Garry Wills
Garry Wills
Under God:  Religion and American Politics
ISBN: 0671747460
Under God: Religion and American Politics
Garry Wills discussed his book, "Under God: Religion and American Politics," published by Simon and Schuster. He explained why no non-Christian has ever been elected to the office of president. He labeled religion as an important determinant to voters during election time, in particular with the Kennedy election of the early sixties.
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TRANSCRIPT
Under God: Religion and American Politics
Program Air Date: December 30, 1990

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Garry Wills, author of the new book, "Under God: Religion and American Politics," you write in the introduction that "no non-Christian has ever been elected president of the United States." How do you know?
GARRY WILLS, AUTHOR, "UNDER GOD: RELIGION AND AMERICAN POLITICS": Well, by external profession, which is all we can judge and that's all that the voters can judge, so that's the relevant thing.
LAMB: Do you think any non-Christian will ever be elected president of the United States?
WILLS: Sure. I don't see any reason why not.
LAMB: What's the reason no non-Christian hasn't ever been elected president?
WILLS: Well, culturally this was a Christian country, sociologically even though it was not legally. There's a great story that Mark Twain tells about Andrew Carnegie early in the century, saying to him, "You have to admit, whether you like it or not, that this is a Christian country." And Twain said, "Well, I know that, Andrew, but so is hell, and we don't boast about that."

Sociologically this has been a Christian country. Henry Morgenthau told a story about his service under Franklin Roosevelt, that one day he was in there with Tommy Corcoran and they were arguing with Roosevelt and he said, "Wait a minute, you guys. Remember, Tommy, you're Catholic and, Henry, you're Jewish. This is a Protestant country. You're here on sufferance." And Morgenthau doesn't sound like he's recounting a story in which Roosevelt was joking. So, sure, we were by origin a Christian country, although we had separation of church and state and still do. Now, that doesn't mean that politics and religion are separate or that you can separate them.

For instance, some people voted against John Kennedy because he was a Catholic, some people voted for him. There's nothing you can do about that. The First Amendment allows freedom of speech and thought and voting to the voters. Voting just because someone is a Christian or a Catholic or a Protestant may not be a very high motive, but lots of the motives that people vote for are not very high. I think the main thing is that people want to have a kind of common moral discourse with whoever is going to represent them, to feel they share certain common assumptions, and, therefore, it's not surprising that a country that is so overwhelmingly Protestant would have voted for Protestants, felt more at home with them, that kind of thing. But a minority candidate can be elected.

John Kennedy was a Catholic at a time when Catholics were about 25 percent of the population -- now they're about 28 -- so it was not simply a matter of the majority prevailing. Catholicism was respected and accepted. Will a Jewish candidate be elected? I wouldn't be surprised if that will occur not too far off, even though Jews are only 2 percent of the population in America. So, again, it's not surprising that they would not reach as high a degree of public support for the presidency anyway as fast as the Catholics did. What will be interesting is to see what happens with Asian religions that are coming in very strongly on the western coast, with Muslim religion. Will those go the same route of being elected to local office and entering into court appointments and that kind of thing? I don't see any reason why that shouldn't happen. America is extraordinarily resilient on that kind of thing, receptive.
LAMB: I don't know if I counted right. Is this the 16th book?
WILLS: About that, yes. I don't know if I could count them.
LAMB: When did you start writing books?
WILLS: I started writing books when I was in graduate school, which was in the 1950s. My first book was Chesterton, and I wrote that on a summer when I was over in England between my first and second year of graduate school.
LAMB: Where did you go to graduate school?
WILLS: Yale.
LAMB: And you're still at Northwestern?
WILLS: Yes.
LAMB: Teaching?
WILLS: Yes. History. American History.
LAMB: You also write a newspaper column?
WILLS: Yes.
LAMB: How many times a week?
WILLS: Twice.
LAMB: How would you define the column? What kind of column is it?
WILLS: It's about politics. It's a regular political column.
LAMB: When did you get the idea to do this book?
WILLS: During the 1988 convention I was following the candidates around and doing a series of cover stories for Time magazine and a program for National Public Television on the campaign, and I noticed that although religion was a very big part of the campaign, it was not adverted to in anything like the proportion that I thought it should be. You had two ministers running, Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson. You had a vice president of the United States who had cultivated very intensively the evangelical right wing. Bush was down there before Jim Bakker's scandalous fall. He was down there courting him. He was down there courting Jerry Falwell. And Gary Hart had a very strong religious upbringing and theological training at Yale Divinity School. All of this made the importance of religion to the campaign obvious to me, and yet so little of it came out.

