The Conservative Agnosticism of George Will
With his signature bow-tie and aristocratic manner, it’s easy to picture George Will warbling hymns every Sunday in the pew of some old marble church in Georgetown.
The long-time conservative columnist majored in religion as an undergraduate, and follows religious debates with interest. Will has defended the unborn, and opposed the death penalty; he regularly excoriates the pro-choice movement, and gets worked up over the contraception controversy with Catholic institutions.
So you could be forgiven for pegging Will for a Catholic—or at least, Episcopalian or Anglican.
But you would be wrong. Here’s Will, in a new piece for National Affairs, entitled “Religion and the American Republic”:
I approach the question of religion and American life from the vantage point of an expanding minority. I am a member of a cohort that the Pew public-opinion surveys call the “nones.” Today, when Americans are asked their religious affiliation, 20%—a large and growing portion—say “none.”
In an era when American conservatism is often confused with religiosity, a top conservative pundit’s confession of unbelief is startling. (Granted, Will has declared his unbelief before, though somewhat reluctantly and upon questioning, on The Colbert Report in 2008.)
Will’s recent admissions recall his 2005 column called “The Christian Complex” in which he urged Bible-thumping Republicans “not seem to require, de facto, what the Constitution forbids, de jure: ‘No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.'”
Will’s latest essay continues this defense of unbelievers in American politics: He argues that an individual’s faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God. He colors his arguments with tidbits about our heterodox founders: Washington would not kneel to pray or take communion; Adams was a Unitarian; Jefferson cared not whether his nephew’s studies “end[ed] in a belief that there is no God.”
Par for the course, so far, for a public nonbeliever; you can find similar arguments at your local Center for Inquiry. But from there, Will travels ground seldom tread by today’s avowed unbelievers: he warmly praises American religions both for the democratic impulses they impart and for the intermediary role they play between citizen and state. And if natural rights don’t require religion, they are “especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.”
The nones of America should “wish continued vigor for the rich array of religious institutions that have leavened American life,” he concludes.
Here Will differs sharply from today’s professional nonbelievers, who regard religious belief with something akin to revulsion, and who channel the old progressive view that religion must be eclipsed for humankind to secure a long and prosperous future. The George Will model combines unbelief with a fondness for religion, not a fear of it.
Will’s increasing openness about his doubt mirrors an increasing acknowledgement of unbelief in American public life, also reflected in recent presidential remarks reassuring America’s churchless that “If you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship.”
The president offering this olive branch to the heathens among us? Not Barack Obama, but rather the man who prompted so many dark prophecies of theocracy: George W. Bush.