The Secularist Prejudice

by Gary Wills

Garry Wills teaches in the history department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

This article is excerpted from Under God: Religion and American Politics, published this month by Simon & Schuster. Reprinted by permission. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 24, 1990, pp. 969-973, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Historian/journalist/political scientist Garry Wills notes how some scholars — including such eminent historians as Henry Steele Commager and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. — and public figures, including Michael Dukakis (whom Wills has called "the first truly secular candidate we have ever had for the presidency") have undervalued, ignored or maligned the role of religion in American life.

Michael Dukakis, well educated in other ways, was not prepared to deal with religious ardor. Asked which book most influenced him, Michael Dukakis instantly mentioned Henry Steele Commager’s The American Mind. He read it shortly after its appearance in 1950, when he was in high school. For a man whose preferred reading would, in later years, be project papers, this volume was something to stir the imagination. It sings the praises of the Tennessee Valley Authority and describes public planning as a special expression of the American genius.

Commager argues that the American mind is pragmatic, optimistic and secular. He castigates as un-American-minded any "irrationalists" -- a hospitable category that includes people as different as Ernest Hemingway and Henry Adams. Artists are especially prone to irrationalism, whose leading indicators are "an obsession with sex," a "rejection of the concept of normality," and a glorification of "subhuman louts." Instead of busily building dams and setting up government programs, artists -- people who succumb to the lure of Gertrude Stein -- bog us down in "the quagmire of futility." Having given up on science (like Henry Adams), such people easily become pessimists, retaining practically no American Mind at all.

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.

Huck cannot escape, even in rebellion, the categories of the circumambient religious culture (which Twain clearly thought was America’s culture) Schlesinger, in the grip of an even stranger blindness, cannot see the circumambient culture. He is an American historian for whom much of American history simply does not exist. If religious figures pop up here and there, from the time of Jonathan Edwards to that of Flannery O’Connor, they are freaks or sports, somehow not as truly American (or truly great) as Emerson or William James. The demon-haunted world of Melville, Hawthorne, Poe simply ceases to be American in the world where Commager’s TVA is the secular icon. Even Twain gets into the canon by a perverse misreading of his central scene’s deepest irony.

Commager and Schlesinger are to American history what Michael Dukakis was, in 1988, to American politics. Much of American (indeed, of human) experience is off their mental maps. They have a serene provincialism, dismissive of the ordinary torments of people less optimistic, irreverent and pragmatic than they. Those people are not simply treated as if they did not matter. They are not visible. America’s encounters with religion are, for these learned men, what Kitty Dukakis’s pill-taking was, something too embarrassing to be adverted to.

In 1959 the British novelist and scientist C. P. Snow stirred up a famous controversy by saying that the intellectuals of the developed world were split into "two cultures" -- scientific and nonscientific -- that no longer spoke each other’s language. Many objections were made to Snow’s argument, some almost as silly as the argument itself, but the best answer to it is contained in Snow’s own presentation, which has the form of unwitting self-caricature. What Snow presents as a tragic gap between cultures is the difficulty Cambridge dons of different disciplines had in talking shop across the "high table" of Snow’s college in Cambridge. It seems not to have occurred to him that his two factions of academia represent aspects of a single thin stratum in much larger "cultures" -- English. British. Western. Seen in that context, their interdisciplinary squabbling -- however unfortunate -- was, in the fullest sense intramural walled off from larger worlds, of which (whether they recognized it or not) they were also members, yet from which their psychological distance was greater than any that could be measured across the dons’ table when the port was going round.

In one way, Snow’s perspective is broader than Commager’s or Schlesinger’s. He at least admits two factions into his dining room. He clearly favors one, the scientific, but he admits the existence of another, however much he might deplore it. For Commager and Schlesinger there is only one "real" American culture, with scattered exceptions that rate not even a seat at their American equivalent of the "high table" where the American Mind communicates with itself.