To take one example: Jesse Jackson surprised a lot of people by the acceptance he got in some states where there is a very small black population because people looked at him as a black candidate or a candidate of the left wing of the Democratic Party. He was not treated normally as a religious candidate, and yet he uses the Bible and religious language and religious imagery constantly. When he went into Iowa, for instance, he would go into people's homes and stay overnight and say prayers before meals, and he would speak in church groups. That was very important to his success, I believe, in Iowa, that there is a kind of natural deference -- respect -- that is given to the clergy. When they saw him in person as a clergyman, they were willing to listen to him in ways that they might not have been if he were just an outside black candidate. So, religion was playing a role there that was not being adverted to. He was never quoted in his Biblical rhetoric, and yet it's a rhetoric that Reverend King had made very prominent in his civil rights days.

Of course, the Jackson candidacy came out of that, came out of a religious matrix essentially -- all those black preachers leading that non-violent civil rights movement which is so religiously impregnated with the thoughts of suffering and bearing witness without hating your oppressors and that kind of thing.
LAMB: What's the most political church in the country?
WILLS: Well, that would be hard to say because they're all political, you know. In forming people's moral judgments you have to affect the way they thing about justice -- economic justice, racial justice -- war issues, killing, crime, nuclear weapons. They're all constantly having some impact on all of those issues. I suppose that in the black community the church is more important than in most white communities because at a time when social cohesion was so much under attack -- the family was having a hard time surviving under the conditions of slavery and slavery's aftermath; the denigration of black males, the attack on human dignity and that kind of thing -- the church was so important for the social cohesion of the community and the pastor of the church was such a commanding community figure at a time when it was hard to gain respect through other channels of politics or law or being a doctor or being a professor or whatever. So in that sense, I suppose the importance of the church to the people as a political entity may be highest among the blacks. George Gallup's polls indicate that American blacks are the most religious people in the world -- in the world, not only in America.
LAMB: How do you define religious?
WILLS: By church-going, Bible-reading, profession of belief, intensity of comfort taken from religion. There are a number of these polls that have been worked out for transcultural comparison over 25 years now, and they converge. There are a number of them that do it -- secular groups and religious groups and others -- and quite extraordinary things are indicated by America's religiosity. Again, all you can go by is external profession and practice, but people put their money where their mouth is on a lot of these issues. America is by far the most religious of the advanced industrial countries, the major ones anyway. Ninety-some percent -- five or six or four, according to the poll -- believe in God. Ninety percent told Gallup that they have never even doubted the existence of God. These are extraordinary figures. Thirty-seven percent of the people believe in a personal devil. We are a very religious people, and naturally that's going to show up in our conduct in our political activity as in other activity.
LAMB: Where does that come from?
WILLS: Well, from our past. No other country really sent out settlers to establish a new community which would be a light on a hill, which would be a visible body of saints as the early settlers of America did. Keeping the church pure, keeping the Gospel pure, was the first priority for many of those settlers, not only in New England, but in Virginia. Perry Miller liked to point out that we tend to think of the dissenting churches in the North, and yet in Virginia Sabbatarian laws were more strict than in the North. The early settlers were so religious that when, for instance, John Rolfe wanted to marry Pocahontas, the idea of marrying somebody from a cursed race which worshipped the devil -- which is the way they conceived of the Indians, of their rituals -- was so hard that he was criticized. He wrote a very long letter trying to justify himself theologically, quoting Calvin -- again, this is a Virginian, not a New Englander -- quoting Calvin, quoting the Bible, quoting the Jewish scripture, the Christian scripture and saying that the devil does try to trap us into dealings with these people, but we're going to have a counter-move against the devil because we've converted Pocahontas, and this will give us a way of invading their territory with our theology.

