March 30, 2003
With God on His Side
By GARRY WILLS
eligion in America is much like Nature in the famous saying of Horace: ''Nature, pitchfork it out how you may, keeps tumbling back in on you, slyly overbears your shying from it.'' In the same way, no matter how much Jefferson and Madison tried to pitchfork religion out of official governmental actions, it has kept sneaking back in, beating down attempts to contain it. Madison said that religion is ''not within the cognizance of civil government.'' He did not even want ministers of religion to list their profession in the government's census, since ''the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion, and it may be thought to do this in ascertaining who and who are not the ministers of the gospel.''
Madison would be surprised at how much religion gets ''cognized'' in, say, Karl Rove's Rolodex. The nation's executive mansion is currently honeycombed with prayer groups and Bible study cells, like a whited monastery. A sly dig there is ''Missed you at Bible study,'' as David Frum reported in ''The Right Man'' with a ''twitch,'' since ''Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either'' when he was in Bush's White House. Friends going to intimate dinners with the Bushes should be prepared to lead the prayer said before the meal.
The answer to Madison has implicitly been this: a nation with no cognizance of religion has no cognizance of God, and without national recognition of his authority, it will not come within his protection. That is not an advantage a country can do without, especially in times of peril. It is unpatriotic to expose the nation to its enemies without taking every measure possible to insure the divine blessing. In the minds of the devout, it is therefore a politically dangerous act to teach ''godless'' evolution in our schools rather than biblical ''creationism.'' It is tempting the divine wrath to let a ''massacre of the innocents'' go forward in abortion clinics. Pornography offends God and therefore forfeits his benevolence. Nor can we be safe from terrorists unless we see that a ''blessed country'' (to use the president's words) must extend God's will of liberty for other countries, by force if necessary.
These impulses are strongest in times of danger or uncertainty. It was during the gulf war that the current president's father rallied the nation to prayer, saying on Jan. 31, 1991:
''Across this nation the churches, the synagogues, the mosques are packed -- record attendance at services. In fact, the night the war began, Dr. [Billy] Graham was at the White House. And he spoke to us then of the importance of turning to God as a people of faith, turning to him in hope. And then the next morning, Dr. Graham went over to Fort Myer, where we had a lovely service leading our nation in a beautiful prayer service there, with special emphasis on the troops overseas. . . . One cannot be president of our country without faith in God -- and without knowing with certainty that we are one nation under God. . . . God is our rock and salvation, and we must trust him and keep faith in him. . . . Today, I'm asking and designating that Sunday, Feb. 3, be a national day of prayer.''
There is ample precedent for such official religiosity in time of war. It was in the period of the cold war with what President Truman always called ''godless Communism'' that ''under God'' was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was in World War II that ''God Bless America'' became the country's unofficial anthem. Of World War I, President Wilson said that it showed America marching to heights ''upon which there rests nothing but the pure light of the justice of God,'' reflecting the ''glimmer of light which came at Calvary, that first dawn which came with the Christian era.'' It was in the Civil War that ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' was composed, with its echoes of Isaiah 63:3 and Revelation 14:20: ''He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.'' It was in the War of 1812 that Francis Scott Key wrote the words of our official anthem: ''Praise the Pow'r that has made and preserv'd us a nation. Then conquer we must when our cause is just.'' It was during New England's conflict with Native Americans, culminating in King Philip's war, that the jeremiad became a popular sermon form. The sufferings of the colonists were seen as a punishment for sin, so preachers had to rise like Jeremiah to rebuke the people for their falling off from God.
The jeremiad was a sturdy plant, with a long life ahead of it. It is the form of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. The nation as a whole was complicit in the sin of slavery, so God is just exacting the penalty of that sin, proportioning blood spilt by soldiers' bayonets to that shed by slavemasters' whips. A solidarity in sin made the punishment communal, uniting the nation in the sufferings it had brought upon itself. Lincoln sealed the argument by quoting Psalm 19: ''The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.''
Lincoln did not take the next logical step, saying that solidarity in offending God could only be countered by solidarity in worshiping him, but others have been quick and resolute in taking that step. The dynamics of the jeremiad move from rebuke to reform, from communal taint to communal repristinization. The first masters of the jeremiad form said that the purity of worship had been lost. Membership in the churches had fallen off, and those who were members had become lukewarm. The only remedy was better recruitment of new members (by way of preaching and example) and greater zeal in those who were already members.
