Dividing Lines

Reviewed by Stephen Prothero
Sunday, December 16, 2007


American Christianities

By Garry Wills

Penguin Press. 626 pp. $29.95

Denominational lines no longer matter much in the United States, not least because few Americans know any more what distinguishes a Baptist from a Methodist or a Lutheran from a Presbyterian. As the furor over homosexuality in the Episcopal Church demonstrates, the issues cracking open U.S. churches today are political rather than theological -- gay marriage and abortion rather than baptism and Holy Communion.

In his latest book, Head and Heart, Garry Wills surveys the fault lines in U.S. Christianity and argues that the real fracture is between "Enlightened" religion (of the head) and "Evangelical" religion (of the heart). Throughout American history, he writes, Christians have oscillated between these "two poles of religious attraction." Wills is a liberal Catholic and an outspoken champion of the separation of church and state, so it should not be surprising that his sympathies run with the enlightened camp. But the genius of American religion, he argues, lies in our promiscuous mixing of the heady and the heartfelt, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. And America's saints -- among them, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and the Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet (to whom the book is dedicated) -- are those who synthesize the two most effectively.

A popular history of American Christianity, Head and Heart starts in New England with Puritan ministers, then lingers over the Unitarians of Boston and the Transcendentalists of Concord before jumping rather abruptly into the "culture wars" of the 20th century. Throughout, Wills focuses almost exclusively on the thinking of white men. Head and Heart reads, therefore, like U.S. religious history books of an earlier generation -- before interest in Buddhism challenged the preoccupation of historians with Christianity, before historians of the West challenged our preoccupation with New England, before scholars of ritual upended our preoccupation with religious thought, and before women and blacks made places for themselves at the historiographic table.

Another peculiarity of this book is its frequent shifting between historical and biographical modes. Head and Heart contains more than 30 subsections devoted to individual thinkers, so at points it reads more like an encyclopedia of American religious biography than a narrative of American religion.

Still, the book has its virtues, particularly some fine writing and a bravado sorely lacking in more standard histories. Wills calls them as he sees them, and he delivers his calls with all the nuance of a World Series umpire. Anti-Catholicism was the "organizing principle" of Puritanism, he writes. "The Civil War was a religious war." "Abortion is not even a religious issue." And today's Bush administration has given us not only "faith-based social services" but also "faith-based justice," "faith-based health," "faith-based science" and a "faith-based war." While other interpreters of American religion downplay the importance of Transcendentalism, Wills understands the centrality of Emerson, Thoreau and their kin to their own time and our own. Calling Transcendentalism "the American religion of the 19th century" may be going a bit too far (there is, of course, evangelicalism to consider), but Wills is right to recognize that we all speak Emerson now, that our preference for spirituality over organized religion and our willingness to seek divinity in the woods as well as in church were bequeathed to us from our Transcendentalist forbears. (See related review on page 10.)

Wills also makes a strong case for enlightened religion as religion. In the 1920s, Princeton seminary professor John Gresham Machen proclaimed that there was nothing wrong with people who did not see the Bible as the inerrant word of God as long as they didn't pretend to be Christians. And today there is a strong bias among fundamentalists and atheists alike toward restricting the category of "Christian" to hardcore believers. Enlightened religion is, in their view, a cop-out for Doubting Thomases and others of little faith (and courage). But as Wills makes plain here, enlightened religion is no less religious for believing that God gave us brains as well as hearts.

Sometimes Wills's advocacy trips him up, however, and he becomes more culture warrior than historian. He devotes an entire chapter to trashing Karl Rove, he perpetuates more stereotypes about evangelicals than he upends, and he repeatedly draws on military metaphors ("warring absolutes," "counterattack," even "machine gun bursts") to describe American religion today.

American Christianity is no doubt divided into enlightened and evangelical camps. And part of what makes 11 o'clock on Sunday morning the most segregated hour in American life is that it is divided along political and racial lines as well. But the culture wars are more a product of the media than the mainstream. Most Americans want a way to think and talk about religion that is more sane, more informed and less shrill than what you hear from the average talking head on television. A book that argues for the importance of integrating the head and the heart could have provided a model for moving above and beyond the culture wars; instead, it succeeds in demonstrating how necessary this remains. *

Stephen Prothero is the chair of Boston University's Department of Religion and the author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company