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George Will talks religion, politics and baseball

In Education

11:57 am on Wed, 12.05.12

What’s the most important word in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence?

It may not be self-evident, but to political commentator George Will, it’s not that rights are unalienable, or that they include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

George Will
Sid Hastings | Washington University
George Will

What’s crucial, Will told an audience at Washington University Tuesday night, both to the historic document and the nation that was built on its foundation, was the fact that governments are instituted to “secure” those rights that naturally exist, not create them.

Will spoke to a packed house at the university’s Graham Chapel, giving the keynote address for the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, titled “Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation.”

Demonstrating his typical dry wit and eloquent analysis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist – hailed in an introduction by Danforth as America’s “most widely known intellectual” – first placed himself, in terms of religion, as a member of the “nones,” the quickly growing group of Americans who claim they have no religious affiliation.

As the son of a philosophy professor, who himself was the son of a Lutheran minister, Will said he was not a person of faith and grew up in a secular home. He spent a brief time in academia, then moved – or as his father put it, sank – into journalism.

He called it a fascinating paradox that the United States is both the first and most relentlessly modern nation and also the most religious nation, but it has managed to disentangle religion from most public institutions.

Moving quickly through the strong and not-so-strong religious beliefs of some of America’s founders and presidents, Will demonstrated his thesis on the role of religion in American life and politics by focusing on two occupants of the White House who were graduates of Princeton University, as he is: James Madison and Woodrow Wilson.

He said the American experience with religion and politics grows from what he called Madison’s catechism:

The worst political outcome is tyranny, and the tyranny of the majority may be the worst of all. It can be avoided, Will said, by making sure that political life includes as many factions as possible, making it more likely that majorities will be unstable and short-lived and reducing the likelihood that they will grow unduly powerful and tyrannical.

And because, as the Declaration of Independence says, everyone has natural rights that are unalienable, it follows that government’s role is not to create those rights, because they already exist, but to secure those rights and make sure that they do not disappear.

Wilson, Will said, disparaged the doctrine of natural rights and said that to understand the declaration properly, you should not read the preface at all. Instead, he saw government as something that should evolve as human nature evolves and help human nature progress, and the government should grant leaders whatever powers they need to aid that progress.

That progressive outlook, Will added, put Wilson at odds with the views of the founders and Madison, whose emphasis was not on leaders at all – except to the extent of warning against the passions that they arouse as they rise to power.

Today, Will said, even though U.S. history is steeped in and shaped by religion, it cannot accommodate a politics that takes its meaning from Wilson’s view of changeable, malleable human nature that he thought was capable of improvement.

“We should be wary,” Will said, “of the consequences of a government untethered from the limited purpose of securing unalienable rights.”

And, he added, as modern politics takes on more and more tasks to try to ameliorate the human condition, it will be difficult for religion to flourish. Instead, he said, a “wholesome division of labor” between government and religious institutions should continue because of the value it has, even to “nones” like him.

In a question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Will was asked about the power of the religious right. He said the movement was provoked to get into politics by Supreme Court rulings like those that removed prayer from schools and legalized abortion.

And, he noted, many people work themselves into a frenzy over the undermining of religion. He said the court has continued to build Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state, “brick by brick.”

“Just try to have a prayer at a high school football game in Texas,” he added.

The evening was not all politics and religion. It also included snatches of another topic capable of stirring heated debate: baseball, and Will’s well-documented love and knowledge of the game.

Danforth introduced Will with a Biblical quotation, as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” because of his lifelong dedication to the Chicago Cubs. Will said he grew up in Champaign, Ill., midway between Chicago and St. Louis, and when it came to baseball, he took the path less traveled.

As a result, he said, “all of my friends grew up Cardinals fans and grew up cheerful and liberal.”

In the question-and-answer session, one person asked Will whether he had ever considered running for public office. He replied that he had never had that urge, in part because “it would cut into my baseball too much.”

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