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Under God: Religion and American Politics.

Garry Wills. Simon & Schuster. 9.99.[pounds] Paperback. 0671 747 460.

This book had its origin in the 1988 Presidential Election, when Garry Wills--student of Jeffersonian America, professor and journalist, Catholic at ease in Latin and Greek--was persuaded by Time magazine to write some feature articles. They form the basis, or at least the beginning, of this book.

For a country that is constitutionally Godless and required to be tolerant, religion is always just below the surface of American politics. In the United States to be a preacher, especially a black preacher, is half-way to political office, as it is also for practitioners in law. Indeed more so: today and over recent decades what passes as oratory in a television age comes from pulpits: witness Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan. Perhaps the only rival as orator is Mario Cuomo of New York. For much of his research Wills went to theological institutions: to Bethany Nazarene College in Oklahoma City (where Gary Hart studied for the ministry), to Chicago Theological Seminary (for Jesse Jackson), and to New York Theological (for Pat Robertson).

Although the first third of the book is devoted to the circumstances and personalities of 1988, this is much more: Wills sees Protestant millenarian theology and its recurrent jeremiads as basic to the American story. Hence the essays on William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes's trial, hence the guilt theme in Lincoln. Garry Wills sees Michael Dukakis as |the first truly secular candidate in our politics'; perhaps Hillary Clinton, the President's wife, apparently the stronger and more left-inclined personality in the Clinton household, might merit a similar description as events since the Election have shown. She has already been described as |the Winnie Mandela of American politics'. But the two most interesting -- and freshest -- studies are those of Jefferson and Madison. The last Wills sees not only as the father of the Constitution but with |an even better claim as the father of disestablishment'.

I found only one minor erratum. Wills notes correctly that Queen Elizabeth II is obliged to change her religious allegiance when she crosses the Scottish border. But it is not quite correct to say |Head of the English Church south of the Scottish border, she becomes Head of the Presbyterian Kirk north of it'. Not so. On attending the General Assembly of the Kirk in Edinburgh every spring, the Queen, or her representative the Lord Commissioner, sits one step below the Moderator, the churchman who is elected annually to reign if not to rule over the deliberations of the Scottish Kirk. It is a tiny point: but not to the Fathers and Brethren and their ladies who are, during the same week as they deliberate, anticipating an invitation to a royal garden party half a mile away, where they will be glad to defer and to curtsey to the Sovereign of the secular realm.
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Author:Wright, Esmond
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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