So he justifies his marriage in theological terms, not in sociological or military or anything of that sort. It's a four or five-page letter, very densely argued. This is Virginia, this is not Boston. So we were a very committed religious people from the outset, and most historians have seen that there is a residue of that no matter how diluted. That has continued throughout our history. We are a very moralistic country. When we go to war, we have to have an evil enemy, a kind of diabolic enemy. We have to slay the evil empire. We have to attack godless Communism -- what Harry Truman always used to call it, "godless Communism." It was like one word with him. We have to make the world safe for democracy. All of this comes from this tremendous mission that America originally conceived itself to be engaged in -- Aaron into the wilderness. Lincoln, in order to justify the tremendous sacrifices of the Civil War, presented it as a redemptive agony in which the nation was suffering for its sins and compared the nation to Jesus. He had an extraordinarily articulated theological language that he used through the Civil War.
LAMB: Has religion played much of a role in your life?
WILLS: Yes, a very strong role. I was brought up as a Catholic, educated by the nuns, in the '40s and '50s when anti-communism was a very strong consideration in the Catholic church. I went to a Jesuit high school and studied in a Jesuit seminary for five-and-a-half years.
LAMB: Were you thinking about being a priest?
WILLS: Oh, yes. I did intend to be.
LAMB: What changed your mind?
WILLS: I found when I was in the seminaries working with Jesuits -- I'd been attracted there because our teachers in high school were Jesuit scholastics; people who have not yet become priests. They were in their 20s. They impressed me as the most vibrant, growing, intellectual people. But then when I went into the seminary, I got to know a lot of older Jesuits, and I found a lot of them were not so inspiring. They were kind of zombies -- not all, of course. There are some marvelous people. But I found the life stultifying intellectually and spiritually and emotionally and certainly sexually, so I left without leaving the church.
LAMB: And what year was that?
WILLS: I left in '57.
LAMB: Then what?
WILLS: I went to graduate school.
LAMB: So you had an undergraduate degree at the seminary.
WILLS: Yes.
LAMB: What seminary was it?
WILLS: In St. Louis. St. Louis University.
LAMB: And then on to Yale?
WILLS: Yes.
LAMB: Then more schooling after that?
WILLS: I went to the Center for Hellenic Studies for a post-doctoral year. I got my degree in classics and then went to Johns Hopkins and taught for 18 years there.
LAMB: And then on to Northwestern.
WILLS: Taught 10 years there.
LAMB: When did you write your first newspaper column?
WILLS: I wrote that in 1972. I had been approached by three different syndicates. Most people don't realize this -- I'm sure you do -- that it's very easy for a syndicate to say to somebody, "Write some columns," because they don't lose anything. They put you in their portfolio, and if nobody buys you they haven't lost anything. You've just lost your time writing the columns. I had heard that, so I said no. I was teaching and didn't have that much time. But then Kent State occurred. I was writing then mainly for New York magazine and Esquire and they both have long lead times, a month to six months between when you actually write something and it appears. I was so frustrated that I couldn't say something right away about what was going on in this country -- I thought the country was really being torn apart by the Vietnam War and other things -- that I said yes, I would do it just to get an immediate audience, no matter how. Fifty papers bought it, so I stuck with it.
LAMB: Can you define your political philosophy?
WILLS: Not very easily. I'm conservative in very many ways. I'm obviously Catholic and a classicist by training and very traditional in many of my tastes, so I think that I am a conservative in regard to respect for tradition. But I'm also very skeptical of authority and I think that also comes from, in large part, from my Catholic upbringing. If you live with authority intimately for a long time, you begin to suspect it. You know enough about it that you don't take it very readily. So many of my heroes are people who have resisted authority, who have committed civil disobedience in the name of abolitionism or civil rights or opposition to the Vietnam War. Among Catholic people whom I respect and revere, Dorothy Day is prominent and . . .
LAMB: Who is Dorothy Day?
WILLS: Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Worker. She was a woman who fed the poor in inner cities. She grew up as a radical, was not a Catholic. She demonstrated for women's suffrage in the 1920s, and then she became a Catholic convert and set up the Catholic worker movement and was opposed to the possession of nuclear weapons as immoral and inspired several generations of young Catholics, many of them seminarians, many of them priests and nuns, including the Berrigans, by the way.
LAMB: Are the Berrigans a couple of your heroes?
WILLS: Yes. Decidedly.
LAMB: For those who've never heard of them . . .
WILLS: They were priests. They're both alive. They're brothers. The older one, Philip, was a priest down in a New Orleans diocese who got involved in the civil rights movement because he educated black children down there. Daniel Berrigan is a Jesuit who was in the New York diocese and was very closely associated with Dorothy Day and was disciplined by his ecclesiastical superiors, exiled to Mexico and that kind of thing. The two brothers poured blood on draft files during the Vietnam War to protest the Vietnam War, went to jail, had a famous trial at Harrisburg about which a play was written and a movie was made. Philip left his order. Daniel has stayed within his order. They both continue to be protesters and activists and writers, and they've had a great impact on many people's lives, including mine.
LAMB: What about elected politicians over the years? Who do you admire?
WILLS: Well, in various ways I've admired different ones. There are certain things I admire in Richard Nixon. I think his opening to China was the most important diplomatic thing that happened after World War II.
LAMB: Do you give him, personally, credit for that?
WILLS: Sure. Absolutely, yes. I think he was much more responsible than, say, Henry Kissinger. Jimmy Carter I have great respect for because he's the first president of the United States to give serious attention to the Third World, to treat it as what it is -- the majority of the human people living in the world today. By the way, he said a number of things which embarrassed him at the time, but have turned out to be rather prophetic now. He gave a speech at Notre Dame saying that we have overemphasized our obsession with communism, that that's not the only moral issue out there in the world, and that's proved to be the case.
LAMB: Who has disappointed you in this last 25, 30 years?
WILLS: Well, they all have disappointed me because politics is essentially, especially in America, an area of compromise. You don't get saints and sterling heroes in that role. I don't think you should expect that. Dr. King would never have become president of the United States. I was disappointed in the Kennedys when I found out that they had done things like plot the assassination of Fidel Castro. Not only did I think that was not very morally inspiring, but it was just politically dumb because if we'd killed Castro, what would have replaced him? The idea that if you just knock off one evil guy a whole system will crumble and some wonderfully pure unimagined heroes will take over is false. But one of the things that I feel about politics is that it's wrong for us to concentrate only on elected people as politicians.

