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Head and Heart: American Christianities Hardcover – October 4, 2007
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Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
Top Customer Reviews
For full disclosure I must note that I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) who considers himself agnostic on religion. I am, however, sympathetic to Buddhism, as well as the more compassionate streams of thought in all religions. I have had some contact as a representative of my Meeting with a number of other religious groups. Finally I am also a professional biological scientist. My background does in no way give me special insight to review this book, but it does warn the reader of my own possible biases.
It is, in fact, hard to review this over 600 page book with its many notes and do justice to its depth. Wills has researched his subject thoroughly and gives us the whole panoply of religious thought from the Puritans to the recent ascendancy of the televangelists and talk show ministers. The Puritans did not come to America (as is sometimes reported) to foster religious freedom, but to impose their brand of "purified" Anglican faith onto the people living around them, including the Native Americans. Wills speaks favorably of the later colonists, the Quakers (in fact dedicating his book to Anthony Benezet, an anti-slavery Quaker who worked with the more well known John Woolman), in their founding of Pennsylvania and their views on religious freedom. It has also been said that Quakers came to the New World to do good and did very well indeed - meaning that some became very wealthy. It is true that the Quakers, although often slave-holders themselves, were among the first to disavow the practice and were heavily involved in the underground railroad that helped runaway slaves reach the North.
The Founders of the United States were mostly Deists who, none the less, understood that religious freedom was necessary to the ultimate health of the new country. They (perhaps especially Madison) believed in a "free market" for religious ideas, thinking that in such an atmosphere the best religion would prevail without government aid. In fact, despite many opinions to the contrary, it is obvious that the United States was not founded as a Christian Nation, but as a society with respect and toleration for all points of view as long as they did not disrupt the fabric of civil society. Wills believes (accurately) that such a system fosters religious activity instead of destroying it, as some would have it (as the Baptists and other minority sects of the period were well aware). State sponsored religions tend to decline, as they have in some European countries with no separation of Church and State. Theocratic states tend to become violent and authoritarian before they decline. We should take some warning from Islamic states like Iran in this regard.
Evangelism has its pluses. Would anybody not brought up in the evangelistic traditions of the South ever have been able to give the speeches of a Martin Luther King?
Still, our country occasional gets out of balance between the two major trains of religious thought and recently it has gotten way out of balance toward (in my opinion) a mostly corrupted evangelism. Wills points to the gory "Left Behind" series and the dire pronouncements of the anger of God behind Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the attack on the World Trade Center. To me this is a sign not of the End Times, but of man's inhumanity to man and a desire on the part of certain individuals to control the country. Christ said that his kingdom was not of this world and that worldly riches and power were not worthy pursuits, but (as Wills points out) there has been an American tradition of valuing wealth and power as a sign of God's favor. I sometimes think that some of these people don't read the same bible as the one I did.
In short Wills has presented a fascinating history of religion in the United States. This is another essential book for those who would like to understand how we got to this point in history.
There is a wealth of information in this book and although I've read fairly extensively on American religious history in the past I learned a great deal. Wills illumines nearly every religious epoch that he discusses, from the Puritans to the Enlightenment Deists who founded the country to the crucial figures of the Second Great Awakening to the Transcendentalists to the Civil War to the beginnings of the evangelical movement to the Social Gospel to today's religious right. My own position to all this is complex. While Wills is a Roman Catholic who seems, to my Protestant eyes, indistinguishable from any mainstream Protestant in his religious belief, I am a former Southern Baptist (I left the Convention when they started approving such absurdities as insisting that women be subservient to men) who still believes in traditional Baptist beliefs (including separation of Church and State, something that Baptists have traditionally been avid supporters of), though I also am leery of emotionalism in religion (I find it is generally effective for evangelists in the short run, but bad for churches in the long run). I'm a paradox, a member of a religious tradition that emphasizes the heart, while I personally see more value in a religion of the head, orthodox theologically but rational about my spirituality. But I suppose in a way that this typifies many of the tensions in American history.
