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Thy Wills Be Done

What Gary Wills has to say about religion and the public square.

3:20 PM, Apr 11, 2006 • By CHRISTOPHER LEVENICK
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GARRY WILLS, the twinkling intellect of a twilight liberalism, has once again taken to the op-ed pages of the New York Times. His tone has softened a bit since his last apearance; two days after the 2004 presidential election, he summoned a righteous indignation and railed against America's supposed "fundamentalist zeal, [its] rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity." Wills is now inclined to sigh, more in sorrow than in anger, and announce that efforts to create a Christian Left are irredeemably flawed. Jesus, he asserts, "brought no political message or program," and as a result, "[t]here is no such thing as a 'Christian politics.'"

The essay is vintage Wills. It exhibits a broad and deep erudition, shot through with streaks of tendentiousness and fatuity.

On one key point, Wills enjoys the incalculable benefit of being undeniably right. Jesus was neither a Republican nor a Democrat--nor was He, for that matter, a conservative or a liberal. Such descriptions are not just hopelessly anachronistic. They are also sacrilegious, trafficking in that pride which goes before the fall. Christians are enjoined by their Savior always to remember that His reign is not of this world. To insist otherwise is to contradict the clear teaching of the Second Person of the Trinity.

Strong as the argument's spirit may be, its letter is often weak. Wills describes the Gospels as "scary, dark, and demanding," but then fatuously compares them to Socrates' "generic encouragements" to be "loving and peaceful and fair." That seems rather ungenerous to the Athenian--an honest man who, like the Nazarean, was sentenced to death for challenging the faith of the complacent.

Likewise tendentious are Wills' condemnations of those who favor a more permissive legal environment for matters of religion in the public square. Amenability to a benediction at a civic ceremony is thus presented as tantamount to defying the command of Christ. Anybody willing tolerate a courtroom display of the Ten Commandments is evidently guilty of "idolatry," "tak[ing] the Lord's name in vain," and "worshipping a false god."

Such allegations have sway if one maintains, with Wills, that Jesus was indeed a "higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil." If, however, one sees in Jesus something more than simple unpredictability--as the fulfillment, rather than the abolition, of the Law--then one may well be inclined to tread a bit more cautiously. Wills is surely right that Jesus continuously challenges those who would call themselves Christians. But Wills is surely wrong to suggest that the message of Jesus is always a question and never an answer.

NONE OF THIS is to mention the contradiction at the heart of Wills's essay. Wills announces that the state must always articulate a vision of justice that is entirely dissociated from any religious belief; the "grounds of justice" must be compelling to people who are "not followers of Jesus or of any other religion."

Since a democracy will ultimately reflect the opinion of the majority, it follows that those who would mold the opinion of their fellow citizens should refrain from advancing narrowly sectarian arguments. And yet, in violation of his own proscription, Wills draws upon explicitly Christian resources to make a political case that Jesus was "the original proponent of a separation of church and state." And his public policy argument rests on nakedly theological principles.

Wills nowhere references John Rawls by name, but his essay deliberately makes use of Rawls' conception of "public reason." A religiously pluralistic democracy, Rawls taught, is best served when public discourse is framed in arguments divorced from religious terms. Introducing religious arguments into the public realm will inevitably prove divisive, for such arguments do not admit of rational adjudication. Absent grounds of rational adjudication, compromise--and hence democracy--is impossible. Religious beliefs must therefore be strictly relegated to the private realm, because they are all inscrutable and, in the final analysis, irrational.

It is on this last point that Rawlsian secularism falters. In the lives of the faithful, religious belief is not--and never has been--irreducibly irrational. Quite the contrary: believers can and do offer many reasons for their faith. Those reasons are not, to be sure, the totality of their faith, but they are, by definition, reasonable.