In the bad old days of the last century, when people read newspapers and columns of commentary instead of tweets, George Will’s elegant mini-essays were syndicated in more than 200 newspapers, including The Washington Post and Newsweek.
When such distinctions were noticed and important, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing. His columns were appreciated for the breadth of his historical reference. David Stockman, President Reagan’s budget director for a time, was a “Robespierre,” and he would comment on Ted Kennedy with allusions to Talleyrand and other historical figures.
Gary Trudeau the cartoonist said Will kept graduate students locked in his basements looking for recondite historical examples.
In 1983 he published a book, “Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does” (Simon & Schuster). In its preface he said that “to anyone sufficiently familiar with the minds of the Oxford Movement, circa 1842, all my conclusions are predictable.” That’s the Oxford Movement whose greatest light was St. John Henry Newman. A few pages later in the book, he says his aim in writing it was “Augustinian,” as in St. Augustine, whose “City of God” Will pretended to emulate in his own modest way.
Thirty-six years after publishing a book that talked about the spiritual influence of government, that it does “legislate” morality, by which Will meant “the enactment of laws and implementation of policies that proscribe, mandate, regulate or subsidize behavior that will, over time, have the predictable effect of nurturing, bolstering or altering habits, dispositions and values on a broad scale,” he has written a new book, “The Conservative Sensibility” (Hachette Books, $15.99).
What a difference a few years can make! Will attempts to synthesize and summarize conservatism in the American context. Part history, part political science, part diatribe against progressivism, “The Conservative Sensibility” is a very serious work, 600 pages long and filled with the kind of elegant illustrations Will has become famous for.
Conservatism’s highest concern is for freedom, he argues, and for that reason always defends respect for human nature and natural rights against progressives, who say that human nature is completely malleable and human rights not inherent but the product of historical circumstances.
But the book is also something else: an excursion into what is called natural theology, except that he concludes natural means no theology. There is no proof for God in nature, and, of course, especially no proof for a good God. It’s argumentative overkill to insist on both these ideas, but Will shows a surprising lack of sophistication in his thinking. The grandson of a Lutheran minister, he declares that, “I, like my father, am an amiable, low-voltage atheist.”
Will begins his atheistic trope when he talks about the Founding Fathers. They, like Will, were not mostly Unitarians and Deists, as history has said, but really atheists. Jefferson, who talked about the Creator endowing men with natural dignity was actually only a victim of “almost a verbal tic among eighteenth-century writers, lacking theological meaning.” The tic was very strong, because in Jefferson’s second inaugural speech he stated “the need for the favor of that Being in whose hands we are.”
Then Will proceeds to insist that “at no point does one need to feel bound to postulate that natural law, in the sense described here, requires a transcendent lawgiver.” Later in the book, the author mocks the idea of the Almighty, because “the unplanned complexity of the whirl … has driven out Zeus.” People have faith to “assuage an ache” in their existence.
The weak believe and thus the “conservative” pundit joins hands with Karl Marx about the opiate of the people.
Venturing into theodicy, the branch of theology that reconciles God’s justice with the world’s injustice, Will remarks that the Creator could have “left out” natural disasters and illnesses, “had He been feeling a bit more friendly.” His grandfather could have told him about Original Sin and the disasters concomitant on it that cause, as St. Paul says, “all creation to groan and to be in agony” (Rom 8:22.).
With Wikipedia-style breadth and depth, Will points to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, then to the Copernican solar system, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the complexity of the neurology of the brain (which makes him decide there is no soul), Darwin’s theory of evolution, Shakespeare’s poetry of Hamlet’s despair, and the ever-expanding universe to explain why God was “written out of the human story.”
Add to this the “impatience” of modernity to “appeals to an authority beyond reason.” He is personally insulted that Russell Kirk and Whittaker Chambers, figures in the pantheon of conservative thought in America, dared to say that unbelievers were not to be trusted as conservatives, even though his idol, John Locke, basically said the same thing. He is particularly angry at Chambers, who said that a man without mysticism was a monster. Conservatives better face up to unbelief because it is growing, he says. His “amiable” atheism has some sharp edges.
And lapses of mature thought and even vocabulary. The former Augustinian thinker does not know that the Immaculate Conception is not the virginal conception. He reduces Luther’s thought to ending a sacramental and priestly monopoly on grace (has he heard about the faith and works controversy?). His reverence for the Founders and his cherished idea of the necessity of a “public spirit of self-denial” are examples of faith, too, but he does not recognize that. Does he think the Constitution will save him? Will they read from the Federalist papers at his funeral?
His atheism reminds me of an addict who told me recently that all of creation was only the accidental dance of atoms with no transcendent meaning. I asked the man if he really loved his son. “Of course I do,” he replied. “That is meaningless,” I said, “nothing more than an accident of atoms bumping into each other in the chaos of the world.” No, it wasn’t meaningless. It was something that existed between them, it was real, he insisted. “And spiritual,” I said, “but you don’t believe in the spiritual.” He was confused by the example.
I was once a great admirer of Will’s writing. Several times in the reading of this magnum opus I could see why I was charmed by it. But more times, I found myself saying, “Say it isn’t so, George,” like the kid who was shocked by the White Sox baseball scandal in 1919. How can you be so smart and yet so dumb? “The Conservative Sensibility” ruins its often convincing political theory by premising it on a Darwinist doomsday philosophy (all life will disappear because the universe is running out of carbon) and the denial of God.
A Scripture kept echoing in my mind as I read the book, “The Lord confounds the wisdom of the wise” (1 Cor.1:19).
Remember Will in your prayers, as I did this evening.