Much of the most vital important work that goes on in our political life takes place entirely outside of the electoral process. Take feminism. That's changed our lives in a way that few of us can even measure now, and that didn't happen primarily through elected people. The feminist leaders have been writers, activists, academicians who made their way by the moral persuasion that they could exercise. The consumer movement. Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader changed the way we think about much of our commercial life. They didn't hold office. The civil rights movement. Reverend King, as I said, never held office. Probably couldn't have, and yet he changed our political day-by-day behavior more than anybody who was elected to political office. So I think of politics in that broad sense, and that means that there are a lot of people I admire in politics who are not in office or running for office.
LAMB: How much do you teach?
WILLS: Now I teach only one course a year. I taught full-time, and I found that I couldn't write and do the things I wanted, and especially I found that I was giving too much time to committee work. If you're a tenured member of the faculty as I was, it's a matter of duty, it seems to me, to be a citizen of that community and to partake in its activities, so there were many committees that I had to serve on.
LAMB: You're talking about at Johns Hopkins?
WILLS: No, at Northwestern.
LAMB: Are you still a tenured professor there?
WILLS: No, I resigned my tenure.
LAMB: Now, why would you do that?
WILLS: Because I didn't feel that I could keep it in conscience without performing all those duties, and I was getting too old to spend all that time on that kind of work. I'd rather write.
LAMB: What's the difference between someone who's tenured and one who is not tenured?
WILLS: Well, in a tenured position you can't be fired unless you do something heinous. But it means that you are a full professor and that you are a part of the community in a permanent way that for me meant that you have to give to them the kinds of time that the other people are giving or you're deadwood. You're not pulling your weight. That seems immoral to me.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
WILLS: Yes. Three grown children.
LAMB: Out of school?
WILLS: Yes.
LAMB: What do you think of the kids you teach today?
WILLS: I'm always astounded by them -- the energy and idealism and enthusiasm that they have. I'm astounded also by how little they know, but, of course, that's what everybody says when they get older.
LAMB: Has that always been the case, by the way?
WILLS: Sure, sure. The idea that there is a kind of lower level of intelligence or literacy or that kind of thing is simply not true, I don't think. One of the things that we forget is that when we compare academic life in the 19th century and the 20th century or pre-World War II and post-World War II, we're looking back at very select, elite parts of our community. Not as many people went to college in pre-World War II times. That's in terms of class and certainly in terms of gender. Not nearly as many women went to schools and not nearly as many poor people. There's at least as much intelligence and good writing and that kind of thing, but now it's in a bigger pool, admittedly, of people who are not as well prepared and can't be because not everybody's being taken out of elite preparatory schools and that kind of thing. We tend to forget that. It comes up in voting, for instance.

You know, we're constantly hearing the lament, "My God, only half the people vote." All right, that's unfortunate, and maybe there are some things that can be done about it. But when you also say, as many people do, that there were the good old days. There were the 1880s and the 1890s when 85 percent of the people voted. Sure, but 85 percent of the eligible voters then excluded over half of the population because women didn't vote at all in the 1880s and 1890s. Transients, people who couldn't pass poll tax and literacy tests and all of those other things didn't vote, and much of that turnout in that controlled environment was machine voting turnout so the absolute numbers who vote now are greater than back then. The percentage was greater back then, but it was a percentage of a small pool. The level of voter awareness and intelligence is much better than it was back then. The idea that there was some kind of golden age of great debates and that kind of thing is simply false.

