|American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation
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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.
“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
“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
“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
“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 writt...
- The Senator from Tennessee
When the great President Andrew Jackson based a large portion of his political career in what was then only the developing state of Tennessee, it was as though he were foreshadowing the birth there of his biographer, Jon Meacham, almost two hundred years later. For the two are kindred spirits, unmistakably. Meacham seems to have an almost inhuman access to the nuances of Jackson's person, and the biography has never been so well served as it is in Meacham's capable hands.
When they say that Tennessee Men are great, they do not lie. (Nor do they lie about fact checkers for Tennessee Men being fantastic). ...more info
- Excellent length, detail for drive-time listening
As an example of serious audio non-fiction, Jon Meacham's book is excellent, with a presentation that is neither too long nor too shallow, with background, analysis and insight that moves right along through American history. The six CDs obviously focus mostly on the Founders directly and indirectly, as key moments in American history test the Founders' wisdom and adapt the American ideal to fresh circumstances.
A student of history will already know many of the basics that Meacham covers, with the book adding detail and connecting themes, often expressed in the wonderfully articulate classical style of the Founders. To me, the fresh look and additional perspective on somewhat familiar topics were well-suited for an audio book, where 100% concentration may not be available.
Meacham is well balanced in his thesis, which is that the "wall of separation" allows for some place for public religion, while retaining a sharp distinction in many scenarios brought forth by opponents and proponents of more public religion through history. He poked at the extremists on occasion, without being too heavy handed, and avoided the patronizing style that many other commentators applied to more recent figures, such as Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell. In fact, one of the more surprising sections was Meacham's praise for Reagan with respect to religion.
The narrator's voice held little appeal to me, for reasons I never could quite define exactly. Perhaps it was the academic tone. Others may find him to be spot on....more info
- A readable, enjoyable exploration of Church and State issues
There have been a lot of books written about the religious intentions of the Founding Fathers and the proper role of religion in American life. Jon Mecham (editor of Newsweek Magazine) offers an examination of the issues and the history that argues for the middle road between a church-dominated political arena and a "Godless" public square. The book is both easily accessible and highly enjoyable. While he cites contemporary writings extensively, Meacham does not clutter the text with footnotes; all his citations are documented in the back of the book. In fact, the text itself takes up only about 2/3 of the entire volume; the rest is devoted to an appendix of key historical documents, the documentation for citations, an extensive bibliography, and the index....more info
- Unbiased and Informative
American Gospel is the first book that I have read that took the issue of religion and the founding of our nation and discussed them in an unbiased way. John Meacham does a wonderful job of discussing figures and periods in history where religion had both a big influence and little influence on the shaping of America. I finished in two days, couldn't put it down. ...more info
- Vaguely pluralistic, moderately researched, mostly meatless middle-of-the-road pseudo-philosophical claptrap
Meacham is managing editor of Newsweek, and subsequently it is perhaps not surprising that this reads like nothing so much as an extended news-magazine op-ed piece--vaguely pluralistic, moderately researched, mostly meatless middle-of-the-road pseudo-philosophical claptrap.
Extensive additional quoting and analysis in the end notes appears to be either unneeded padding or undigested parts of the argument that should have been thought through and incorporated in the body of the book....more info
- Balanced View of Separation of Church and State
Meacham's book will disappoint both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Fundamentalists. He finds a place for God in the public square and supports the establishment clause in the Constitution. His portraits of the religious or non-religious propensities of our founding fathers is well done without any preconceived notions on Meacham's part. Although not a truly academic book, it belongs to that portion of your library on Constitutional Law....more info
- A wake up call to America
This is a must read for all the evangelicals who think our country was based on Christianity. The interplay of faiths among the founding fathers and their tolerance of the beliefs of others was extremely enlightening. The only criticism is that the writing style sometimes too scholarly. For example, almost 40 percent of the book is filled with Appendices, Source Notes, and a Bibliography. ...more info
- For the good of America keep God general (the devil is in the detaiis)
The author makes the case that, according to the history he cites, America is not a Christian nation. A public God/the Creator is at the center of the Founding but Jesus for the good of this nation has been kept in the private relm. If we get in to too much detail about our "Public Religion" there will be too much strife.
