Thursday, January 07, 2010

Garry Wills: Under God

This is one of those books that I have only one complaint about, and it's really not a legitimate complaint. It's like wishing a book was published in a different font, or out in paperback, or hadn't been written in Russian. Garry Wills' "Under God" is so good, and so timely, and so relevant that I wish it was written last year, instead of published in 1990. And barring that, I wish he would update it, like today, and talk about what's going on now.
Basically, if I were an academic, this is (one of) the book(s) I would write. And since I'm not an academic, and not inclined to write long, serious books, and much more inclined to read long, serious books, this is a book I am very inclined to read. Wills argues that
The first nation to disestablish religion [codify the separation of church and state] has been a marvel of religiosity, for good or ill. Religion has been at the center of our major political crises, which are always moral crises...If we neglect the religious element in all those struggles, we cannot understand our own corporate past; we cannot even talk meaningfully to each other about things that will affect us all (and not only the "religious nuts" among us).

Basically, this is why I studied religion in college; and why I wish I a) remembered more and occasionally b) wish I studied more. (Note: occasionally. I'm much happier being a doer than a thinker/studier/academic.) It's my belief and experience that we neglect the influence of religion in our (meaning the collective) actions. Why do leaders do what they do? Why do groups of people do what they do? How does religious upbringing and the religion perceived as the cultural norm affect life and choices and major events? It seems to me that in the US, at least, there is almost a shame or unwillingness to discuss religion: Church and State are separate, damn it, therefore religion can't possibly effect anything that is happening politically. Right. And there are obvious times when religion is effecting things, but other times, nope, not there. It's become more acceptable to talk about race/gender/class- but what about religion? Pretending we all live in a general cultural state of anomie is bullshit.

Wills is amazing at walking us through recent and not so recent past, (not in order) to demonstrate how politics and religion are a totally tangled web in the United States, and that this is not something to be ashamed of. It's not something to pass a value judgement on at all, it's just something to understand. For example, he writes, The men who wrote the Constitution "did not suppose that the absence of religious oaths for holding office entailed, logically, irreligious officeholders." He goes on (describing Michael Dukakis and Pat Robertson's failed campaigns for the Presidency):
Clearly, in our society, two large groups are talking past each other. One fails to see legitimacy in religious values not comprehended by the American Mind. The other fails to see legitimacy in irreligion: If secularity is really religious, then it is diabolic- a plot against God, not mere indifference to him. Thus, when school textbooks steer as clear as they can of religious subjects, Pat Robertson does not see in this the work of timorous publishers trying to avoid subjects about which state school boards can be nervous. For him, it is the result of a great conspiracy against God.

I have to wonder if Wills looked ahead and knew that the evolution "debate" would still be raging 20 years later, or if he knew that Obama would be accused of being a Muslim, and that that would even matter. These questions are obviously still relevant. This book tickles me, I can't lie. There's just so much rich parsing of the political sphere, through the lens of religious studies. People who care about US history should read this, and people who care about politics and how elections work should read this. It doesn't matter if you care at all about religion, it's eyeopening.