Day By Day

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Books: Garry Wills' Head and Heart

I always look forward to reading what Garry Wills has to say. He is a smart guy who has the makings of a fine historian. Some of his early work was quite good. Unfortunately, after years as a "public intellectual" he has accumulated a lot of axes to grind and has become little more than a shrill polemicist.

His latest book, Head and Heart: American Christianities [read a review here] is a major disappointment. It mixes shrewd observation [he is quite good, for instance, on Madison and Jefferson] with political cant. He develops a simplistic dichotomy -- an opposition between "enlightenment" and "evangelism" -- into which he tries to shoehorn the immensely complex development of America's religious culture. In so doing he grotesquely exaggerates the influence of both religious and secular extremists, obscures important differences among major figures, and simply ignores the religious experience and faith of the vast majority of American Christians.

Why should a subtle and sophisticated thinker like Wills produce such a silly document? The answer is simple. He hates President Bush and he really, really hates Carl Rove, and he really, really, really loathes and despises the religious right and all those who would restrict a woman's right to choose death for her unborn children. His simplistic account of American religious history is little more than a prelude to his real concern, a sometimes hysterical screed against religious conservatives and their purported dominance in the current administration.

This is bad history and even worse political analysis. Wills has produced a grotesquely cartoonish vision of America, past and present, and in so doing illuminates the way in which the hyperbolic political disputation of our times has corrupted and distorted our intellectual enterprise in nearly all its aspects.

If you wish to learn about America's religious history, don't bother with Will's screed, but if you want to comprehend the disdain and alarm animating radical secularists today, this is a good example.

To purchase Wills' book click on the Amazon logos at the top of the page.