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American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nationby Jon Meacham
Synopses & Reviews
The American Gospel — literally, the good news about America — is that religion shapes our public life without controlling it. In this vivid book, New York Times bestselling author Jon Meacham tells the human story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.
At a time when our country seems divided by extremism, American Gospel draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the fascinating history of a nation grappling with religion and politics — from John Winthrop's city on a hill sermon to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence; from the Revolution to the Civil War; from a proposed nineteenth-century Christian Amendment to the Constitution to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for civil rights; from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.
Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a wall of separation between church and state, while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. At the heart of the American experiment lies the God of what Benjamin Franklin called public religion, a God who invests all human beings with inalienable rights while protecting private religion from government interference. It is a great American balancing act, and it has served us well.
Meacham has written and spoken extensively about religion and politics, and he brings historical authority and a sense of hope to the issue. American Gospel makes it compellingly clear that the nation's best chance of summoning what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding. In looking back, we may find the light to lead us forward.
"Historian and Newsweek editor Meacham's third book examines over 200 years of American history in its quest to prove the idea of religious tolerance, along with the separation of church and state, is 'perhaps the most brilliant American success.' Meacham's principal focus is on the founding fathers, and his insights into the religious leanings of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Co. present a new way of considering the government they created. So it is that the religious right's attempts to reshape the Constitution and Declaration of Independence into advocating a state religion of Christianity are at odds with the spirit of religious freedom ('Our minds and hearts, as Jefferson wrote, are free to believe everything or nothing at all-and it is our duty to protect and perpetuate this sacred culture of freedom'). Meacham also argues for the presence of a public religion, as exemplified by the national motto, 'In God We Trust,' and other religious statements that can be found on currency, in governmental papers and in politicians' speeches. Subsequent chapters consider a wartime FDR and a Reagan who grew increasingly enamored of Armageddon. All are well-written, but none reach the immediacy and vigor of the chapters on the nation's birth. Two extensive appendices reprint early government documents and each president's inaugural bible verses. Meacham's remarkable grasp of the intricacies and achievements of a nascent nation is well worth the cover price, though his consideration of Reagan feels like that of an apologist." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"No change introduced by the American Revolution was more surprising at the time — or has caused more continuing controversy — than its redefinition of the complex relationship of churches, religious faith and the civil state. In his brief but thoughtful new book, Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, explores the founding generation's 'original understanding' of that issue and its longtime... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) impact on American public life. The subject, he says, repays close study because the Founders lived in a time like ours, full of 'divisive arguments about God and politics,' and they still 'found a way to honor religion's place in the life of the nation while giving people the freedom to believe as they wish.' 'American Gospel' is hard to classify. Although it consists of chapters on successive periods in America's religious past, from the first colonies through the Reagan presidency, and includes some 112 pages of notes and bibliography, the book is not, as Meacham himself notes, a work of historical scholarship. In fact, it is too short to tell the story of religion in American public life in anything but a highly selective way. 'American Gospel' is probably best described as an extended historical essay that celebrates 'the wisdom of the Founders.' That wisdom, for Meacham, began with a decision to end official state churches and the practice of 'toleration,' a privilege that exempted some — but not all — religious dissenters from the obligation to support an established church and various legal disadvantages imposed on nonconformists. Instead, the American Revolution introduced a more radical form of religious freedom, based on the existence of a natural right to freedom of thought that could be denied to nobody. In dividing church from state, Meacham claims, the Founders did not take religion out of politics. Rather, they respected religion's usefulness as a support for moral behavior and inaugurated a form of 'public religion' (the phrase came from Benjamin Franklin) that can be seen in political documents and rhetoric that express a generic, nonsectarian form of faith. The basic text of that 'public religion,' Meacham argues, is the Declaration of Independence, with its references (supplied by Jefferson) to 'Nature's God' and a 'Creator' who endowed all men with 'certain unalienable Rights.' Because '"Nature's God" resides at the center of the Founding,' Meacham endorses Dwight D. Eisenhower's contention that 'our form of government is founded on religion.' Whether that was what Jefferson intended almost doesn't matter. Meacham has no difficulty establishing the frequency with which American leaders over the centuries have cited God. The adoption of 'In God We Trust' as a national motto and the addition of the words 'under God' to the Pledge of Allegiance are, to him, simply 'signs of a vital public religion.' But Jefferson's references were not to Christ, and Meacham argues that claims that the United States is a 'Christian nation' are based on 'wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument.' He cites Washington's famous 1790 letter to the Jewish community in Newport, R.I., which said that America 'gives ... bigotry no sanction,' as well as a far less well