Op-Ed Contributor: The Day the Enlightenment Went Out
November 4, 2004
By GARRY WILLS
This election confirms the brilliance of Karl Rove as a
political strategist. He calculated that the religious
conservatives, if they could be turned out, would be the
deciding factor. The success of the plan was registered not
only in the presidential results but also in all 11 of the
state votes to ban same-sex marriage. Mr. Rove understands
what surveys have shown, that many more Americans believe
in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin's theory of evolution.
This might be called Bryan's revenge for the Scopes trial
of 1925, in which William Jennings Bryan's fundamentalist
assault on the concept of evolution was discredited.
Disillusionment with that decision led many evangelicals to
withdraw from direct engagement in politics. But they came
roaring back into the arena out of anger at other court
decisions - on prayer in school, abortion, protection of
the flag and, now, gay marriage. Mr. Rove felt that the
appeal to this large bloc was worth getting President Bush
to endorse a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage
(though he had opposed it earlier).
The results bring to mind a visit the Dalai Lama made to
Chicago not long ago. I was one of the people deputized to
ask him questions on the stage at the Field Museum. He met
with the interrogators beforehand and asked us to give him
challenging questions, since he is too often greeted with
deference or flattery.
The only one I could think of was: "If you could return to
your country, what would you do to change it?" He said that
he would disestablish his religion, since "America is the
proper model." I later asked him if a pluralist society
were possible without the Enlightenment. "Ah," he said.
"That's the problem." He seemed to envy America its
Which raises the question: Can a people that believes more
fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be
called an Enlightened nation?
America, the first real democracy in history, was a product
of Enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance,
respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.
Though the founders differed on many things, they shared
these values of what was then modernity. They addressed "a
candid world," as they wrote in the Declaration of
Independence, out of "a decent respect for the opinions of
mankind." Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any
more, when a poll taken just before the elections showed
that 75 percent of Mr. Bush's supporters believe Iraq
either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly
involved in the attacks of 9/11.
The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the
fundamentalism of the American electorate. It is not what
they had experienced from this country in the past. In
fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our
Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at
secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for
modernity? Not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or
Spain. We find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaeda, in
Saddam Hussein's Sunni loyalists. Americans wonder that the
rest of the world thinks us so dangerous, so single-minded,
so impervious to international appeals. They fear jihad, no
matter whose zeal is being expressed.
It is often observed that enemies come to resemble each
other. We torture the torturers, we call our God better
than theirs - as one American general put it, in words that
the president has not repudiated.
President Bush promised in 2000 that he would lead a humble
country, be a uniter not a divider, that he would make
conservatism compassionate. He did not need to make such
false promises this time. He was re-elected precisely by
being a divider, pitting the reddest aspects of the red
states against the blue nearly half of the nation. In this,
he is very far from Ronald Reagan, who was amiably and
ecumenically pious. He could address more secular
audiences, here and abroad, with real respect.
In his victory speech yesterday, President Bush indicated
that he would "reach out to the whole nation," including
those who voted for John Kerry. But even if he wanted to be
more conciliatory now, the constituency to which he owes
his victory is not a yielding one. He must give them what
they want on things like judicial appointments. His helpers
are also his keepers.
The moral zealots will, I predict, give some cause for
dismay even to nonfundamentalist Republicans. Jihads are
scary things. It is not too early to start yearning back
toward the Enlightenment.
Garry Wills, an adjunct professor of history at
Northwestern University, is the author of "St. Augustine's