I subtract one star, because Jon Meacham did not compare the "American Gospal" to the "Gospal" (if any) of other nations....more info
- A MUST READ FOR ALL RELIGIOUS CITIZENS
If there is anything negative to say about Jon Meacham's excellent review of the role of religion in American public life, it is this: The folks who most need to read it probably won't. These, of course, are the fundamentalists, pentecostals, and similar groups whose goal is the domination of our national life (see Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy for a thorough investigation of the damage they have already done to the body politic). Meacham has been criticized for failing to take seriously the grave danger these folks pose for the republic, and there is truth in this. For instance, his description of Jerry Falwell's supposedly stunned reaction to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in support of aborition, Roe v. Wade, sounds like something written by Falwell's press agent. In reality most right-wing Christians greeted the decision positively. It wasn't until they needed a hot-button issue to push their political agenda that abortion became anathema. Even with noting this, however, it is still fair to say that Meacham has made a major contribution to the several efforts now underway to restore some perspective to the discussion of the role of religion in American public life. Americans are beginning to realize that the fundamentalists and pentecostals cannot and must not have what they want, any more than atheists like the (in my opinion) certifiably insane Madalyn Murray O'Hair can be allowed to banish all God-talk from public life. The American Gospel, Meacham says, is the news that religion PARTICIPATES in American public life without controlling it. I believe it is fair to say that the witness of courageous and faithful Christians hastened the end of the Vietnam War and the success of the Civil Rights movement. What's more, that witness also hastened the end of apartheid in South Africa. Now, the Christian presence which gave rise to such witness, usually called the mainline, is suffering from the activities of those who considered that witness a threat not to the republic but to their own domination of the political and economic life of that republic. Those reactionary elements gained control of the Republican party and have used fundamentalist and pentecostal churches, once ridiculed by the mainline, and have been used by them. The result is an unholy alliance that Meacham's book can help to redress. Until just recently, the fundamentalists and pentecostals were the only ones talking. Now more reasonable voices, voices grounded in what Meacham (himself a practicing Episcopalian) calls an appreciation for humility and history, are at last beginning to be heard. Read the book. Pass it on, not to your fundamentalist or pentecostal neighbor (by now, I suspect, only what Reinhold Niebuhr called the "vicissitudes of history" will quiet their voices), but to the person next to you in your Presbyterian or United Methodist or Disciples or United Church of Christ congregation. We're the ones who need the hope and energy generated by Meacham's slim but wise volume. ...more info
- The Original Understanding About God and Politics
Anyone writing a book on the relationship between religion and politics invariably traces the lineage of their thinking to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Both Christian fundamentalists and secular humanists will claim that they are the true heirs of the so-called orignal intent or original understanding regarding church and state.
Jon Meacham, managing editor of "Newsweek," has written a long historical essay trying to stake out a compromise position between the two. Notwithstanding the copious notes and bibliography, this is not a work of academic history, by the author's own admission. The history of the role of religion in American politics would require a much bigger book.
According to Meacham, the Founding Fathers believed in both religion and freedom of conscience. The American Revolution established freedom of thought, and hence freedom of worship. At the same time they did not want to take religion completely out of politics, for they believed religion would bolster the foundations of government. The Founders encouraged a "public religion." (The expression was coined by Benjamin Franklin.) The evidence of public religion can be seen everywhere in our founding documents with phrases such as "Creator," "Nature's God," "In God We Trust," "One Nation Under God," etc.
Meacham points out that these documents do not make any references to Christ or Christianity. It is a fantasy on the part of Christian fundamentalists to think that they occupy a privileged position our system of government. Inspite of the many efforts to introduce the Christian religion into the Constitution, all attempts have fallen short. With the enormous numbers of different religious groups in the New World, and by the fact that many had fled the Old World to escape religious persecution, the Founders were determined to keep a extremism in check.
The prime mover - pardon the expression - behind the separation of church and state was Jefferson. And it was in his home state of Virginia that freedom of worship was first written into law. Other states had their official churches and some did not allow non-Christians to run for office. The issue was contentious but the example of Virginia prevailed when the First Amendment was written. The First Amendment codifying that Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion.
The so-called public religion was a kind of generic big-tent religion that embraced many different religions. It guaranteed equal rights of conscience. Although Meacham's narrative of the original understanding of the balancing act between church and state will have its detractors, he has done an excellent job of reestablishing the middle ground. ...more info
- Interesting, Balanced, But Lacks 'Bite'
This is an interesting book, worth reading, although with some caveats. It is sometimes heavy going when dealing with the founding fathers. This in a sense is a back handed compliment to author Jon Meacham, because the heavy going is partly because American Gospel contains much detailed well-researched content. There are over 149 pages of references, acknowledgements and appendices.
Once again, the founding fathers are credited with great foresight. The separation of church and state was not a universally acclaimed belief at the time (not to suggest it is now either.) Meacham cites a number of politicians and clerics who expected fundamentalist Christian beliefs be incorporated in the constitution, a concept not accepted by the men, most of whom were solid churchgoers, who wrote the document.
Maybe it was one of the most laissez faire churchgoers, Thomas Jefferson who best summed up the final logic of church and state separation. "I never told my religion nor scrutinized that of another, he wrote and "For it is in our lives and not from our words, that our religion must be read.
Meacham references some virulent disagreement between Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry on this topic and apparently other issues. Jefferson wrote to James Madison, "What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death"!
The section on slavery and its justification is compelling. Many slave owners were able to find clear rationale in the bible, not just for slave owning but the mistreatment of the poor creatures. "He that knoweth his master's will and doeth not, shall be beaten with many stripes." Frederick Douglass wrote that life became even more difficult for him after his master converted to Christianity.
A criticism that might be leveled at author Meacham is that you get the feeling that he wants to be "safe" and centrist in his views. It is a very balanced book, but as a result possibly lacks a little edge. All the "good guys," Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Lincoln etc. come across as being, well I suppose the word is, `balanced.'
