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A Chesterton for the Religious Right

by Gary Wills

Garry Wills teaches in the history department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 16-23, 1990 pp.532-533, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


While I was traveling with the antiabortion activist Randall Terry, I asked one his staff members about C. S. Lewis’s popularity among evangelicals. This man, an ordained product of Westminster Theological Seminary, himself a Christian reconstructionist, said: "Some of us now consider Lewis as food for beginners. The real meat is Chesterton."

Implausible as it seems, the bibulous celebrant of pre-Reformation Christianity is becoming a hero to the religious right in this country. Nothing would have amazed Chesterton more than to be adopted by the heirs of those Puritans he assailed with more energy than understanding. (He said the real Thanksgiving Day should be celebrated by the British for having got rid of America’s sour first settlers.)

There is much in Chesterton that might commend itself to the right wing in America: his militarism, antifeminism and anti-Semitism. But, to the credit of the right wing, these are less emphasized than Chesterton’s populism, his opposition to experts and his distrust of modern science. What they like about Chesterton is what Jay P. Corrin has called "the battle against modernity" and especially against Darwin.

The most embarrassing of Chesterton’s positions, in this refashioning to evangelical tastes, is his deep and omnipresent opposition to capitalism. However eccentric himself, he shared with his beloved Samuel Johnson an opposition to the absurdity of individualism as a principle of community. He sincerely loved tradition, and rightly saw untrammeled consumerism and the glorification of the entrepreneur as destabilizing -- what Belloc called the attempt to use explosives as a social glue.

So the first task for American conservatives who want to use Chesterton is to explain away his anticapitalism. This Michael Novak attempts to do as part of the extraordinarily wrong-headed reprint series of Chesterton’s works appearing from Ignatius Press. Novak argues that what Chesterton really opposed was more monopolism, rather than the competitive principle itself (a grave misreading of Chesterton’s debt to John Ruskin). And he takes comfort from Chesterton’s opposition to socialism. Novak shows the divided nature of the right wing’s own cultural heritage when he praises Chesterton as a productive and innovative journalist and, at the same time, celebrates his "devastating criticisms of modernity."

If Chesterton were an artist or thinker on the scale of Ruskin, this opportunistic discipleship could do him little harm. But most of what Chesterton ground out in the journalistic productiveness Novak praises was formulaic trash. With a sure instinct, the right-wing celebrants behind the Ignatius Press edition have not only accepted but are highlighting the worst aspects of the man’s work. They are actually printing, with pseudo-learned footnotes, 11 volumes of his lamentable columns for the Illustrated London News (1905-1936) The terms on which Chesterton wrote this weekly column were stultifying. It had to fill one of the ILN’s large pages (1,600 words) , and he was not to deal with religion or politics. The editors rightly note that he circumvented the ban on subjects that mattered most to him, but he did it in indirect ways that gave his style the arch and trivializing tone that offends (rightly) so many.

Chesterton’s strength lay in verbal economy. No one could compress an argument into an epigram with greater precision. Forced to bloviate for over 1,000 words before or after he made his telling remark of the week (if he had one) , he resorted to rhetorical flourishes. Then, because he was a genuinely modest man, he tempered the large verbal gestures with self-deprecating exercises that helped fill the rest of the space (and became as labored as the bravado)

In the four volumes of these columns that have so far been published, the bluster is made even more ludicrous by annotators who can only guess at historian Freeman’s identity and who mistake the great critic Richard Bentley for Chesterton’s friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley. This is sad, especially for those who appreciate the small body of work that shows Chesterton’s one important gift -- the ability to imagine his own being against a backdrop of nothingness, an act that became his homeopathic cure for despair.

Though Chesterton never grew as a thinker, the statement of his central insight is always stunning, in whatever genre, before it is dulled by repetition. Thus he wrote one brilliant biblical essay (on the Book of Job) , one superb piece of Shakespeare criticism (on A Midsummer Night’s Dream) , one neglected masterpiece in narrative verse (The Ballad of the White Horse) , one great fantasy-novel (The Man Who Was Thursday) , one dark joke of a playlet (The Surprise) , one gripping short story ("The Flying Stars") , and assorted short prose passages on nightmare, myth and creativity scattered through books like those on Dickens, St. Francis and St. Thomas. Here, for instance, is his description of the crisis that broke and reforged the spirit of St. Francis:

We used to be told, in the nursery that if a man were to bore a hole through the center of the earth and climb continually down and down, there would come a moment when he would seem to be climbing up and up. . . . We cannot follow St. Francis to that final spiritual overturn in which complete humiliation becomes complete holiness or happiness, because we have never been there. . . . We have never gone up like that because we have never gone down like that. . . . The symbol of inversion is true in another way. If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers, hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hung the world upon nothing. . . . The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.

Those are the words of a great spiritual writer, no matter what use people make of his tawdrier work.


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