George Will: The RealClearReligion Interview

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

When the Chicago Cubs win, it's not hard to hear it. "Go, Cubs, go," Steve Goodman's 1984 song blares as the crowd sings along, "hey Chicago, what do you say, The Cubs are gonna win today!" But nearby residents of Wrigley Field don't hear that much anymore.

In his latest book, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred, Pulitzer Prize-winner George Will tries to explain why. "It's the most unformed book I ever set out to write," Will tells me during breakfast in Georgetown earlier this month. The Champaign, Illinois native and I discussed his beloved Cubs, whether or not baseball is a religion, and why he doesn't believe in God.

RealClearReligion: Why are the Chicago Cubs losers? Is Wrigley Field to blame?

George Will: If I have such a thing as a thesis in this light, little book, is that that's been part of the Cubs problem. The fans, who are so loyal -- not just to baseball, but to something else -- there was diminished incentive to put a better team on the field. Phil Wrigley inherited the team from this father and didn't really want it, but he felt trapped by the family legacy to keep it. He often said: The team's terrible, but the ballpark is fabulous. We will sell the green grass, the sunshine, the ivy, and the cold Old Style beer. At one point, he even asked Cubs broadcasters to quit referring to it as Wrigley Field, but "Cubs Park" instead.

You can demonstrate that attendance doesn't vary much with the win-loss record; it varies with the price of the beer.

RCR: What should the Cubs do about the apartment building rooftops along Sheffield and Waveland avenues?

GW: They made a bad mistake. They went into business with them. Tom Ricketts bought a small piece of one of the rooftops and they were referring to them at their "rooftop partners." When you talk like that, your moral stand is somewhat undermined. They helped create this.

The alderman is a friend of the rooftop people. Politics is a transactional business and there's a transaction going on there. The bar owners around there weigh in on the subject of night games. They'd rather people come out of the ballpark on a late afternoon and go into their bars and drink beer instead of drinking beer all night in the ballpark and then going home.

RCR: What do you think of the proposed improvements to Wrigley?

GW: I'll have to see how jumbo the jumbo-tron is. It's not going to be as big as some people would have wanted it because of the rooftop owners. But since my interest is actually baseball -- what's done on the field -- the most important change they can make to Wrigley Field is for the players. It is absurd in the modern major league context that a Cub bench player getting ready to go into the game can't take practice swings. He can go up into the tiny little clubhouse and hit off a tee into a net that they've brought down in front of the lockers, but probably the hardest thing to be in baseball is a Cubs bench player. It's about putting a better product on the field.

RCR: What is a designated hitter in baseball?

GW: In the late 60s and early 70s offense collapsed. Great pitchers dominated the game. The American League was particularly worried about this and they went to the designated hitter, which means the pitcher doesn't hit.

RCR: Are pitchers typically bad hitters?

GW: Almost invariably they are. It's just not what they do. The American League figured if you put another serious hitter in the line-up, it would boost offense. It somewhat worked, but not dramatically. Other people said: "Who wants to see the pitcher hit, anyway? It's ugly."

The National League didn't do it. It was one of the points of contention and baseball thrives on contention. Now, however, we've got thirty teams and when they realigned (there used to be sixteen National teams and fourteen American teams), you had to have an interleague game everyday. That made the role of the designated hitter even more problematic because some teams just don't have someone who specializes in that.

On the other hand, it used to be that teams had guys who were designated hitters -- that's all they did. Nowadays, they much more use the designated hitter to give a semi-day off for a regular player. And so, the designated hitter specialist is by and large a thing of the past.

Someone asked "Doc" Gooden what he thought and he said that baseball is a game of nine players. It says so in the rulebook. The designated hitter is a tenth player. It's not baseball. I liked the rigor of his reasoning.

RCR: Is baseball a religion?

GW: Part of the beauty of baseball, and sport generally, is that it doesn't mean a damn thing. It's valued for itself. Now, it can be the pursuit of excellence. It is competition tamed and made civil by rules. It is aggression channeled in a wholesome direction. These are all virtues. They tiptoe up to the point and stop well short of giving baseball meaning. It's a game. It's a very pretty, demanding, and dangerous game.