Even the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were not presidential debates and were not typical of anything, when you go back at them don't look at all like the model that we've been living with in much of our mythology. As a matter of fact, both candidates in that case accused the others of an elaborate conspiracy against the republic. In both cases it was wrong. It wasn't occurring, so that they were engaged in really a great smear of each other. When Lincoln was in the southern part of Illinois he made some statements that were quite racist. Another thing we have to remember is that Lincoln, though he did perform well often in the Lincoln-Douglas debates for the Senate in Illinois, two years later when he ran for president, the minute he got the nomination he said he wouldn't give a single speech for the rest of the campaign and he wouldn't answer any questions from editors or anybody else. And he didn't. He got away with it. So, voter awareness and voter information about what's going on is a thousand times more than it was in 1860 when you couldn't get Lincoln to say boo for months before the election.
LAMB: From your study for this book "Under God: Religion and American Politics" -- I know most of it is written about recent candidates, although there's some history of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- who was our most religious president in two categories, either the one who acted the most religious and the one who was truly the most religious, from what you know?
WILLS: Well, on the latter, of course, I can't say. I'm not God. I can't read hearts. I don't know. And when you say "acted religious" . . .
LAMB: Used it politically.
WILLS: Well, almost all of them have used it politically in some measure. Take a question that a number of people have raised to me: They said, "How could the evangelicals go from Jimmy Carter, who really believed, to Ronald Reagan, who just was superficially religious, didn't go to church and that kind of thing?" Well, I don't think that Ronald Reagan's religion is insincere. If it's not profound maybe it's because he's not profound. It might be as deep as anything else in him. Certainly his religious upbringing was right. It was in conformity with what he's professed, and if you read his autobiography now when he's not running for office, he mentions prayer constantly -- just constantly. He mentions he believes that he was miraculously cured of ulcers. So he obviously -- unless he's being very insincere -- is a deeply-believing person. I don't think he is being insincere.

Why did the evangelicals leave Jimmy Carter who was seen as more religious by people who are not themselves very religious? Most of the evangelicals didn't think that Carter was all that religious. They thought if he really believed, he would not say that we can legally allow abortion, that we don't care about returning prayer to the schools, that we don't care whether people are taught creationism or evolution. In all of those ways, Carter to them was if not a heretic then an actual infidel. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, met all of those tests. He was for returning prayer to schools, he was for teaching creation as another hypothesis along with evolution, he was against abortion.

So they thought, "Here is a person who is consistent in his beliefs." Now, he certainly used religion. It was profitable to him to profess all these things, but he had always professed them. People didn't advert to it a lot, but he had. He had evangelical contacts all the way back. Pat Boone had introduced him to a number of them. He had been involved in the evolution controversy in California when Max Rafferty was the superintendent of schools there. People tend to forget that. Lincoln certainly used religion and seems to have had a profounder grasp of some of the concepts of religions, but Edmund Wilson argued that he also was an opportunist in his religious references. I don't know how he searches hearts to come to that conclusion, but almost every president this could have been said about in one way or another. Washington, interestingly enough, used religion almost least of all. He was uncomfortable with that. Jefferson, of course, hid his religious views. They were heterodox. He would have been considered in his day a heretic if people had known what his religious views were, but he was very careful to hide them.
LAMB: What were they?
WILLS: He was a theist. He certainly believed in God and in providence. He didn't believe in miracles or specific interventions of God. But he was also a principled materialist. He thought God was matter. He was opposed to the trinity, but he was a Christian in the only sense, he said, that Jesus wanted anybody to be; that is, he thought Jesus was the greatest ethical teacher who had ever existed and that the religions that stressed that -- and he included in that Presbyterians, Quakers and Unitarians -- should be encouraged, that it was important to America that those religions be encouraged, and that high-church religions that were trinitarian and hierarchical, that had bishops, like the Episcopalians, or popes, certainly, like the Catholics, should be discouraged. So, he was not neutral on religion. He expressly said when he argued for this passage of the statute on religious freedom in Virginia that we don't want establishment because the history of the world has been that false religions are the ones that get established. Well, even to use the term "false religion" shows that he was not being completely neutral toward religion as many of his followers would have preferred for him to be.
LAMB: You mention in the book that Michael Dukakis -- and I'm going to not get this right because you use two words, "secular" and "secularism" -- was the closest to being a secular candidate. Explain that.
WILLS: Yes. He seemed to have the least awareness of religion as even a matter of concern that would enter into politics. For instance, he was truly puzzled about why people got all upset about the ACLU. Within his circle, the ACLU was just a nice, civic organization that does good like the League of Women Voters or something. He didn't realize that the religious right in America has long had a very fervent hatred of the ACLU because of its engagement in Supreme Court cases like the prayer case, the abortion case, pornography cases, creationism.

