You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Brains and Beliefs

Read the recent books making the case against religion, and you might think that the biggest conflict in this country is between those who believe and those who do not. Listen to evangelicals proclaiming that they have every right to question Mitt Romney's Mormonism, and you might conclude that the biggest disagreements are between one religion and another. Garry Wills has another point to make. The argument of Head and Heart is that we are hopelessly divided not over religions and not between religions, but within religions. American Christianity in general, and American Protestantism more specifically, has always contained two currents, two wings--one that appeals to logic and reason, and another that appeals to emotion and belonging.

Every era in American history, Wills maintains, has witnessed a struggle between these two ways of understanding what God is said to want of us. Every era, that is, except the first one. Wills calls the form of religion that appeals to the head "enlightened" and the other kind "evangelical." Yet, as Wills acknowledges, such terms do not apply to the period that began with the Puritan establishment and ended with the Great Awakening. There can be no enlightened religion without an Enlightenment, and since the Puritans established themselves here before the philosophes started writing the Encyclopædia, their theology was too imprisoning of the intellectual to be called thoughtful. Nonetheless, Wills argues, the Puritan intellect "would forge tools later useful to the Enlightenment," especially its insistence on individualism and its taste for scholasticism. If the Puritans were not really enlightened, moreover, the Awakening, for all its fervent revivals, was not completely evangelical, since it attracted serious thinkers such as Jonathan Edwards and never really broke with Puritan theology. Genuine Enlightenment religion would not come to this country until men such as John Adams began to question the Trinity and its conceptions of an all-powerful and sin-obsessed God.

The era in which the United States was created therefore offers a better fit for Wills's dichotomy. Not only did it feature Adams's Unitarianism, it also allowed a prominent role for Quakerism. Wills dedicates his book to one of the lesser-known members of the Society of Friends, Anthony Benezet (17181784), a French Huguenot who was an early opponent of slavery, a genuine humanitarian, and an exponent of religious tolerance. Whether Benezet is, as Wills calls him, "the one unquestionably authentic American saint" is for those more interested than myself in beatifying people to judge; but, as a native Philadelphian, I can testify to the extraordinary legacy left by this most enlightened of religions. For Wills, Deists such as Jefferson and Paine should also be included in the Enlightenment camp. Although activists on the Christian right insist that the United States was founded on Christian principles--some of them go so far as to suggest that the Founders were evangelicals--Wills points out that this country actually experienced a decline, perhaps its only decline, in evangelicalism during the late eighteenth century. This gave adherents to Enlightenment visions of the faith their chance, and they took it, creating the world's first, and most successful, society committed to disestablishmentarianism.

The Transcendentalists were, in Wills's account, people of the head rather than people of the heart: "Emerson said he was all of the future and none of the past. But he could not escape the Puritan spell." Instead, he took key assumptions of Puritan theology, such as the notion that God is directly involved in the business of salvation, and translated them into Transcendental terms. Or consider the Transcendentalists' worship of nature: in this, too, they were following the Puritan reverence for the beauty contained in wild things. They were also elitists--in search, after all, of the American "scholar," not the common man to whom the evangelicals were appealing. Long before Massachusetts developed its reputation as the home of Kerry voters and Volvo drivers, it had the reputation of Brook Farm and Walden Pond.

Too effete for the common people, Transcendentalism could not compete with what Wills calls "do-it-yourself religion," which is as good a term as any for the evangelical revival of the nineteenth century. The camp meeting, the calls for a personal relationship with Jesus, the preacher as entrepreneur, the reliance on means of mass communication: all these phenomena helped evangelicals to spread their faith as the country expanded westward and as democracy radiated through the land. Even the Civil War could not stop the fervor. If anything, the passions unleashed by the Civil War led to evangelical revivals all over the place; white Southerners defending slavery, New England and Midwest abolitionists attacking it, and slaves themselves living with and reacting against the chains holding them down--all, with different aims and leaders, were colored by the evangelical spirit of the times.