I do think that baseball satisfies a longing in people, particularly urban people. There is a vestigial tribal impulse in all of us. For instance, when you get on the L and the cars begin to fill up with people wearing their Cub blue and you're all going to the same place for the same reason, for about three hours a little community exists. It disperses after three hours, but it will come back tomorrow.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked about what he called the "liberal expectancy." He said that with the coming of modernity the two drivers of history, religion and ethnicity, would lose their saliency. Sport caters to this and entertains this desire for group identification. But there's nothing transcendent about baseball.

RCR: Do you believe in God?

GW: No. I'm an atheist. An agnostic is someone who is not sure; I'm pretty sure. I see no evidence of God. The basic question in life is not, "Is there a God," but "Why does anything exist?" St. Thomas Aquinas said that there must be a first cause for everything, and we call the first cause God. Fine, but it just has no hold on me.

RCR: Were you raised with any religion?

GW: My father was the son of a Lutheran minster, and therefore he was an atheist. What I mean by that is -- he went to so many church services, his father preached in many churches up near Antetum, eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania -- my father had had his full of religion. He used to sit outside his father's study and listen to him wrestle with members of the church over reconciling grace and free will. I think that's where my father got his interest in philosophy.

I majored in religion in college. I was very interested, but I just came to a different conclusion. I'm married to a fierce Presbyterian and she raised our kids fierce Presbyterians.

I'm an amiable, low-voltage atheist.

RCR: Does that present a problem for you as a conservative?

GW: No. The Republican Party's base is largely religious. It would be impossible for me to run for high office as a Republican. Since I have no desire to run for office, it's a minor inconvenience! I think William F. Buckley put it well when he said that a conservative need not be religious, but he cannot despise religion. Russell Kirk never quite fathomed this, which is one of the reasons why I'm not a big fan of The Conservative Mind. For him, conservatism without religion is meaningless.

RCR: Your friend Charles Krauthammer likes to say he's an agnostic.

GW: I think he's an atheist. He flinches from saying it. I saw what he said: "I don't believe in God, but I fear him greatly." Oh, please!

RCR: Do you see a creeping secularism in American culture?

GW: Oh, sure. There's an active hostility to the religious impulse on the part of those who preach tolerance and diversity. But I think religion has withstood tougher opponents than today's secularists.

RCR: It seems almost impossible to ignore religion nowadays, especially concerning what's going on in the Middle East, but some politicians do anyway. Why?

GW: There's a certain layer of political correctness involved: All cultures are created equal and all that rubbish. Bush's initial reaction was quite understandable. There's a large Muslim population and he didn't want people to be scapegoated and isolated and abused. When you get a liberal administration like Barack Obama's, it's basically composed of people who think religion is retrograde. This is another iteration of the "liberal expectancy." What's it doing here? Here we are in the 21st century! They really think that when the calendar flipped over, human nature changed.

RCR: How should we combat ISIS?

GW: You get our sometimes friends the Saudis to quit funding them. The President ought to say that ISIS not an existential threat to our regime, it's an existential threat to yours. We're not going to do it for you. We'll help you, but we won't do it.

RCR: Why not?

GW: Because it's time to take the training wheels off. Gideon Rackman talks about the "learned helplessness" of NATO. We used to pay for 50 percent of NATO, now we pay 75 percent. It's time for these regimes in the Middle East to put their militaries where their mouths are.

RCR: What is the worst thing Obama has done?

GW: Obama is a continuation of Woodrow Wilson's enterprise. Wilson was the first American president to criticize the American Founding, which he did not peripherally, but root and branch. He said that the problem is the Constitution and the separation of powers because separation of powers makes it difficult for the government to act nimbly and expeditiously and strongly. To which the Founders would say: that's right!

The progressive agenda has always been to concentrate power more in Washington, more in the executive branch, and more power exercised through independent czars.

RCR: What's the problem with Washington?

GW: In Los Angeles it's, "What movie have you done?" or "What real estate venture are you in?" In New York it's, "What financial deal have you made?" In Washington, achievement and status are more evanescent. It's "Who have you seen? Where did you sit at the table?" Washington has the world's highest concentration of status anxiety because no one quite knows how to measure who or what they are.

There is a certain vulgarity to this town.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

Sponsored Links

Nicholas G. Hahn III
Author Archive