I found Wills' explication of my intolerant Puritan ancestors' virtues and vices very illuminating. Looking at these highly educated and completely superstitious divines from a Catholic perspective, he points out something that I'd not previously understood.
No wonder these folks ended up hunting -- and burning -- witches, literally. Religion stripped of divine immanence via symbolic ritual left them terribly alone in the wilderness, surrounded by threatening "savage" foes.
These settlers had an enduring but paradoxical influence on the mental furniture of their new land. The colleges they founded, Harvard and Yale, embodied the Puritan intellect:
Their intellectual heirs were the religiously tolerant sages of the Enlightenment who founded the new country. Wills expounds in detail on Jefferson's and Madison's intent in drafting the Constitutional "separation of church and state," one of our country's signal contributions to religion and all of humanity, and one still under assault today.
For Wills, one of the great achievements of U.S. religion was overthrowing the Biblical justification for chattel slavery. He credits a little remembered 18th century Quaker, Anthony Benezet, for initiating questioning of millennia of Bible-based acquiescence in the owning of human beings.
In Wills' telling, the struggle within various U.S. Protestant denominations that led to North-South splits over slavery (Presbyterians, 1838; Methodists, 1844; Baptists, 1845) were the true first episodes of the Civil War that finally ended in 1865.
Wills also chronicles the invention within late 19th century U.S. evangelical circles of the wacky notion of "The Rapture." In these days when so many have been exposed to the Left Behind novels, it's worth noting that this idea was a much disputed innovation.
Possibly because I have more immediate experience of mid- and late-20th century U.S. Christianities, I did not feel the contemporary history sections of this book added quite as much as the earlier parts to my understanding of how we got where we are now. (That's the point of history, isn't it? Insofar has history has "a point," that is.) I did find interesting Wills' insistence that, despite the views of Republicans, Fundamentalists, and Catholic Bishops, we should remember that
Maybe so, but in this land of religious innovations, we seem to have generated a considerable number of "believers" -- some Catholic, more evangelical Protestant -- for whom opposition to abortion is their religion.
There's a great deal to think about in Head and Heart. I suspect my thoughts will often wander back to this book. We are a religious people; there's no evading that. Though I'm a Christian myself, I find it hard to be sure whether I see our national religiosity as more heartening than frightening.