Harry S. Stout

Over a distinguished career spanning four decades, Garry Wills has been a veritable prodigy of journalistic and historical accomplishments ranging from works on St. Augustine and medieval philosophy to Nixon Agonistes and Lincoln at Gettysburg (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize). In his most recent Big Book, Head and Heart, we see flashes of the earlier brilliance, but on balance the work fails to measure up to his high standards of depth and originality (to say nothing of arresting prose).

The premise of Head and Heart is clearly stated in the introduction. From colonial origins to the present, American thought and values have oscillated between the poles of “head” and “heart.” Sometimes one is dominant, sometimes the other. But regardless of which happens to prevail at any given time, the other never goes entirely away. This leads in the best cases to a creative dialectic in which each needs the other in order to sustain what we now call the United States of America. At worst, the tension between head and heart emerges in witch hunts, violent nativism and racist hatred. Although these tendencies are primarily identified with Protestantism, Wills argues that they can be found in many churches and, in fact, are better thought of as “force fields” or strands that figure in all the major Judeo-Christian traditions. Assessing the two poles, Wills concedes some positive achievements of the heart impulse (usually labeled “evangelicalism”), but his heart lies clearly with the head tradition (usually labeled “enlightened religion”).

The idea of organizing American intellectual history around the dichotomy of head and heart has a long ancestry that extends all the way back to America’s first historians. Its most impressive articulation appeared in Perry Miller’s posthumously published The Life of the Mind in America From the Revolution to the Civil War, which posited a fundamental “disjunction” in American thought “of the head versus the heart, of intellect versus emotion.” It is one of the many curiosities of Head and Heart that many of Miller’s works are cited, but not one of the most relevant.

Having set the context in terms of the head and heart “force fields,” Wills begins his narrative by pitting the “pre-Enlightenment” Puritans and the Great Awakening against the “enlightened religion” of Quakers, Deists and Unitarians. As Puritanism wanes and the new republic is created “without the protection of an official cult” (which Wills rightly sees as “the only original part of the Constitution”), the Deists and Unitarians remain firmly centered in their Enlightenment force fields, while the Puritans are replaced by the heart-centered revivalists, especially Methodists.

Along the way Wills takes pot shots at Jonathan Edwards and, by extension, Perry Miller and Alan Heimert, who had the temerity to suggest that Edwards was a product of the Enlightenment. For Wills, nothing could be further from the truth. He dismisses Edwards as a “pre-Enlightenment” dinosaur who “fought off the coming of the Enlightenment.” If this is accurate, a large number of scholars have wasted a lot of time studying Edwards and the Great Awakening. But happily it is far from accurate. Whatever his interpretive faults, Miller was spot-on in recognizing that, first among colonial intellectuals, Edwards read and really understood the looming Enlightenment figures Newton and Locke, while his “Old Light” rationalist, anti-trinitarian critics were still immersed in an essentially medieval world of scholasticism and a psychology that divided the self into various “faculties.” Indeed, Edwards understood them so well that he could take their terminology and insights and turn them on their heads.

Throughout Wills’s narrative, one group of historians dominates, namely the self-proclaimed “evangelical” historians, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch and, above all, Mark Noll. Certainly one can choose far worse historians to depend upon, but it is one of the more curious anomalies in this book that Wills makes strong claims for these historians’ support of Unitarianism and “enlightened religion” as America’s religion, while in fact they claim the opposite. For Marsden, Noll and Hatch, America’s religion is not the Unitarian religion nor Deism, but, in Noll’s formulation, a unique amalgam of “republican-evangelical-common sense” religion not found anywhere else in the world in quite the same symbiotic (and ultimately tragic) combination. For this reason, Noll concludes in America’s God that “Deism never succeeded in establishing itself as an American theology.” Instead, “by the early nineteenth century, evangelicalism was the unofficially established religion in a nation that had forsworn religious establishment.” In like manner, E. Brooks Holifield, author of the comprehensive history Theology in America, identifies Princeton Theological Seminary’s Charles Hodge as the most influential American theologian—a name that does not even appear in Wills’s narrative.

The greatest problems with Head and Heart appear in the early chapters dealing with the colonial and 19th-century periods. In a manner reminiscent of the old intellectual histories written in the 1950s, Wills ignores ordinary people and, in effect, effectively renders ideas as uncaused actors and change agents. They appear from nowhere in terms of social location. Wills consistently misses social and demographic realities that would render his ideas, such as separation of church and state, not so much miraculous or surprising as simply inevitable. By ignoring what might be termed the social origins of ideas, Wills is able to tell the story of America’s “head and heart” religion with hardly a woman’s voice to be heard. African-American voices appear only slightly more often, while ordinary day laborers, union workers or civil servants are virtually mute. By the late 20th and early 21st century, as waves of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu immigrants reshaped the religious landscape of modern America, they too remain invisible. Where do they fit under the comprehensive umbrella of head and heart?

Turning from substance to style, this book stands in stark contrast to the tight style and economical prose that characterize such earlier Wills classics as Lincoln at Gettysburg or Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment. In the present work, Wills does the reader no favors. At many points the book simply offers a series of vignettes, sometimes literally “by the numbers.” Even more irritating, the author relies on so many extended quotations from primary and secondary sources (sometimes spanning two pages) that the reader is forced to treat the book almost as a source book, mining through page after page of quotations for whatever nuggets there are to be found.

As the book moves forward in time, Wills’s comfort level clearly rises, and he speaks with greater originality. The last chapters are the strongest. By the Nixon years and beyond, the journalist in Wills takes over and produces some extremely clever and well-written snippets about key players and events. Though decrying the “futile acrimony” that neo-conservatives and Republicans employ to gain their dominance, Wills is hardly immune to his own slashing criticisms in pursuit of his liberal agenda. As one who shares much of that agenda, I found many opportunities to chuckle at the witty takedowns of the likes of Philip Hamburger, Michael Novak or Karl Rove. And Wills’s withering critique of anti-abortion arguments is as good as I have seen. But on deeper reflection the ultimate disrespect of all things right is so pervasive that it confirms how both sides in the “culture wars” stoke the fires of suspicion and hostility that flare into open contempt.

If this book does not represent Wills’s finest literary hour, it still contains interesting insights that save it from disaster. That being the case, one can hope for a return to the higher quality of his past publications in his subsequent writing.

 

Harry S. Stout is Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University.