The ACLU has been the enemy of the evangelicals ever since the Scopes trial when they brought this anti-evolution case against William Jennings Bryan, the great evangelical hero. Or take the pledge, the flag issue. Again, he was totally bewildered and didn't know how to address the tremendous emphasis on the flag that the Bush campaign got a lot of mileage out of. What was at issue was not the flag but the pledge to the flag, and he had said in Massachusetts he had supported the idea that teachers don't have to say the Pledge of Allegiance in public school if they don't want to.

Well, for the religious right that has had prayer in schools taken away from them, as they feel, within the last 25 years, once those words "under God" were put in the Pledge of Allegiance during the 1950s during the Eisenhower era, that's the one time when God can be officially mentioned in school. So, it's kind of a residual prayer in schools to this day as long as the pledge is said, and, of course, the ACLU would like to take it out for that reason. So when Pat Robertson had rallies and his people recited the pledge before, they would say, "I pledge allegiance," etc., and come to the words "under God" and they would shout out "under God" and then go back to the level at which they had been saying the pledge. But Dukakis didn't ever realize that that kind of feeling was out there and that it had a capacity to hurt him unless he addressed it or tried to come to terms with it in some way.
LAMB: Do you think it affects whether or not you're elected, how you deal with religion?
WILLS: Sure it does. I think it does. It showed up in the lack of common understanding he had with people. Now, a lot of people perceived that as, say, passionlessness or the lack of the common touch, but it means that he didn't have a sense of what the ordinary people out there think, and religion is a large part of what the ordinary people out there think. So to that extent and his tin ear to the ordinary people, he lacked that. He came from a part of our culture that in general lacks that. I think the media and the academy, the kinds of people that he dealt with when he was a teacher at the Kennedy school or when he was interested in policy questions are ones who tend to estimate the religiosity of America.

For instance, those statistics about the belief of Americans and the practice of Americans -- over and over I've brought those up to colleagues in the academy or in the media, and they're astounded and they're skeptical and they don't want to believe it and they don't believe it because it's not true in their world. Their world is circumscribed by certain elite journals and certain elite practices. I always say to my students, "When you talk about 'the media,' a lot of people are saying the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, or something. Go into a newsstand. Go into a big supermarket and see what people actually read." They read the National Enquirer. They read astrology journals.

They read the most incredible range of things. There's a much bigger readership for the Reader's Digest than there is of Time magazine. Real America is something out there that's not discovered by a lot of people including some, especially Democratic, political advisors. The Lee Atwaters are very aware of what the ordinary people are reading out there. They like to pay attention to that and to go to things like country music festivals and to listen to country music bands on the radio. Listen to a little country music, and you'll find out that God's all over the place in those songs.
LAMB: Mario Cuomo. You devote some attention in your book to the Notre Dame speech.
WILLS: Yes.
LAMB: And the speech about abortion. Can he run -- well, he obviously can run -- but if he runs for president, can he win given his difficulty with the Catholic church?
WILLS: Well, certainly some members of the hierarchy are making it hard for him. Some tried to do that with Kennedy, but the abortion and contraception and other issues had not come up in as virulent a form then. Certainly all Catholic politicians are in trouble on this issue because there are some members of the hierarchy who want to threaten with excommunication people who don't say that church discipline should be observed even in the political arena. There are Catholic politicians, though, who will take his stand and who are being elected. I think there are pressures on those bishops even within their own ranks to make them back off.
LAMB: Exactly what is his position?
WILLS: Well, he says he agrees with the church authorities that abortion is wrong, but that he can't force that on the consciences of people who vote and who are not Catholic or who are Catholic and differ and that within the political realm he can't enforce all of his moral views. He has to enforce the laws that are passed by citizens.
LAMB: What do you think of that?
WILLS: I think that's absolutely right.
LAMB: So you think his position is on target?
WILLS: I think his actual position may be. I think his rationalizations are not as convincing as they might be; that is, he's got another problem aside from being elected or performing as a politician in being a credible Catholic intellectual as that's been understood in our politics in the past. For instance, Eugene McCarthy was a Catholic intellectual who had a great interest in liturgy and things of that sort in the '50s and '60s before any of these very divisive issues came up. Jerry Brown was a Catholic intellectual who was very interested in Teilhard de Chardin and mysticism and could talk about those things. But since the '60s, since the Second Vatican Council, a whole series of issues has come up in Catholic life that Catholic intellectuals have to advert to. Contraception, for instance. The church authorities have continued to say something that the body of the faithful doesn't believe and doesn't follow. On feminism, the church authorities have said that only celibate males can be priests, that women can't be priests. Again, a majority of the faithful now don't agree with that, including a majority of the priests. On abortion, the theological position that human personhood begins at conception is something that a number of Catholic theologians and priests and nuns and lay people don't believe anymore.