The jeremiad's call for purity posed a special difficulty for 17th-century Congregationalists. On the one hand, to be pure, a congregation had to admit only the visible saints, those who had been saved by a private conversion experience. On the other hand, if the community as a whole was responsible for sin and had to be called back to God, one had to deal with society at large as the relevant community. The only way to purify that society from sin would be to expel from the city those who were not saved, repentant or converted. The tug between these two positions is at the root of both our religious traditions, the communitarian and the individualist. Puritans took from Hebrew scripture the concept of ''God's people,'' an entity saved as a whole, so long as it could be called back from sinning as a whole. Yet the radical protestantism of the Puritans said that salvation was a private matter worked out by each soul with the Spirit. One had to go off to the wilderness of one's inner self to encounter God in a radically transformative and undelegatable conversion. Only then could one go to the church and present evidence of one's saved status, revealing the appropriate signs of this to connoisseurs of the act, people who could judge it only because they had undergone it themselves.
Since no one could undergo the saving experience for another, the children of church members were not included in the church just because their parents were saved. Until their separate conversions, they could not become part of the full ''covenant'' that bound together the saved members. Since this introduced an uncomfortable division between parents and children, liberal theologians invented a ''halfway covenant,'' which allowed members to partake of church life in varying degrees. But harsher pastors still insisted on the old ''full covenant,'' excluding the unsaved from communion. The partisans of these two positions fought fierce battles for the soul of the church.
No one felt these contradictions and counterstrains more than the most important religious leader in American history, Jonathan Edwards. He embodied all the main religious impulses in America, intellectual and emotional, and the most spectacular attempts to reconcile them with each other. He was the grandson of Pastor Solomon Stoddard, known as ''the Congregational pope,'' who freely admitted people to communion under the halfway covenant. But he was also the son of Pastor Timothy Edwards, who kept the strict rule of admitting only the visible saints. Jonathan succeeded to the pulpit of his grandfather and could not quickly change the revered man's regimen, though he felt a guilty loyalty to his father's stricter standards. He had struggled long and in great anxiety to reach his own conversion and could not diminish the experience for others. He solved the conflict between the communitarian and the individualist ideals ambulando -- or, rather, praedicando. He preached the mother of all jeremiads, the most famous sermon in our history, ''Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'' (1741), using the same verse of Isaiah that Julia Ward Howe would in ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'': ''I will tread them in mine anger, and will trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.''
Edwards called not only on a people who were astray but on each individual facing the prospect of damnation. The result was a lightning jump of electrical energy from one pole to the other of the religious divide. Individuals underwent conversion in a joint experience, as psychologically intimate and reorienting as private conversion but melding a whole body of believers into a shared moment of Enlightenment. People were saved in reciprocally kindling fires. This awakening renewed the fervor of Edwards's first revival, of 1735, which he saw not simply as the solution to a church problem but as a harbinger of the world's salvation. Revivals are the characteristically American moments when the gap is closed between the communal and the individual in our religion.
The deep roots of these quintessentially American impulses are in our religious history. We believe, on the one hand, that the individual must save himself or herself. One of the people in Karl Rove's Rolodex, for instance, undoubtedly told him that help for people to get housing ''ran counter to compassionate conservatism'' because it undermines ''personal responsibility.'' So do affirmative action programs, which include people as part of a social group rather than in terms of individual merit. No Congregationalist church sent people out to struggle for their souls more stringently than do religious conservatives when it is a matter of state action to help people cope with their problems. They are their problems, their souls to save.
On the other hand, when it is a matter of recognizing God's authority, the state can impose uniform standards of prayer. It can quash pornography, forbid the choice of an abortion, dictate the way evolution is taught (if at all). At this point, the communitarian becomes the authoritarian. The people as a whole must be saved from the consequences of their own sin. They have souls we all have to save for them, to pay homage to the authority of God.
What makes religion so salient in time of war is that it acts the way revivals did for Edwards -- a spark leaps from pole to pole. Individuals merge in the joint peril and joint effort of facing an imminent menace. We all lie on the thin spider web that Edwards said alone keeps us sinners from dropping into the hell beneath us. Danger is the great equalizer, and all are expected to pull together. We must save one another, since the enemy would like to pick us off one by one. The odd euphoria of war resembles the jubilant confession of sinfulness at the Great Awakening. We are afraid and exhilarated. The multiple items of population are drawn together into a People, God's People.
This communal sense arose, most recently, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the president declared war on terrorism. His initial reaction was to call this a crusade, the war whose motto was ''God Wills It.'' The sense of peril was heightened by the loss of the Columbia, suggesting the fragility of our national efforts. Like the Sept. 11 event, that one led to prayer vigils and stronger expressions of national unity. At the memorial service held at the National Cathedral after the attack on the towers, ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' was sung as a closing anthem. It has been a perennial favorite in wartime, despite its odd lyrics: ''Let the Hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel.'' Religion can get bloody-minded when we go to war, with many serpents who need crushing.
is what used to be called ''muscular Christianity,'' and Dreher thinks it is the only authentic form of his faith:
''As men and women of faith deliberate the morality of war with Iraq, it is a travesty that more of them haven't had the perspective of military chaplains, that virtually the only religious voices heard in the public square are coming from the antiwar corner. The divide between military and civilian clergy over the Iraq war is philosophically very deep. It cuts to the core of one's belief in evil. . . . Some of the chaplains say the failure of contemporary American society to grasp the true nature of the evil we face means the country is spiritually unprepared for war and its sacrifices.''
