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
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?
LAMB: And you're still at Northwestern?
WILLS: Yes. History. American History.
LAMB: You also write a newspaper column?
LAMB: How many times a week?
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
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.
LAMB: What seminary was it?
WILLS: In St. Louis. St. Louis University.
LAMB: And then on to Yale?
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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