Mourning and America

Mourning and America

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.


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.)

Thus freed of dogma, nineteenth-century thinkers inherited immense intellectual freedom. Heady revelry ensued, from which arose a profusion of Theories of Everything (Marx’s economics, Carlyle’s Supermen, Arnold’s aesthetics, Darwin’s natural selection). The Victorians believed they had it in them to understand the world more clearly and completely than any previous generation; all prior history had been the overture to their entrance.

As Wilson explains, the Victorians’ prideful progress, particularly in science, got them in a pickle. Darwin’s theory of natural selection gave the hook to Deism by “remov[ing] any necessity for a metaphor of purpose when discussing natural history.” But Darwin, Cliffs Notes history notwithstanding, did not kill Christianity. Many scientists, among them the biologist and Catholic monk Gregor Mendel, still retained faith in a loosely orthodox Christian God, “an immanent Creator perpetually and lovingly involved with what He has made.” Nevertheless, the eighteenth century had proven the Christian God was not necessary, so most of the era’s leading progressives threw out religion altogether.

Their apostasy, in most cases, was dramatic, heroic and principled. And yet, in Wilson’s biographical essays, the Victorians’ awakening to steely secularism was almost always accompanied by intense spiritual bereavement. Wilson reads Thomas Hardy’s poem “God’s Funeral” as an unsentimental report on the deity’s demise (“Uncompromising rude reality/Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,/Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be”); and yet, Wilson adds, the narrator cannot avoid admitting some astringent grief at the proceedings (“what was mourned for, I, too, long had prized”). “Indeed, though many intellectual justifications were offered by those who lost faith, the process would seem to have been, in many cases, just as emotional as religious conversion; and its roots were often quite as irrational,” Wilson writes. “This is the story of bereavement as much as of adventure.”

The stories of bereavement, as Wilson tells them, are by turns funny, eccentric and touching. John Stuart Mill resisted being conscripted by Auguste Comte’s baroque Religion of Humanity but fell prostrate before the “genius” of the merely smarter-than-average Harriet Taylor. Marx, Darwin, Herbert Spencer and William Morris, Wilson observes, all grew long, flowing beards (they “could have all been mistaken for Jehovah in a frock coat”) even as they were perpetrating deicide. George Eliot, the “sibyl of Victorian Rationalism,” was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral of her life-partner, George Henry Lewes, in 1878. She spent the day in seclusion, reading and rereading “In Memoriam” by Alfred Tennyson, “the poet of the Honest Doubters,” who nevertheless held on to faith.

The pathos of these stories is sometimes punctured by wanton priggishness. Wilson frequently lays his pedagogy on thick (“If you haven’t read Kant before, I should strongly recommend that you avoid summaries or introductions”), and he relies overmuch on rhetorical flourishes (“One does not need to elaborate…to make the point,” he intones, after elaborating a point rather rococoily).

Yet such tics draw attention only because the tone of God’s Funeral is so thoroughly generous and humane. The book’s history of ideas emerges incidentally from its portraits of people, in whose emotional lives the reader becomes invested, to the point where, in his final chapter, Wilson justifiably calls his subjects “friends.” God’s Funeral is not about “the end of a phase of human intellectual history”; it describes “the withdrawal of a great Love-Object.”

Within the Victorians’ faith in progress, Wilson discerns stifled sobs of bereavement at the withdrawal of this “great Love-Object.” As a result, time spent at God’s Funeral attunes a reader’s ear to the doubt that usually resonates within declarations of confidence.

Unfortunately, Wilson’s journalism does not always share the empathic strength of his book. This past summer, a few weeks before the publication of God’s Funeral, Wilson wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times about Christian belief among potential candidates for next year’s presidential race. The essay, “God as a Running Mate,” reminded readers that the Constitution decrees the separation of church and state, and worried–scornfully–that Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been making speeches in which they “sound as if they would not be uncomfortable in an evangelical theocracy.”

To support this overstatement, Wilson cited an Elizabeth Dole speech in which she confessed that she once kept God “neatly compartmentalized” but has since let Him take charge of her life: “It was time to submit my resignation as master of my own little universe–and God accepted my resignation.” Wilson quoted a speech George W. Bush delivered in Houston that proclaimed “something was missing” in his life until he decided to “recommit [his] life to Jesus Christ.” Finally, he described Al Gore’s May 24 Salvation Army speech as follows: “[Gore] was signaling to the great moral majority out there that he is a True Christian. Not just someone who goes to church on Sunday but someone who, like his wife [Tipper], ‘practices her faith and sees its power at work.'”

Eager to prove his obvious point that religion and politics are a tricky combination, Wilson ignored the questions that God’s Funeral can help answer: Why are these politicians so religiously demonstrative? And what might be the consequences of their confessions? By emulating Wilson’s attentiveness to the Victorians, but shifting the terms a bit, a contemporary observer of politics can see that America’s emphatically Christian politicians are enacting a new drama of religious bereavement.