Now, Cuomo doesn't take part in that dialogue anymore. He started out being a Teilhard de Chardin reader and talked as a Catholic intellectual, somebody who took as his model St. Thomas Moore as had been done by Eugene McCarthy. For his own purposes, he wants to profess his loyalty to the teaching of the authorities, even on contraception where most Catholics differ from the authorities. He says he accepts that. But then he says in the area of prudence, "I don't have to apply that." So, in order to keep his bonafides with the Catholic authorities, he accepts much more of their teaching -- at least professes to -- across this cluster of interconnected sex and gender issues than most Catholic intellectuals do.

As I say, I can see why he would want to do that in terms of political viability and why a lot of Catholics would want to do it, but it's a harder act to pull off now than John Kennedy's was or Eugene McCarthy's or Jerry Brown's. That's sad, and it may change because the church itself -- the church teaching authorities, at any rate -- will change. It's interesting that one of the lesser-noticed things that's occurred in this is that Sam Nunn backed of from his opposition to abortion by saying that whatever you think of the morality, it would be unenforceable now to reverse Roe v. Wade, that it would be like Prohibition. You couldn't go in and police people to keep them from having abortions any more than you could police them to keep them from drinking in the 1920s. William Buckley, a conservative Republican whose magazine helped to launch the Human Life Review, criticized, not on certain grounds, but said on that argument of enforceability that he's probably right. Well, when William Buckley, a Catholic conservative, says that, he's saying essentially what Mario Cuomo is saying. Cuomo has also said it would be unenforceable. I don't know how the Supreme Court can, given that kind of spread of opinion from a somewhat leftist Democrat like Cuomo to a somewhat rightist Republican like Buckley who are saying that it would be unenforceable to go back to the policing of abolished abortions, I don't know how prudentially they could reverse Roe v. Wade now.
LAMB: Go back to what you said earlier about the press and the academy, meaning university professors. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but they're not very religious? They don't believe in God?
WILLS: Certainly, in general people in higher education have lower returns on this than people who are not in higher education. They are still fairly high by worldwide standards. For instance, a majority of scientists -- physical scientists -- believe in God. Fewer who are in the social sciences believe in God, which is interesting because a lot of people think that the hard sciences are at odds with religion. They're not nearly as much at odds with religion as the social sciences.
LAMB: Would you say that's because the more they learn the less they believe? Or the more they study the less they believe?
WILLS: No, not necessarily. The academy encourages stepping away from one's own beliefs and viewing them skeptically to a degree that ordinary life doesn't, obviously. It encourages entering into other people's belief systems in a kind of value-free way to try to compare them. To be a scholar is to divorce yourself somewhat from your own predispositions and prejudices and that kind of thing, so it's not surprising that there would be greater skepticism about religion in those circles and greater prestige about religion.
LAMB: What about the press? Same thing?
WILLS: Well, yes, because especially now the press tends to be pretty highly educated, compared to the olden days at any rate. It's very hard for people who are not college graduates and have done some kind of special study to go very far in the press these days. Editors want people to go back and study economics and law and that kind of thing to be conversant with the kinds of people they'll be talking to who will be educated, often. It's interesting that editors encourage their reporters to go back and study political science or history or law or economics. They actually give them time off to do that or reward them in various ways for doing that, and there are even fellowships and other things, and I have never heard -- and I've asked around a little about this -- of a political reporter being encouraged by his or her editor to go off and study theology. It's an interesting thing.
LAMB: But then if you say these polls show that 90-some percent are believers of God in this country, the press must not have very much power over the people then.
WILLS: Well, no, I don't think they do have much power. After all, if the press had the power to block people it disliked -- at least the elite press -- Richard Nixon would never have been president. Ronald Reagan would never have been president. No. You know, there is a perceived gap between the reporters at the national level, certainly, and the voters. People within the media are astonished at Ronald Reagan's popularity. How can this man contradict himself and bungle and make all these errors and still be so loved by the people? Well, as I say, there's a big world out there that we don't pay enough attention to.
LAMB: You had a book out called "Reagan's America." How did it do?
WILLS: That did well. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for a number of weeks.
LAMB: Of all the books you've written, 16 or so, which one has sold the best?
WILLS: That one. "Reagan."
LAMB: Do you have any reason to think why?
