Friday, January 18, 2008

Enlightened vs. Evangelicals

The two faces or strains of American Christianity, according to Gary Wills in a new book, reviewed in the Tablet.
This magisterial survey by one of the United States' leading lay Catholic writers spotlights two opposing force fields in American religion. Their names are legion, but the ones Garry Wills prefers are "Enlightened" and "Evangelical". The first is studied, the second spontaneous. The first is confident in reason as a means of understanding God's laws, the second trusts in divine intervention. The first is the religion of the eighteenth-century Deists and Unitarians who framed America's constitution, carried forward in the Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century and the lettered Episcopalians of the twentieth. The second is the religion of Evangelical revival and fervour, whether in the hope-filled, black-pastor-led marches of the civil-rights movement or in the pessimism of the premillenarian dispensationalists awaiting the punitive fire of the Rapture. Wills' neat idea is that while they are in tension they are in need of each other, to compensate. It is a rare combination but it can lead to greatness.
That's enough to make me want to read the book, for sure. The locus standi of the reviewer (and, of course, the author) is clear: the narrative, we are told, is "enlivened by withering critiques of right-wing Christians," and abortion is compared to the evangelical "victory" in the Prohibition movement:
It ends with an intriguing comparison between the 1920s Evangelical "triumph" of Prohibition and the current struggle to outlaw abortion; both illustrate, says Wills, "the difficulty of imposing a moral regime on people who do not agree with the moral principle involved". To end abortion, it is implied, requires not the conquest of government but the winning of hearts and minds, lest the result be, in Madison's words, "to the scandal of religion as well as the increase of party animosities".
Isn't the more obvious analogy with that of slavery? Of human rights, rather than the imposition of quirky, partisan morality on a recalcitrant public square?

Add to the to-read list.

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