He’s not dead yet, but the spirit of Ronald Reagan is omnipresent these days, and nowhere is it more damnably profane than in politicians’ relentless invocations of the Almighty. Theologically, Reagan’s God talk was empty as a balloon, but at least it was serene, and often good for some goose bumps.
The slavishly eager public confessions of George W. Bush, Al Gore and the rest of our leading presidential candidates, by contrast, offer no such guilty pleasures.
The tone of these candidates’ God talk will never raise goose bumps, but in Bush’s case, it is at least getting interesting. At the Christian Coalition’s annual convention in Washington, DC, just recently, George W. gave a substance-free stump speech notable mostly for what it didn’t say. The New York Times led its coverage with a paragraph noting that Bush “mentioned abortion only in passing and did not touch on school prayer, gay rights and other matters vital to religious conservatives.” For this, Bush was rewarded with a Stepfordesque stamp of approval from coalition head Pat Robertson: “I’m completely comfortable with him.”
Three days later, speaking to the Manhattan Institute, Bush went further, in comments that elegantly scolded the religious right: “Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching towards Gomorrah…. Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself.” These lines are as deft as stage directions: Exit, extreme religious conservatives; Enter, Reagan Democrats. George W. Bush may be transforming himself into that rarest of creatures: saved, but smart.
The spiritual category of saved-but-smart has not always been so rare. It fairly dominated Europe’s elites until the Enlightenment, before being brought to near extinction in the nineteenth century. Even then, as A.N. Wilson notes in God’s Funeral, his study of Christianity’s decline in Victorian Britain, God’s withdrawal from the intelligentsia created a roaring silence. The first sentence of God’s Funeral reveals the title to be ironic: “The God-question does not go away.”
Formerly a Christian, Wilson publicly declared his unbelief in 1991. He has since written several novels (most recently, Dream Children), a string of revisionist biographies of Christian figures (C.S. Lewis, Tolstoy, Paul and Jesus) and much journalistic commentary about religion (of which more later). God’s Funeral is the least willfully controversial and most insightful of Wilson’s nonfiction writings about religion. Surprisingly, and perhaps unintentionally, the book is also quite useful as a goad for thinking about the role of evangelical Christian language in American politics today.
Wilson builds his picture of the nineteenth-century crisis of faith (mostly in Victorian Britain) with a composite of biographical essays about the era’s leading thinkers. He begins with eighteenth-century figures who set the stage for the Victorians: Gibbon, who demolished the notion that revelation was passed down pure from the Church Fathers; Hume, who questioned the anthropocentric assumptions of all previous metaphysics and removed the philosophical necessity of belief; and Kant, who replaced abstract noumena with concrete phenomena as the only reliable criteria for verifying the truth of propositions. These men, the late Enlightenment’s last Templars, dealt deathblows to any lingering claims that Christianity had an exclusive franchise on explaining the history of the universe. For intellectuals who wished to remain in the mainstream of academic thought, Wilson notes, Deism became the most respectable way to salvage theology. (The Deist God was a “Divine Watchmaker” who created the world and then abandoned it to work according to its own mechanized laws.)