WILLS: Oh, sure. It came out around the time of Iran-Contra. Reagan was big news. The one that's probably had the most influence and been taught more in courses for more years was "Nixon Agonistes." But it didn't sell as much, certainly in hard cover.
LAMB: When you write a column, do you write exactly what you want or do you write for the audience that's gotten used to you?
WILLS: It's hard to distinguish between those, but mainly what I want, because I'm not under an editor of any sort and I have no need to live off my column. I never have. I've lived off teaching and writing and lecturing and all that. So, it's a forum. I began it, as I said, in order to say urgent things about the country at the time of Kent State, and so I continued to use it for that. It's a quick way to say what I think needs being said.
LAMB: And when do you know you've written the best column? Do you get mail?
WILLS: Do I ever. Yes, I get lots of mail. Lots of angry mail, a lot about . . .
LAMB: Can you remember one or two columns that really got mail?
WILLS: Well, all of the Watergate columns about Nixon. Feelings were running very high on that, and I got phone calls and threats.
LAMB: What position were you taking?
WILLS: I was very opposed to Nixon. I thought that he should be impeached from very early on. I was critical of his Vietnam position, and that was considered unpatriotic at the time. So, I got an awful lot of scatological mail. It was during that period that I got things like -- when people don't like your column it's interesting. They send it back to you and deface it in some ways -- stab out the eyes in the picture or stamp obscenities on it or write obscenities on it. One time I got a column mailed back in an envelope smeared in excrement during that period.
LAMB: Back to your book. Page 239 -- "James Bevel, who delivered the greatest speech I've ever heard in my life. . .." Who was James Bevel and why was it the greatest speech?
WILLS: James Bevel was one of Reverend King's lieutenants, an extremely articulate and brilliant man who has had a kind of erratic and unstable career afterward. But this was right after King was killed. The next day, in the garbage strikers' hall, where the union activity was going on for which King was campaigning at the time, a whole series of preachers got up and preached their eulogies to Reverend King, and they were good. This is the art form that they've perfected. It's similar to jazz. It's an improvising, audience-reaction art, and this was the perfect audience, the perfect time. The emotions were just pulsing through everybody there. He got up and topped them all. He did it by this kind of challenge -- the wonderful artistry in which you can trust your audience. He got up and said, "People said Dr. King was a great leader. He's not our leader." And, of course, the audience, "What's he saying? How can he say that about him?" But they have to trust him, and they say, "What? Tell us, tell us." He went on and said, "Our time is not over because of this," and he kept teasing them, teasing them, teasing them. Then finally he said, "Jesus is our leader, and Jesus doesn't die. King was a martyr. King was one of His prophets. God has many prophets." They just went crazy. I've traduced the thing by giving you this kind of short version. He did it with rhythm, with wonderful imagery and with a rolling voice. It was just incredible.
LAMB: You say, the day after?
WILLS: Yes, the day after he was killed.
LAMB: And where is he today?
WILLS: He has some kind of a ministry in Chicago. He broke with the SCLC, and there were accusations of scandal on both sides. As I say, he's been rather erratic since then. When I wrote the description of that speech, it appeared in Esquire, and he tried to get me to become kind of his P.R. person. He came to me and said, "It's important for the cause that you help me carry on King's work" and all of that kind of thing. But I was leery of him on several grounds then, and besides, I said I don't write speeches for politicians.
LAMB: Of your fellow writers, who do you most admire? Well, I mean, obviously you admire your own work or you wouldn't do it. But who else do you follow?
WILLS: In what way? In political writing?
LAMB: Yes. In other words, other columnists, other book writers, people that you enjoy, that you think are worth reading.
WILLS: Oh, dear. That's a big assignment. Robert Stone is a wonderful novelist who has written some very great political commentary. He worked in the civil rights movement somewhat in the South, and he wrote a wonderful piece about the Atlanta convention in '88. Wilfrid Sheed is a wonderful novelist.
LAMB: What about daily columnists?
WILLS: Although I differ from him, I think Safire is probably the most interesting and provocative and, in some ways, honest. He's honest because he admits that he's an advocate, and he lays it all out there in front. So even when he does something I consider quite undefensible if anybody else would do it -- for instance when he defended Roy Cohn -- he makes it so clear that, "Well, by God, he was my friend and I stick by my friends." He at least spells out the terms on which he's writing. So I have great admiration for that.
LAMB: What's your next book?
WILLS: I don't know. I've got a book that I'm writing about James Wilson and the ratification of the Constitution in Pennsylvania. But that's a long-term project. I don't know if it will come out next.
LAMB: Our guest has been Garry Wills, and this is what the book looks like. It's called "Under God: Religion and American Politics." Thank you for being with us.
WILLS: Thank you very much.
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