Without using Snow’s unfortunate language of cultures, one might conclude from Commager and Schlesinger that there are, in the great amalgam of American culture, two attitudes toward religion that would like to be mutually exclusive. The religious try to extrude, as invaders of God’s country, those who question religion’s centrality in public life. Reciprocally, and somewhat unexpectedly, pragmatic "Americanists" make their own attempts at excommunication. Nor is this confined to the world of professors like Commager and Schlesinger, or politicians like Dukakis. Some journalists also think there is something-un-American about religion, as they demonstrated in a 1988 flap -- what a New York Times reporter called "a form of low-intensity intellectual warfare" -- over the appointment of a president to the New York Public Library. Professor Schlesinger gave his address at Brown University at the installation of the school’s new president -- Vartan Gregorian, who had vacated the library post. The library board had appointed six persons to a search committee, and then approved the committee’s recommendation -- the Reverend Timothy S. Healy, S.J., at the time president of Georgetown University, though he had held high office (vice-chancellor for academic affairs) in a secular academic institution (City University of New York) for seven years. Journalists like Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin objected to the appointment of a Jesuit priest, not reflecting perhaps that they were instituting a religious test where there had been none before Their warrant, Talese said in a letter to the Times, was that Vartan Gregorian had been not only successful but "unquestionably secular." Henceforth, apparently, anyone of questionable secularity would be disqualified. The test would presumably be: Is the prospective librarian at least as secular as Dr. Gregorian? If he were more secular, that would be a bonus.

Noting that Father Healy had taken the customary religious vows, including one of obedience, Talese asked: "Obedience to whom? To his church? Or to those who disagree with his church?" It seems fairly obvious that, whatever the reach of Father Healy’s vow, it did not commit him to "obey" enemies of his church. Was Talese suggesting that it should?

It was mentioned, at the time, that voters had been able to install John Kennedy in the White House and Robert Drinan (a Jesuit) in the House of Representatives without observing a religious test; but Healy’s critics, who now included the novelist Joseph Heller, said that the librarian’s post was even more sensitive than that of the president of the United States. The latter has only nuclear destruction at his disposal; the former can favor or disfavor ideas.

I do not suppose any New York City librarian, even the exemplary secular Gregorian, has been entirely neutral about moral values, nor has that ever been considered a condition for upholding free speech. If Healy’s critics were not demanding so entire a neutrality in the librarian (a ludicrous position it would be an insult to attribute to them) , and if they were not just expressing anti-Catholic bigotry (which it would also be unworthy to suspect in them) , they must have been saying that a librarian should typify the American Mind as defined by Commager and Schlesinger -- relativist, pragmatic and nonreligious (or nonmeaningfully religious, in Commager’s terms) The only values such a librarian could espouse would be the quintessentially American values of these professors -- certainly not the aberrant, irrational values that Professor Schlesinger fails to find anywhere in "our tradition, documents, and folkways."

Once one has taken this position on the presidency of the New York Public Library, it seems captious to say one should not hold it, as well, for such a political office as the presidency of the nation. The chief executive has in his custody all the amendments, not merely the first; and he, even more than the librarian, should adhere to -- if not, in fact, typify -- the pragmatism that is his country’s orthodoxy. By expecting an adherence to that orthodoxy, we will have reversed colonial America’s first (preconstitutional) demand of officeholders, that they take religious oaths upholding at least a minimally Christian creed (as defined by the community) , substituting a kind of "irreligious test," demanding the safe-guard of a minimal secularity (one that would reach the benchmark of, say. Dr. Gregorian’s)

This informal demand, rarely spelled out so specifically as in the case of the New York Public Library appointment, is what modern evangelicals call the standard of "secular humanism." But, for their own legal purposes, the evangelicals do not call this position irreligious. They call it a religion. Thus anyone trying to impose it is guilty of establishing a religion. In their zeal for the First Amendment, the secularists, it is claimed, undermine the First Amendment, and the evangelicals must come to the rescue of the Constitution!