The Gilded Age had its own version of the same struggle. On the one hand there was the Social Gospel and its close ties with the Progressive movement; on the other, the homespun Populism of William Jennings Bryan and his unbending faith in Jesus. America's two religious sensibilities were so powerful that they spilled out of their religious boundaries into politics: both Progressivism and Populism are usually located on the left, but one was elitist, urban, bookish, and Northern, while the other was popular, revivalist, rural, and Southern.

And so we come, as the reader all along knows we will, to the culture wars of the twentieth century. Those wars have their origin in the fundamentalist protest against modernity, where it is not difficult to see the forces lining up to support Wills's argument. In one corner stands biblical literalism, pre-Millennialism, male chauvinism, American exceptionalism, anti-Catholicism, and political conservatism. In the other: biblical scholarship, post-Millennialism, internationalism, religious toleration, gender equality, and political liberalism. (Pre-Mills and post-Mills differed on when Jesus would return to earth: for the former, his arrival is imminent and, aside from personal redemption, there is little we can do to prepare; for the latter, his arrival is far off and we can improve the social world before he comes.) From the 1920s until the 1980s, the Enlightenment camp thought it was winning the struggle. Only in the past few decades has it begun to realize the extent to which it was routed.

Wills ends his account not with Jerry Falwell on one side and followers of Reinhold Niebuhr on the other, but with Karl Rove. The election of 2000 was a turning point for Wills. Americans sometimes say they are a religious country, but in 2000 they actually became one, and it was all the work of Rove. Did Wills write his entire book to defend the religion of the head against the religion of the heart generally, or more specifically against the especially noxious form it took in the politics of George W. Bush? His concluding two chapters lead one to believe that his inspiration was mainly political. The Republican base hates every- thing that Enlightened religion has brought to this country and wants to stop it dead in its tracks. It routinely violates the First Amendment. It lets fanatical Christian activists write legislation. It forced politicians to rush to the bedside of Terri Schiavo, whom they saw as the world's "oldest and largest fetus." "All the Evangelicals' resentments under previous presidents, including Republicans like Reagan and the first Bush, were now being addressed," Wills writes.

Wills's book is appearing at precisely the moment of Rove's decline and departure, and it may well be that the next period of American history will witness a more appropriate balance between America's Christian sensibilities. If this is so, Barack Obama may be the person to lead us there, as Wills implies by quoting at length from him. It is certainly where we ought to go, Wills believes. Although the bulk of his book draws contrasts between the religion of the head and the religion of the heart, the book ends with a passionate plea for their reconciliation. "These are not separate churches or separate religions," Wills says of Enlightenment and Evangelical religion. "They do not excommunicate each other. They are simply two tendencies, two temperaments, and an absolute or sterile division between them is stultifying."

Garry Wills is in many ways the ideal man to explain American religion to Americans. He is a Catholic who has a deep understanding of Protestant sensibilities. Now on the left, he began his career on the right. Though he is thoroughly conversant with American history, he is anything but an academic specialist. He sides with the forces of reason, but he appreciates the power of emotion. Most important, he really knows something about religion, both about what it means to be religious as well as about the many forms that religion takes in the world made by human beings. Head and Heart is most certainly not a work of apology; Wills is not defending any particular faith, least of all his own. But neither is it an angry polemic denouncing religion with little understanding of why people might choose to put their faith in God. Wills has written a significant book, and it ought to be widely read.

Yet it is also a frustrating book. As is true of nearly all his work, Wills loves to picture himself as the only person who sees the light, who gets it right, when everyone else is enveloped in fog. A typical example of this comes already in his introduction. Conservatives want to believe that America was religious at its Founding so that they can argue that it should be religious now. Liberal secularists, oddly enough, agree with them, because they want to point to how much progress we have made since then. "Both myths are wrong," Wills proclaims. "Both present the exact opposite of what actually occurred." Whenever an author tells me that he is going to explode a myth, I know he is about to say something highly unoriginal.

