives the lie to the contemporary theocon propaganda push to convince Americans that the Founders set up a “Christian nation.” This of course is borne out by the ” with Tripoli, ratified by the Senate, which stipulates that “the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

Early on, Wills makes clear that the Founders wanted a clean break with the European religious-establishment tradition. They concocted a secular constitution for a secular government, and, following Jefferson and Madison, they intended the First Amendment to erect a wall of separation between church and state.

Religion in America has had its ups and downs. The first Awakening was something of a flash in the pan in the mid-eighteenth century, and it faded away during the Founding era. The second Evangelical Awakening was off and running early in the nineteenth century, but it ended with the Civil War and the split in Protestant denominations between the North and the South. Another Evangelical Awakening began during the Gilded Age, but it subsided after the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial.” The last evangelical surge—led by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their imitators—began as a reaction to the civil rights revolution, the Supreme Court’s school-prayer rulings, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that liberated women from mandatory motherhood.

This last Awakening culminated in the “Karl Rove Era” and the faith-based government of George W. Bush. Wills writes that Rove’s “real skill lay in finding how to use religion as a political tool,” making the “executive branch of the United States more openly religious than it had ever been.” Ironically, as Wills notes, Rove had/has “no discernible religious beliefs himself,” a fact confirmed recently by journalist Bill Moyers on his public television show when he identified “Bush’s brain” as an agnostic. As Sherwin Wine pointed out not long before his tragic death, humanism and unbelief are not synonymous.

Wills, a practicing Catholic, does not hesitate to take on his church’s unelected leadership. While he praises Pope John XXIII and the reforms of Vatican Council II, he notes that those reforms began to collapse with Paul VI and his 1968 encyclical letter condemning contraception, Humanae Vitae.

Wills then tackles the abortion-rights debate head on. “It is not demonstrable,” he writes, “that killing fetuses is killing persons.” He highlights the inconsistencies in the Catholic Church’s official position on abortion, observes correctly that the Jewish and Christian scriptures and theologians through Aquinas and beyond never regarded embryos or fetuses as persons, and concludes that “There is no theological basis for either defending or condemning abortion.” At the end of the day, Wills writes, abortion rights is a matter of turning to “reason and science, the realism of Enlightened religion.” The “relevant experts . . . are philosophers, neurobiologists, embryologists,” whose views evangelicals “do not want to hear.” Wills comes down on the side of the consensus of scientists, which is that a fetus does not become “a human person” (author’s emphasis) until it has a functioning brain, which “is not present in the fetus until the end of the sixth month at the earliest (what Roe called the beginning of the third trimester).”

Wills’s conclusions: Church-state separation is what the Founders intended. And, contrary to the rants of the theocons, it “has not led to the suppression of religion by the state. Just the opposite. It meant the freeing of religion. We can see in the past how a breaching of the separation led to setbacks for religion.” Wills adds, “In the third period of Evangelical hypertropism, that orchestrated by Karl Rove, there was a similar discrediting of religion as a political tool.”

“Enlightened religion,” in which Wills would probably include unhyphenated humanism, need not be “desiccated and cerebral”; evangelical religion need not be “mindlessly enthusiastic, all heat and no light.”

In winding up his extensive treatment of the Bush/Rove era, Wills blasts the theocon-motivated Bush administration’s multimillion-dollar abstinence-only program, “which has failed repeatedly,” and concludes that “for a supposedly Enlightened government to oppose contraception, sex education, and family planning is sub-primitive.”

This book belongs high on the best-seller list.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


Head and Heart: American Christianities, by Garry Wills (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59420-146-2) 626 pp. Cloth $29.95. “The Federal Constitution was, in short, the eighteenth-century equivalent of a secular humanist text. The delegates [to the Constitutional Convention] were not a very orthodox group of men in any doctrinal sense. The only born-again …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.