George Will’s address at Washington University in St. Louis on December 4 has been rightly hailed as a seminal statement on the role of religion in Western and especially American society, and on the conflicting constitutional ambitions and their consequences of two of George Will’s most eminent fellow Princetonians, James Madison and Woodrow Wilson. It is clear that George Will put a great deal of thought into the address, which required about 40 minutes to deliver, and as would always be the case with anything he thought seriously about, it is a learned, insightful, and stimulating argument. He makes three principal points: that, in most cases, religion is a desirable belief for a society in general to hold, one that benefits equally all members of that society, including those who, like himself, have no religious beliefs; that Madison, as chief author of the Constitution, instituted the system of checks and balances among three coequal branches of the government to restrain the federal government from too dirigiste an intrusion in the rights and freedoms and natural course of the lives of the citizens; and that Woodrow Wilson compromised this with the assertion of the federal government’s right and duty to be more directly interventionist than the authors of the Constitution wished.
George Will holds Wilson’s emulators responsible for unconstitutional deviations that have resulted in the wholesale acquisition, with the taxpayers’ money, of the political support of special-interest groups, and the redefinition of the role of government to one of almost unlimited tinkering and meddling in areas that the authors and initial adopting legislators of the Constitution did not intend and would not approve, a meddling that is objectively regrettable and, on balance, unsuccessful and dangerous.
In what must rank as one of the greatest intellectual tours de force ever written by an American journalist (and one that has very few rivals from journalists of other countries since Swift), Will establishes a sequence, starting from the recognition by the principal Founders of the country (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and especially Madison, but not Hamilton, are mentioned), that religion is central to a concept of natural rights, as in the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that the “Creator” endows all men with “inalienable rights,” and that all are “created equal.” Will said in St. Louis that “natural rights are especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.” Though Will effectively asserts that none of the Founders was religious at all, they invoked religion, rather as he does, as useful because it “fostered attitudes and aptitudes associated with, and useful to, popular government.” (He exaggerates: Washington, Adams, and even Hamilton had their moments of conventional religious practice, and the others did more at times than, as is claimed, just doff their caps to religion.)
Will reminds us that Madison was most concerned about the tyranny of a majority and had created the system of checks and balances between three coequal branches of government to prevent the installation in authority of a durable, tyrannizing majority. “A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue,” he said in St. Louis. The core of his thesis — which he developed, as time allowed, with recondite extracts from Machiavelli, Luther, Hobbes, Tocqueville, and Irving Kristol, and references to Locke and Kant — is that Madison’s Constitution and his mentor Jefferson’s Declaration held the truths of natural rights to be “self-evident,” that the purpose of government is to “secure” these rights, and that the Founders considered religion reasonable because it secured those rights.
He credits Madison as “the wisest and most subtle” of the Founders, and Wilson he decries as opposed to Madisonian limits on government as a “cramped, unscientific understanding of the new possibilities of politics.” He quotes Wilson’s social scientist’s view of the opportunity for politics to quicken “in every suitable way . . . both collective and individual development,” and takes issue with Wilson’s sanguine view that though “great passions” may be stirred, these passions will, if they seize the public, “find a great spokesman.” Will disagrees strongly with this; he says that the United States, “steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics.” As “Biblical religion is concerned with asserting the dignity of the individual,” the Wilsonian conception of government is, in effect, un-Christian. Will agrees with Irving Kristol that “it is crucial to the lives of all our citizens, as it is to all human beings at all times, that they encounter a world that possesses a transcendental meaning, a world in which the human experience makes sense. Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world.”