Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Garry Wills on secular innocence

The Secularist Prejudice

In an excerpt from his 1990 book Under God: Religion and American Politics in the Christian Century, Garry Wills highlights the innocence of mid-twentieth century secular thinkers like Henry Steele Commager and Arthur Schlesinger of the impact of religion on the national psyche:
For Commager, religion is clearly as irrational as modern art, but he is comparatively benign in his description of it. It puzzles him, by its anomalous perdurance in a people as rational and secular as those who possess the authentically American Mind. But religion does not disturb him as much as dirty poems. He decides, to his relief, that people do not really mean it when they say they believe in the old creeds: "For three hundred years Calvinism had taught the depravity of man without any perceptible effect on the cheerfulness, kindliness, or optimism of Americans."

If it seems strange that Commager can get so worked up about an assault on reason mounted by e. e. cummings while remaining, tranquil about religion’s "flight from reason," that is because he cannot imagine that anybody would take a preacher as seriously as a poet. For him, "no American could believe that he was damned." All real Americans have "preferred this life to the next," so their religious professions. are a cover for something else -- luckily, for something quite useful: "The church was, on the whole, the most convenient and probably the most effective organization for giving expression to the American passion for humanitarianism." When the church is not being useful, it is neutered; so support for it is harmless: "The church was something to be ‘supported,’ like some aged relative whose claim was vague but inescapable." A meaningless religion is a rather nice thing to have, since it does not interfere at all with dam-building, and it gives people something to do with their spare time.

Almost 40 years after Commager defined the American mind, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., returned to the task and found the same qualifying traits. In a widely publicized inaugural address at Brown University, Schlesinger argued that secularity is the leading characteristic of Americans: "The American mind is by nature and tradition skeptical irreverent, pluralistic and relativistic." Yet Schlesinger, unlike Commager, is nervous about religion, which some people in 1989 were taking altogether too seriously. Schlesinger sets the canons of Americanism in an exclusive way. We are told who are "the two greatest and most characteristic American thinkers" -- Emerson and William James. We are told who was the "most quintessential of American historians" -- George Bancroft (no doubter of American virtue, like Henry Adams) We are told what is the (one and orthodox) "American way" -- "Relativism is the American way." We are even told what is "the finest scene in the greatest of American novels"-- the point when Huck Finn decides to help Nigger Jim escape. In fact, we are told that this last scene "is what America is all about."

Like a nativist facing immigrant hordes, Schlesinger multiplies the defining (and excluding) social signs of "our sort." Our sort have no truck with "reverence." We are committed to "our truth." Even relativism helps us to keep up standards here: "For our relative, values are not matters of whim and happenstance. History has given them "to us." They are like descent from the Mayflower. "People with a different history will have different values. But we believe that our own are better for us." How lucky, then, that history did not give us religious values. It is not enough that pragmatic, irreverent relativism be a high ideal for Americans to aspire to. It must be a "given," like the liberalism Louis Hartz, the consensus historian, said was the American situation (rather than its creed). It is something one need not argue for, since one cannot escape it in any event: Our values "are anchored in our national experience, in our great national documents, in our national heroes, in our folkways, traditions, standards."

Schlesinger obviously has a different understanding of America’s "folkways" than did the author of "the finest scene in the greatest of American novels." Twain’s novels, and especially the one Schlesinger cites, are filled with folk superstition, religion, prejudice and dogmatism. Even in the scene offered (rightly) to our admiration. Huck does not escape the presumptions of the entire culture around him. In fact. Huck at his supreme moment performs an act Professor Commager called impossible for any real American -- Huck not only believes in hell, but believes he is going there now that he is helping Jim. He defies, while still believing in, "the American way" of everyone around him, the way of sin and damnation.

[Added to the Chronicle of Church & State]

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