UNDER GOD

Religion and American Politics

By Garry Wills

Simon and Schuster. 445 pp. $24.95

IN DECEMBER 1950, every recruit going through basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, was issued a steel-covered Old or New Testament -- small enough to fit into a shirt pocket over the heart. Since the Air Force assumed that everyone was Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, no one could refuse to accept one or the other. Also, at least once during the three-month basic training period, each flight of recruits was marched to the base chapel to hear a sermon by a military chaplain whose salary was paid by taxpayers. Attendance was mandatory.

I was a member of Flight 6417 at Lackland and if I understand what Garry Wills is saying in his new book, none of what happened there 40 years ago should have surprised me.

In Under God: Religion and American Politics, Wills divides 445 pages into 33 short chapters (plus notes) that wander all over the political landscape, invoking the Puritans and Roger Williams and reaching back to Augustine, but focusing on the past decade and coming down hard with the argument that religion -- specifically Christianity -- has been an aspect of American politics from the very beginning and is certain to stay that way, despite the constitutional mandate for the separation of church and state.

It is a choppy, uneven work, but whatever problems one may have with the book's episodic structure, Wills makes some compelling points. For example: In 1980 voters from the religious Right abandoned "born-again" Baptist Jimmy Carter -- whom they had never supported ardently -- for Ronald Reagan, a candidate whose Christian credentials were dubious but who "was far closer to the range of their concerns than Jimmy Carter had ever been." The unstated conclusion: Conservative Christians were less interested in conservative Christianity than they were in conservative politics.

While some readers will be frustrated by the book's random organization -- chapters vault from Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis to John Scopes, Marilyn Quayle, Abraham Lincoln, Jesse Jackson and back to Dukakis -- it is an organization that enables Wills to dissect individual topics with breathtaking clarity. A devastating analysis of Pat Robertson's claim to righteousness makes it almost impossible to avoid recalling P.T. Barnum's observation about the gullibility of the American public. The chapters on pornography and censorship reveal cadres of sanctimonious hypocrites who seem to have no purpose in life but to keep other people from enjoying themselves. Wills's description of the history of Protestant fundamentalism, which ranges over several chapters, can be appreciated apart from its political connections.

There is an occasional problem with balance. Wills juxtaposes Jackson and Robertson as clergymen from opposite corners of the political spectrum. But Jackson had a high political profile long before 1988, while Robertson was little known outside of the world of Christian television. Also, Jackson's faith emerged as an essentially secular concern for social programs. Robertson, perceiving the issues almost exclusively in moral terms, saw political conflict as a struggle between God and Satan.

There are also inconsistencies. To show that presumably well-informed people can believe in biblical myths and that Christian fundamentalism is not exclusively the domain of the simple-minded and poorly educated, Wills alludes to Marilyn Quayle's public confession of a belief in creationism and Noah's ark. For the same reason, he describes how her parents, and her husband's, were attracted to the teachings of ultra-conservative preacher Robert B. Thieme of Houston. But as Wills unmercifully demolishes Thieme's claim to wisdom, it becomes increasingly obvious that the Texan's success was dependent on the credulity of supporters like Dan Quayle's parents and in-laws.

UNFORTUNATELY, Wills does not take advantage of the opportunity to attack the heart of the evangelical position. He criticizes Christian churches and people who call themselves Christians, but does not criticize Christianity as a belief system. Fundamentalists insist there is no other truth than the Bible as they see it. Since they also believe they have a divine mandate to spread the truth, it is impossible to convince them that they do not have the right to force their views on others. This means that, ultimately, the only way to discredit such people is to discredit their ideological foundations. But in referring, for example, to the enormous popularity of Hal Lindsey's books, Wills says nothing about their underlying mythology.

Similarly, he notes correctly that "most political commentators show acute discomfort when faced with the expression of religious values." Journalists are "uneasy" and "tongue-tied" and "editors seem to prefer inarticulacy on the subject." In fact, one can detect in these sentences the faint smell of fear. Yet in his subtitle Wills eschews the specific and provocative "Christianity" in favor of the vague and benign "Religion." Acute discomfort, perhaps?

Forrest G. Wood teaches history at California State University, Bakersfield, and is the author of "The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century."