The oddest aspect of Wills's spirit of iconoclasm is that his book is entirely dependent on the work of other scholars. The history of American religion was told in prodigious detail by Sidney Mead and Sydney Ahlstrom a generation ago. Wills, relying on them for much of his detail, has no correctives to offer to anything they said. In more recent years, a new generation of historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, has offered erudite and fascinating accounts of the evangelical experience. Once again, Wills uses them extensively without challenging their findings. Head and Heart is best understood as a well-written re-telling of stories by now widely known, not as a path-breaking re-interpretation of everything we once thought we knew.

There is also his odd technique--it is almost a mental tic--of finding a duality throughout history so as to suggest at the end that the duality ought to be overcome. If the division between Enlightenment religion and evangelical religion is, and ought to be, porous, as Wills claims in his conclusion, then chances are that it has always been firmer in theory than in practice. And so the thesis of Wills's book is constantly in danger of being undermined by the elaboration that the book provides.

Consider a few of the figures and movements that Wills discusses. Some of them belong to neither the Enlightened nor the Evangelical camp--including Tom Paine, who, contrary to Wills, was about as irreligious as a prominent eighteenth-century writer could be. And others belong to both camps: Jonathan Edwards, to cite only the most prominent example, was an avid reader of both John Locke and Isaac Newton, and at the same time a sympathizer with the Great Awakening. And Edwards was by no means singular in this regard. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a man of the head, a momentously formidable intellectual, but he and his fellow Transcendentalists lead more directly to mind cures and hippies than they do to academic departments of theology. The Methodists were evangelical in spirit, but they were led by John Wesley, whom at least one historian--Gertrude Himmelfarb--classifies as an Enlightenment figure; and in any case, American Methodists, evangelical in the nineteenth century, became the very definition of a mainline religion in contemporary times. Fundamentalists were anti-intellectual but given to writing dense, excessively footnoted books. Sacred music--a subject that Wills neglects--can appeal to both our intellect and our feelings. If what we really should want is a balance between these poles, well, that is to a considerable extent what we always have had.

Wills's book is subtitled "American Christianities," so, given his topic, it is fair enough that it never discusses Jews, even if modern Judaism offers the very model of an Enlightenment religion. Yet why does he spend so little time on non-Protestant but still Christian faiths? Mormonism, a genuinely American original, makes no appearance in the book. If it did, would it be called a religion of the heart, a religion of the head, or some combination of the two? Mormons have produced one prominent university and a number of distinguished historians, but it hardly seems right, given the hostility to academic freedom characteristic of Brigham Young University, to call Mormonism an Enlightenment faith. But neither is Mormonism primarily a religion of the heart; its followers are not known for speak- ing in tongues. Theories live or die by their application to hard cases, and by avoiding one of the hardest of them all, Wills evades a great complication and misses a chance to shed light on a genuinely puzzling issue.

It cannot be the case that Wills ignores Mormons because he accepts the notion, put forward by the church's critics, that it is not Christian. I say this because he also manages to downplay his own religion. It is odd that Wills spends so little time on Catholicism, since, unlike Mormonism, both the head and the heart have played a major role in the Catholic church's life in America. On the one hand, it was shaped by great thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, its teachings were encoded in rigorously argued documents, and it created great universities, including the one in which I teach. On the other hand, the church was no great friend of the intellect when the mind wandered into those paths called liberalism, modernism, and science. And even if we want to call Catholic anti-intellectualism a matter of the head--"I don't care what kind of an intellectual you are," one can easily imagine Joe McCarthy screaming at one of his anti-intellectual supporters--the church in America was for a long time an immigrant church, and while the more austere arrivals from Germany and Ireland were more attracted to the church's doctrinal side, others, especially those from Italy and Latin America, were more attuned to forms of public devotionalism that speak to the heart. A church that includes both the Thomists associated with the University of Chicago and the televised homilies of Fulton J. Sheen, Bing Crosby, and the Easter Parade would seem a perfect fit for Wills's analysis.

