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.”
Will concludes that “we may be approaching what is, for our nation, unexplored and perilous social territory. . . . When many people decide that the universe is merely a cosmic sneeze, with no transcendent meaning; when they conclude that therefore life should be filled to overflowing with distractions — comforts and entertainments – to assuage the boredom; then they may become susceptible to the excitements of politics promising ersatz meaning and spurious salvations from a human condition bereft of transcendence.”
It was, as it has been acclaimed to have been, a brilliant speech, from a brilliant man (who is also a good and loyal friend whom I have known, liked, and admired for more than 30 years), and I agree fervently with his conclusion, and most of the reasoning that generated the conclusion. But unfortunately, there are a few problems with it. First, it is slightly disconcerting to have a professed atheist pat those of us who practice a religion (I am an observant, though not uncritical or intolerant, Roman Catholic) on our heads and urge us to carry on with something that he implicitly considers to be rubbish but is one of the pillars of American civil society. It is like Charles Maurras’s Action Française, which endorsed the stabilizing influence of Roman Catholicism in France a century ago even though Maurras himself regarded Catholicism as superstitious obscurantism and unfounded conjurations. And for George Will to imply that this position is close to that of the Founding Fathers of the country won’t fly. Washington was a vestryman in his church; Hamilton and Adams were frequent churchgoers; and even Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison, evolving Unitarians or deists as they were, would not have described themselves as “nones,” where Will places himself in the Pew Foundation survey.
More worrisome, Will effectively states that American democracy reposes in large part on beliefs and activities that he does not consider intellectually persuasive on their objective merits. I find this undermines the credibility of his faith in the ability of the United States to defend a system of natural rights as he knowledgeably defines it.
Second, I don’t agree that Madison’s constitutional stipulations of divided and restrained powers, no matter how faithfully adhered to, would have prevented the crisis that George Will rightly fears is upon us — a society that looks to government to cure all ills as a matter of right. That process is the result of a universal franchise, which, though Madison and Jefferson favored a broader electorate than did Washington, Adams, or Hamilton, is not what any of them, including Franklin, sought. Democracy was going to open the whole process to a supreme test of the maturity and political sobriety of the people, and the people’s will was never going to be frustrated indefinitely by recourse to the limited jurisdiction of the federal government. The idea that in what is essentially a free country the majority could be denied what it wants, even if its desires are incited by demagogues and charlatans, is moonshine.
Third, I do not agree with Will’s Manichaean portrayal of the two Princetonian presidents. Madison wasn’t the wisest and subtlest of the Founders, as Will claims; he was a subtle legal theorist and draftsman, but he was not as wise nor as subtle a mind or personality as Washington or Franklin. As president, Madison blundered into a war with Britain and Canada, which he managed not to win, and which raised the northeastern states to a condition bordering on revolt. He could have doubled the size of the United States by taking Canada, as Jefferson had done with the Louisiana Purchase, but instead he was chased out of Washington on foot as the British burned down the government buildings there. Madison was reduced to naming Monroe simultaneously secretary of state and of war to try to end the War of 1812 both militarily and diplomatically. He ranks as the greatest lawgiver since Moses (who was, after all, a messenger), surpassing, among others, Hammurabi, Justinian, and Napoleon. But his Constitution is not working well now, with a severely corrupted and deadlocked political process. This is not the consequence of anything Wilson did.
Wilson is rivaled not by Madison, but perhaps by Jefferson and John Quincy Adams as the greatest intellect who ever lived in the White House. He believed that the security to which the Declaration of Independence referred depended on an educated electorate, exercising its democratic rights. He was a contemporary democrat and a serious Christian (son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers), unlike Madison and Will, and introduced a serious moral yardstick to American foreign policy and was the first person to inspire the masses of the world with the visions of enduring peace and of the government of a coherent international law. At the conclusion of his war message of 1917, he meant it when he said “God helping her [America], she could do no other.” He never uttered a word about the perfectibility of man and the imputation to him of that Marxist heresy is little short of an outrage.
His expansion of government consisted of the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Clayton Antitrust Act. These did not sap the marrow of American liberty, and Wilson cannot be blamed for the errors of those who have governed in the last 50 years. Wilson’s concern about the Constitution was that in such a separation of the executive from the legislative, it could become completely ineffectual. It has, and a penitent retrenchment to Madison won’t renovate it. Only a resurgent national will to American greatness and the ideals espoused by all distinguished American leaders and political thinkers, including James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, and George F. Will, will achieve that.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial publication.