known provision in a 1797 treaty with Muslim Tripoli that declared, 'The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.' Efforts to introduce references to Christ and Christianity into the Constitution have always failed — a tribute, Meacham writes, to the Constitution's 'checks on extremism' and another example of 'the wisdom of the Founders.' But who exactly were these wise and prescient Founders who paved a middle road between religious extremism and total secularism? Meacham focuses on the 'political leadership of the new nation' and mentions several of the usual suspects — including Franklin, John Jay, John and Samuel Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and Washington — as if their views on religion and the role of the state were virtually identical. The book begins and ends with Jefferson, who, along with Madison, led the fight to separate church and state in Virginia, where the new, radical form of religious freedom was first written into law. But Virginia was not the United States. Six states still had state-supported churches in 1789, and four others excluded non-Christians or non-Protestants from public office. Pennsylvania's 1776 constitution, for example, protected the civil rights of everyone 'who acknowledges the being of a God' (i.e., no atheists need apply), then required legislators to swear that both testaments of the Bible were the revealed word of God (which, in effect, excluded non-Christians). North Carolina was much the same. Massachusetts required its governor to swear he was Christian. Inevitably, state practices affected national politics. The First Amendment provision that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof' was designed at least in part to protect state religious establishments from congressional interference. Far from the capacious provision that Meacham describes, this clause was weaker than the amendments Madison proposed on June 8, 1789, which would have limited not only Congress but also the states from violating 'the equal rights of conscience.' The point is that 'the Founding' was a complex event, and melting 'the Founders' into a single, quasi-religious repository of wisdom ignores conflicts present from the beginning. On the other hand, over time state religious establishments collapsed, laws that imposed religious disabilities disappeared, and the Virginia precedent triumphed. That state's landmark Statute of Religious Freedom (1786), which Jefferson wrote, provides substantial support for Meacham's novel argument about 'public religion.' Starting with its stirring first phrase, 'Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free,' it condemns all efforts by the state to interfere with religious convictions as 'a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.' Madison's companion 'Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments' to the Virginia General Assembly makes a powerful case for the total separation of church and state — then ends with a prayer! Strangely, Meacham never discusses the major difference between 'divisive arguments about God and politics' in the late 18th century and today. Then, unlike now, evangelical Christians such as the Baptist leader Isaac Backus were strong supporters of separating church and state. They had experienced the oppressive hand of the state and accepted the Virginia Statute's argument that God's truth would 'prevail if left to herself.' Perhaps it's their wisdom we need most to recall. Without state support, religion thrived in the United States, which is today the most religious nation in the Western world. The vitality of Americans' religious faith explains the persistence of a 'public religion' that continues to trouble unbelievers and secular thinkers. From a believer's perspective, however, it's hard to understand why anyone would alter a system that has served so well the cause of religion by honoring humanity's God-given freedom of thought. And that, in the end, is Meacham's point. Pauline Maier is a professor of American history at MIT and the author of 'American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.'" Reviewed by Pauline Maier, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] sensibly balanced and engaging narrative account of religion's role in our nation's history...Meacham does a nicely readable job of summing up this serious history in a lucid narrative fashion." Los Angeles Times
"Meacham writes about the past...without losing his reader in a bog of research and detail....[His] book provides an enlightening look at how the founders discovered ways to tame but not extinguish the fires of faith." USA Today
"An admittedly broad general overview of a large topic, so the book races through its subject....But all that research has uncovered some gems." Christian Science Monitor
"In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book." David McCullough, author of 1776
"Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life." Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation
"At a time when faith and freedom seem increasingly polarized, American Gospel recovers our vital center — the middle ground where, historically, religion and public life strike a delicate balance. Well researched, well written, inspiring, and persuasive, this is a welcome addition to the literature." Jonathan D. Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History
"Jon Meacham is one of our country's most brilliant thinkers about religion's impact on American society. In this scintillating and provocative book, Meacham reveals the often-hidden influence of religious belief on the Founding Fathers and on later generations of American citizens and leaders up to our own. Today, as we argue more strenuously than ever about the proper place of religion in our politics and the rest of American life, Meacham's important book should serve as the touchstone of the debate." Michael Beschloss, author of The Conquerors
"An absorbing narrative full of vivid characters and fresh thinking, American Gospel tells how the Founding Fathers — and their successors — struggled with their own religious and political convictions to work out the basic structure for freedom of religion. For me this book was nonstop reading." Elaine Pagels, professor of religion, Princeton University, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas
About the Author
Jon Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek. The author of the New York Times bestseller Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, he lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
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