And this, in turn, suggests that what Wills views as an essentially Protestant dualism applies more broadly to every religion. Judaism's intellectuality may be its most prominent feature, but it does have its mystics and obscurantists and fideists and New Agers. And for all I know, individual Mormons may resonate emotionally with the Tabernacle Choir. Religion, as we learned from Weber and Durkheim, appeals to another world while living firmly in this one. Since it is already given to dichotomies--the sacred and the profane, the sinful and the saved, heaven and hell, good versus evil--shouldn't we expect that, by its very dualistic propensities, it will appeal to both reason and revelation? Clearly some religions lean one way and others in a different direction, but they are all wrestling with the same forces.

Moreover, once you start down this path, there is no reason to stop with religion. Anthropologists such as Claude Lévi- Strauss and Mary Douglas remind us that dichotomizing is another term for culture: the raw and the cooked, purity and danger--the list is endless. Perhaps the dualism between the heart and the head is not something that people have learned from religion, but something that religion has learned from people. It is not, after all, as if the conflict between reason and emotion were confined to prayer. Baseball fanatics can be divided into passionate fans and keepers of statistics; psychotherapy relies on powerful memories and on logical deduction; and foreign-policy-making includes both realists and idealists. Some dualities are not useful because they apply to too few things, and some are not useful because they apply to too many.

If Wills's target is really the evangelical revival so prominent in today's Republican Party, his analysis does not add much to what we already know about it. Is Pat Robertson a man of the heart or a man of the head? The only answer one can give is that, like Tom Paine, he is neither--but for the opposite reason. Robertson, so far as I can tell, rarely uses his head; he is the very definition of a right-wing anti-intellectual. But neither does he in any large way use his heart: he is mean-spirited, and he seems to be totally devoid of enthusiasm for anything other than his successful business ventures and self-promoting media appearances. Just because nearly everyone is divided between the head and the heart does not mean that everyone is.

One of Wills's most interesting points involves abortion, the issue that did so much to fuel America's contemporary culture war. Abortion, he writes, "is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for either defending or condemning abortion. Even the popes have said that it is a matter of natural law, to be decided by natural reason." Wills wants to make the point that once an issue is not theological, it is open to reason, and so abortion should not be the supercharged culture war it has become. But if abortion is not a theological issue, perhaps none of the issues so dear to the Christian right--gay marriage and stem-cell research, let alone the Bush tax cuts and the war in Iraq--are theological issues either. And therefore we are led to the conclusion that there may not be much that is religious about the religious right.

When I see James Dobson on television, the first word that comes into my head is not "otherworldly." Wills, I believe, would agree with this; his focus on Karl Rove, a man he describes as having "no discernible religious beliefs himself," suggests as much. But then why end a book on American religion with a movement that is, in both intent and purpose, essentially political? Wills falls too easily for a political movement's presentation of itself as a religious movement. Head and Heart would have been a more effective book if it had ended not with what is happening in Washington, but with what is taking place in the megachurches. Rick Warren, not Karl Rove, should have dominated the final chapters. And the reason for that is simple: American evangelicalism has been flourishing not because of its affinities with the Republican Party, but because, in speaking to the heart more than to the head, it appeals to people searching for personal advice about how to lead their lives.

Garry Wills's call to combine the two sides of American religious experience is a sensible one. "There is no reason why Enlightened religion has to become desiccated and cerebral, all light and no heat," he writes. "Nor why the Evangelical has to be mindlessly enthusiastic, all heat and no light." This is Wills not at his most iconoclastic, but at his most reasonable. Who could object to the idea that since the head and the heart are both aspects of being human, and since no active human being can function without either, the two ought to find their proper balance? If religion and politics follow the same trends, then the cycles of American political history posited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. will have their counterparts in American religious experience. We leaned in one direction too much and then compensated too greatly in the other. Eventually we will find our balance.