What the evangelicals now call a religion would never have met their ancestors’ definition of belief in God. For immediate tactical advantage, the believers rely on people they normally treat as enemies, the social scientists, who define religion as anyone’s most comprehensive symbol-system. If the secularists’ most comprehensive symbol-system does not include God, the argument goes, then their very godlessness becomes their religion. But that would not have been enough for a modern secularist to meet the old religious test of political office -- he could not have sworn that he believes in religion because he does not believe in God. And evangelicals who suddenly express a preference for Clifford Geertz’s anthropology -- over, say, Increase Mather’s theology -- as a test of religion are acting in bad faith. We can see that when they oppose tax exemptions for "secular humanists."

Yet we should not let the opportunism of the assault on "secular humanism" as a religion distract us from the problem posed by secularity as an irreligious requirement in modern society. Is it true that the only way to be sincerely neutral toward religion in public office is to have no religious beliefs in private life? If so, then John Kennedy was not really acceptable as a Catholic in the presidency He was acceptable only to the degree that he did not really believe in his religion (as Commager assures us, no real American does) This, certainly, is going beyond any expectations of the Constitution’s framers. They did not suppose that the absence of religious oaths for holding office entailed, logically, irreligious officeholders.

Clearly, in our society, two large groups are talking past each other. One fails to see legitimacy in religious values not comprehended by the American Mind. The other fails to see legitimacy in irreligion: If secularity is really religious, then it is diabolic -- a plot against God, not mere indifference to God. Thus, when school textbooks steer as clear as they can of religious subjects, Pat Robertson does not see in this the work of timorous publishers trying to avoid subjects about which state school boards can be nervous. For him, it is the result of a great conspiracy against God:

And one of them [a humanistic schoolteacher] said. "So what if Johnny can’t read? We will have him for sixteen years, and we will be able to drive from him every vestige of the Christian superstition."

On the other hand, when Frances FitzGerald, in her book America Revisited. ‘describes how publishers’ timorousness and school boards’ importunacy determine the content of our schools’ history texts, she concentrates on the shifts in attitude toward social groups (blacks, women, Native Americans) and political issues (Reconstruction, cold war, Vietnam) , but does not notice the odd silence of such texts on the huge and embarrassing role of religion in our history. Even the controversy on evolution receives only passing reference. To her, the real issues are ethnic, political and economic. No wonder that when she came to write about evangelicals in her book Cities on a Hill, she found Jerry Falwell’s old-time gospel comparable to the Rajneesh cult, or a retirement community in Sun City, Florida, or a gay neighborhood in San Francisco. To put Falwell in this company of recent eruptions shows no sense of the depth or continuity of evangelical belief.

Secularists, unlike C. P. Snow’s scientists and their foes, are not confined to a donnish little world. They speak in large part for what right-wing politicians call the "Eastern establishment." They are heavily represented in the communications industry and in the "new class" of intellectual mediators that has come under attack from neoconservatives. Warned by the wreck of Snow’s grandiose terminology, we would do well not to call this secularist bias a "culture." It is one way of looking at American culture, a prejudice about it, which is paired with the opposite prejudice, that of religious people who cannot recognize a legitimate secularity (one not the declared enemy of religion) Most classes and regions of the country have some people affected by these two prejudices. One might suppose that they simply represent, the forces of modernity and of tradition; but in that case one would expect the traditions to be fading and the modern attitudes to be prevailing, as surely as modern technology is prevailing in our life.

Yet Michael Dukakis, the first truly modernist candidate in our politics, as trustful of secular values as of technology, was a man isolated from his fellow citizens, while George Bush was accepted by ordinary Americans as their spokesman, despite his elite (verging on effete) background. The secularist prejudice may be useful to those wanting to get ahead in certain fields; but in politics one does better to cultivate, as have all our recent presidents, the religious prejudice. No one did that more than George Bush in 1988.