I think this book will be of enormous help to anyone wanting to understand many of the stresses in American religious and political life. For instance, he helps us understand why evangelicals are today politically conservative, even though historically they were quite progressive. His sections on William Jennings Bryan are instructive, a political progressive, unquestionably one of the most left-leaning presidential candidates in history, yet remembered today as a right-winger due to his involvement in the Scopes trial.
In the short run I hope his book has some influence on the ongoing nonsense generated by many fundamentalists (including, alas, many of my former fellow Southern Baptists, who have been abandoning the central tenets of their tradition with something akin to savage glee in recent decades), namely that America was founded as a Christian nation. One even finds immensely intelligent people like the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor stating that the Founders intended a larger role for religion than many now believe. This is just nonsense. It is blatant nonsense. While some states continued to establish religion for several decades following the ratification of the constitution, the intentions of the Founders -- especially Jefferson and Madison -- is crystal clear. One can only imagine them as believing that America was in any conceivable sense a Christian nation by completely ignoring their writings, which some unquestionably do. For instance, in the past year both a fellow Baptist and a Catholic have told me in conversations that talk of a wall separating church and state only arose in the 20th century (!). Of course, any student of the period knows that Jefferson, drawing on similar expressions by a number of 18th century writers, originated the phrase in his famous letter to the Baptist Church in Danbury. Wills takes on all the recent myths and counterfactual assertions that the founders intended America to be a Christian if nonsectarian nation and simply demolishes them. As both a deeply religious man and one of America's foremost constitutional historians he is uniquely qualified to undertake this task. My only quibble (and it is a minor one) is that he doesn't emphasize quite strongly enough (though he does bring it up briefly) what I have always considered to be the foremost proof that no one imagined that our constitution left any room for America as a Christian nation: the extremely widespread perception by clergy and laity in late 18th century America that the constitution was "godless." If, as many contemporary members of the Religious Right (as well as a few Catholics on the political right) fantasize, the Founders meant for America in some vague sense to be either a religious or Christian nation, why did no one at the time pick up on this? Instead, why did Madison, Jefferson, and even Adams defend the idea of a constitution that was steadfastly indifferent to religion? Why are there no contemporary accounts of ministers celebrating the establishment of religion by the Constitution? The answer is obvious: no one at the time had any such perception. And neither should anyone today at the beginning of the 21st century.
I do hope that we will be entering a new age in American religious history. I am a member of the political left because of my own reading of the New Testament as a teenager. You simply can't read the Sermon on the Mount or the Gospel of Luke and take them seriously and come away calloused toward the poor or oblivious to the sufferings of others. Yet evangelicals for the past few decades have done precisely that. Instead, they have been obsessed with a host of cultural issues that are contrary to the spirit of the New Testament. Just as Jesus spent all his time with social outcasts, I believe were he among us today he would spend all his time with the very groups that evangelicals seem most intent to criticize. He would still spend his time with the poor, but he would also be constantly among homosexuals. And I think he would outrage religious leaders by the same kind of tolerance he showed during his life (except his intolerance for the intolerant - the only group Jesus really didn't seem to like was religious zealots). I would like to see my fellow evangelicals become more concerned with helping the poor than condemning sexuality. And to finally get away from the abortion issue (which as Wills correctly points out was never referred to in the Bible - and contrary to what many suppose, there were abortive techniques at the time in addition to the infanticide that was also practiced - if abortion is the paramount religious issue that evangelicals bizarrely assume it to be, why was the widely practiced abortion and infanticide of the time never mentioned once?). There are signs already of political splits in the evangelical movement over the poor (why support the GOP and its outrageous economic policy of favoring the very rich, a political tenet that is as anti-Christian as it is possible to imagine) and the environment. I hope that this continues.
Finally, I would like to add that the book is, as is always the case with a book by Wills, exceptionally clear and very finely written. He is about as close as one can get in our time to being a polymath. If it is no longer possible to master every field of knowledge as was the case with Aristotle, Leibniz, and Goethe, Wills nonetheless manages to master a great many fields.
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