So let me play here the role that Wills usually assigns to himself and argue against the reasonable position. If we are to have religion, shouldn't we have more religion of the head? I am not impartial here, being a head person myself. But after spending lots of time visiting evangelical colleges and seminaries and attending megachurch services, I come away bemoaning not some right-wing Christian plot to take over the country, but the sheer tackiness of so much of what I experienced. It would be nice, just once, to listen to a sermon delivered by an evangelical preacher that left one with a deeper sense of the world's ironies and complexities. Perhaps those who flock to megachurches would be more uplifted by hearing a Bach chorale than another variant of Christian rock. I certainly would not mind seeing Niebuhr sold in Christian bookstores--or, for that matter, Augustine included in required courses at Catholic universities. My friends among the faithful tell me that revelation is not opposed to reason. When I look back in Western history, I see their point. When I look around me at contemporary religious movements, I do not.

Contemporary religion's lack of intellectual depth may be more dangerous to our country's future than religion's involvement in politics. The contrast between the tragic consequences of America's involvement in Iraq and the generally indifferent views that Americans take toward those consequences strikes me as evidence of how desperately we need a religious sensibility more complex than the one we have. The ability of the Bush administration to redistribute income from the poor to the rich without substantial opposition testifies not only to the weakness of the left, but also to the absence of a deep appreciation of the Jewish prophets and the historical Jesus. Americans did not elect George W. Bush to the presidency twice because they are a devout people. Bush is our president not because Americans are religious, but because they are not religious enough--not, at least, if religion means having a social conscience, being judged, living with wisdom, adhering to the law. Had we more religion-- the kind, for example, that motivated the abolitionists and influenced Abraham Lincoln--we would not have been afflicted for so long with the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay.

Contemporary religion's lack of intellectual depth is also one of the reasons that contemporary atheism is having such a good ride. The recent sensations by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are all as predictable and shallow as the religion they spend so much time mocking. Serious atheism of the head should challenge serious religion of the head; but most contemporary atheists prefer to demolish the coarse superstitions all around them, and to call them religion, and to enjoy the applause. And how could it be otherwise? If you do not have serious belief, it is hard to have serious non- belief. Unlike Diderot and Voltaire, today's polemical skeptics are battening from the absence of hard targets, of philosophically sophisticated targets. It is surely not the business of American religion to supply its critics with their weapons; but it would strengthen both American religion and American atheism if the critics had something at which they could fire.

It is true that evangelicals and mainline Protestants disagree politically, but if serious theological differences between them exist, they are hard to spot. Neither camp has produced a serious work of religious thought in decades. Compared to today's emerging religious figures, Billy Graham--Billy Graham!--seems like a giant. It is not that we lack for Tillichs and Niebuhrs: there are no plurals here, such figures are hard to come by in any age. But we do not even have Billy Sunday! In our anti-philosophical and politicized and wildly psychological culture, in which all anybody seems to be seeking is convenience or affirmation or power, our religious life is in trouble indeed.

Garry Wills entered a Jesuit seminary in the early 1950s, leaving just before graduation. In an earlier period of American history, he might have finished his training and become an important religious thinker. Instead he has pursued his vocation outside the church, and while we may all be better off for that--Wills is a prodigious force in our country's intellectual life--his religion is certainly poorer for his absence. But that's the way it is in modern life: there remain places in American religion for people who use their heads, but all too many people who use their heads do not really mean to fill them. And so we have the religion of the heart run amok. It makes people feel better. It also means that while we may, if we are lucky, have more writers like Garry Wills, we are not likely ever again to have figures like Roger Williams, Jonathan Edwards, or even Anthony Benezet.

ALAN WOLFE is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By Alan Wolfe