The first insight suggested by this method is highly speculative. Perhaps simplistic Christian rhetoric (such as the lines quoted above) conceals the heart’s cries of men and women who know that they don’t believe what they say they believe. One does not become Vice President, or Governor of Texas, or head of the Red Cross–much less President–by submitting one’s resignation as master of one’s own little universe. These candidates are probably sincere enough to believe they are speaking some version of the truth; they are probably sophisticated enough to know they’re not telling the whole truth; and only their intimates know the degree to which they’re on a nostalgia trip. After all, Bush can say he recommitted his life to Christ and still leave a lot undefined. Careful consideration of the context of candidates’ rhetoric of faith, however, suggests that salvation jargon probably says more about voters’ religious bereavement than about politicians’ (the goal of a political speech is to sway voters, after all, not to unload the contents of a candidate’s heart). And when candidates talk publicly about their personal faith, they address a painful state of religious bereavement in which many American Christians actually dwell.

That’s an obvious and accurate analysis of far-right-wingers like Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer, who shamelessly play to fundamentalists’ class resentments and self-pitying sense of social disfranchisement. It is more subtly and more unsettlingly true of mainstream candidates like Gore, Bush and Dole.

Pollsters say the United States is a believing nation. In May, Gallup reported that 88 percent of Americans say religion is “very important” or “fairly important” in their lives; that number has slipped only 7 percent since 1952. When asked if they attended a place of worship in the past week, only 40 percent of those polled said yes. And 62 percent of Gallup’s respondents said they also think religion is losing influence in American life–a huge increase from 14 percent in 1957, when Gallup first asked this question.

These numbers imply that even if individual Americans still believe as they always have, the majority say their faith is not really rooted in a community of worship, and they perceive that their faith matters less to American society than it once did. (Gallup’s poll sample includes people of all faiths, but the vast majority identify themselves as Christians.)

For many casually committed Christians, then, the mainstream politician who stands up and claims salvation must be somehow comforting. A sane, saved politician reassures them that faith matters, and that it’s possible to be high-functioning and still speak the language of old-time religion. Lay people, particularly theological liberals, need such reassurance; it is hard for them to talk about salvation in a way that avoids exclusive formulations (I’m-saved, you’re-not) that they don’t believe in. Christian churches, by and large, have no honest language for describing “salvation” that the fundamentalists haven’t hijacked.

This is why George W. Bush’s strategy of public confession has, so far, been brilliant. He has established himself as the “compassionate” conservative and has reiterated, early and often, his spiritual status as born-again. Now that he has comforted important supporters such as Pat Buchanan, the Truth has freed him to make speeches like the “slouching towards Gomorrah” scold. A more maverick George will be a more popular George for two reasons: Protestants need a certain amount of spiritual insecurity in order to feel comfortable (salvation through grace, but we “have to be good”), and secular voters (and secular-but-still-kind-of-spiritual voters) need reassurance that Bush is not a nut job; he’s saved, but smart.

Bush knows that salvation rhetoric in political speeches functions like a tuning note, to prep Christians in the audience for singing along with a candidate’s secular vision for society. As a practical matter, this rhetorical ploy is not harmful. (Gore, for example, plays his personal faith as a credential for his proposal to allow “faith-based organizations to provide basic welfare services” under the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform law. Regardless of what you think of this proposal, it’s unlikely that it could morph our government into a theocracy.)

As a spiritual matter, the candidates’ use of salvation rhetoric in political speeches is more troubling. There may be good reason for a decent person to be glad that a politician has found God. But any speech that suggests there is any important connection between faith and government service blasphemes spirits much holier than Ronald Reagan’s.

Christian voters would be much better off if some saved candidate just told the truth: Religious faith does not matter very much in government. Loyalty to the Constitution will make government just, and, if you’re a clever interpreter, it can make government caring. Loyalty to the Christian God will instill faith that expresses itself through love, a state of existence far too reckless to fit any politician’s policy agenda.

Near the end of God’s Funeral, Wilson profiles the American William James, whose achievement, he says, was to “[assert] as a matter of empirical fact that people had religious experiences which did not fit into any neat, scientific-materialist package of the universe.” James “was trying to rescue, and assert the legitimacy of, an all-but-universal though infinitely varied set of human experiences. It is, he contended, these experiences which led to the growth of organized religions and theologies; not the other way about.” Wilson’s chapter on James is a hopeful conclusion to his survey of the nineteenth century. The great Victorians thrived on ruthless, self-imposed strictness of thought and belief. James was a transitional figure who restored honor to religious experiences the Victorians would not abide–experiences that did not make sense.

For Christians today, the power of religious experience as James defined it will almost always be political in a broad sense. People who express faith through love will incrementally change their communities for good. Religious rhetoric loses its power, however, when Christian candidates try to harness it to political rhetoric that advances their campaigns.

With not a hint of irony, Al Gore says things like this: “I call on the corporations of America to encourage and match contributions to faith-and-values-based organizations…. For too long, faith-based organizations have wrought miracles on a shoestring. With the steps I’m proposing today, they will no longer need to depend on faith alone.” The God Question may not go away, but it does become incidental.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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