The afflatus of becoming visible saints is intoxicating. It allows one to have great disdain for the manifest sinners who oppose our saintly will. This applies not only to outright enemies but to those (like the French) who do not join our crusade and even to those who dare criticize it. Rod Dreher, a senior writer at National Review, says that clergymen who oppose the war are spiritually disarming us and that military chaplains supporting the war should be heeded, not ''bishops in well-appointed chanceries and pastors sitting in suburban middle-class comfort.'' Dreher, a Catholic convert, must think the pope is one of those cushy bishops, as opposed to the hard-bitten military chaplains who know what God and the devil are up to. We should learn from the ''moral realism'' of soldier-priests, who are ''warriors for justice,'' and not heed ''the effete sentimentality you find among so many clergymen today.'' The priests who do not bow to the War God are, in a chaplain's words that Dreher quotes with approval, reinforcers of the notion that ''religion is for wimps, for prissy-pants, for frilly-suited morons.'' This Dreher has a view of military chaplains as moral mentors that is quite different from that of Madison, who wrote: ''Look thro' the armies and navies of the world, and say whether, in the appointment of their ministers of religion, the spiritual interests of the flocks or the temporal interests of the shepherds be most in view.'' Madison was aware that most nations have made an instrumental use of God (as the endorser of secular policy) and that this dishonors God rather than honors him. It recruits him to secular purpose and literally ''takes the Lord's name in vain.'' Madison would allow men in danger of death to have chaplains of their own denominations near them if financed by their own denominations. But that is different from putting ministers in government uniform, under government discipline. Dreher tells us, with approval, that the military controls the chaplains and must remove any who show doubt about the war as a danger to ''morale.'' Religion is harnessed to political purpose and is not freely exercised if it does not serve that purpose. That is just the ''cognizance'' of religion Madison called a usurpation by the state.
One gets the uneasy feeling, listening to the president, that the role military chaplains play in Dreher's life is provided for Bush by his evangelical counselors and consolers. Many have wondered how the president can so readily tear down whole structures of international cooperation at a time when, in the fight against terrorism, we need them most. His calm assurance that most of the world and much of his nation is wrong comes from an apparent certainty that is hard to justify in terms of geopolitical calculus. It helps, in making that leap, to be assured that God is on your side. One of the psychological benefits of this is that it makes one oppose with an easy conscience those who are not with us, therefore not on God's side. They are not mistaken, miscalculating, misguided or even just malevolent. They are evil. And all our opponents can be conflated under the heading of this same evil, since the devil is an equal opportunity employer of his agents.
Bush has been very good at fooling the American people into thinking that Saddam Hussein was behind the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington and that he is an ally and supplier of Al Qaeda, that eliminating him is the best way to keep terrorism from our shores. Whatever good reason there may be for ousting Saddam, those are not among them. The conviction that we might benefit by removing Saddam is not the same as believing that God wills it -- except in George Bush's mind. Those who oppose him are not, in his frame of thought, just making a political mistake. They are, as Ron Dreher's military chaplains believe, cutting ''to the core of one's belief in evil.'' Question the policy, and you no longer believe in evil -- which is the same, in this context, as not believing in God. That is the religious test on which our president is grading us.
In Madison's major statement on the relation of church to state, the ''Memorial and Remonstrance'' of 1785, Madison condemned the use of ''religion as an engine of civil policy.'' The results of this use are ''pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both superstition, bigotry, and persecution.'' Disestablishing religion, he argued, does not demote religion but protects it from exploitation by political authority, from ''an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.'' The separation of church and state, even though it is constantly being nibbled at, especially in time of war, has been important in keeping America the most religious country in the developed part of the world. As he put it, ''religion flourishes in greater purity without than with the aid of government.''
Madison wielded a pretty good pitchfork, even though religion keeps tumbling back in on us, especially in wartime. The result was measured by Mark Twain when Andrew Carnegie quoted the assertion that America is a Christian country: ''Why, Carnegie, so is hell . . . but we don't brag of this.'' Twain's tone deepened in bitterness as he watched America waging another of its pre-emptive wars, this one in the Philippines. He reminded us exactly what we are praying for when we ask God to take sides in war and accomplish the destruction of our foe. His ''War Prayer'' runs, in part:
''O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds
with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale
forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns
with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay
waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; . . . help us to
turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended
the wastes of their desolated land. . . . We ask it, in the spirit
of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love.''
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company