The other criticism is despite the prolific notes and appendices, there is no index which is a real pain in the .... when you're trying to find some reference.
- If you need to get a clue...
I reccomend this book. I liked this book. It was an enjoyable read with many interesting quotes. Meacham's general opinion is middle of the political road and that is probably right where the country should be on the "God" issue. He blasts the religous zealot who shoots at the abortion clinic doctor while also leaving it clear that the zealot atheist could learn a thing or two from religion in general with out having to fall on their knees to pray. Reading this won't convert you into one frame of thought or another but it does shed some light on what was going on in the founders heads.
The point is also made that the founders may have been a little more religious in public than they were in private. A good point and believable knowing many who are alive today who profess a belief in an all knowing all powerful being then become pretty normal people all the rest of the time. Moderation!
- A Must Read
I think anyone with the remotest interest in the role of religion in American history, or even more importantly, concerned about the Christian right influence in the country should read this book.
A very candid and unbiased presentation of the wonders and faults in the process of the founding and development of America and the proper role of religious beliefs (or lack of).
- Bland like the Episcopal Church he represents
Many ordinary readers have praised Meacham's book on the religious views of the Founding Fathers. His approach -- moderate, middle of the road, irenic and ecumenic -- is appealing to many. Unfortunately, as more scholarly reviewers in journals and newspapers with more intellectually oriented readers than found here have observed, it is tendencious, misleading, poor history, and essentially a reading of the past through the rose-colored glasses of moderate episcopalianism. Nothing could be more bland than episcopalianism, although it deserves credit for avoiding the more persecutorial tendencies of evangelicals and integrist Catholics. Meacham is a nice fellow -- but an historian he is not.
He has elsewhere written about Jesus without assimilating the remarkable results of scientific biblical scholarship. He therefore is simply the Blue Fairy version of religious history. Indeed, he believes in the Blue Fairy....more info
- Jefferson Confused???
Mr. Meacham, in commenting on this book on The Daily Show stated, "...Jefferson, who was as confused a religious figure as there ever could be; he would always be influenced by the last book he read." Wow!!!
When I was in high school in the 1950's I read many of Jefferson's original writings in the form of letters and I was never confused about what he believed or had to say in regard to religion; in fact, he made his views quite lucid and was far from wishy-washy. In the intervening 50 years, I have read more of Jefferson's original writings as well as over a dozen biographical books by various authors on Jefferson and have still not reached Mr. Meacham's conclusion.
Therefore, I would encourage you to read both this book as well as Jefferson's original comments on religion as an intellectual exercise as to determining why you think Mr. Meacham would make this statement. Keep in mind, Mr. Meacham has a degree in English literature, is a Member of Phi Beta Kappa and is Managing Editor of Newsweek, making it very unlikely he had any trouble understanding what Jefferson said.
My own theory is based on Mr. Meacham's earlier article on Jesus, in which he tries to ameliorate the extreme views of reason and faith. In his current book Mr. Meacham appears to be trying to deny or minimize any extreme religious views by the Founding Fathers in the laudable hope that this will somehow decrease the extreme religious actions currently being taken by both the left and the right in the United States.
While I too deplore the devisive rhetoric and actions by those of both the extreme left and right, I am still reluctant to believe that the end justifies the means. What happens when someone from either the left or the right finds out they have been delibertly misled about one of the Founding Fathers? Do they not question the authenticity of the presentation by Mr. Meacham of each of the other Founding Fathers? Or more importantly, do they not then charge or suspect the media of a left wing or right wing bias, depending on their own particular viewpoint?
How do you determine the number of stars to give to a book that may have been written with a genuinely good purpose but lacks journalistic integrity? Since I feel most religious and political books follow this criteria, I gave it three stars....more info
- Good for mature Sunday School classes
I hope to not scare anyone off by that title, but my Sunday School class studied this for over 3 months, and it provided wonderful fodder for lively debates. We tried to wrap up three different times, but discussion was so interesting that we kept postponing the end. I only hope we can find something else that comes close. Bravo Jon Meacham!...more info
- American Gospel, By Jon Meacham
American Gospel By Jon Meacham
When I first started reading this book I was underlining frantically. I ran across an exuberant amount of quality quotes from the likes of Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and Madison. However, the more I read the more I came to realize that no matter how many quotes I threw out, or facts I bring to your attention I realize I'm not likely to change your mind. Therefore, I feel my best course of action is share with you what this book has done for me, and hopefully from this you will choose to read it and draw your own conclusions.
Within these pages you will read stories of early settlers coming to America and setting up a theocracy. The men who ran these theocracies would beat you for not attending church on Sunday, and you would of course be executed for missing it a second Sunday service. You will also read stories of lewd individuals who did everything within their power to strip the word God from within the borders of our country. In the end the author asks for moderation and does this by illustrating how many of the struggles we face today are in fact not new. Extremist zealots from both sides would love nothing more than to corrupt our minds to their point of view. Our founding fathers understood the dangers of both a theocracy and secularist totalitarianism. If I can share one just one word to summarize the authors view it would be moderation. Our founding fathers understood that true faith can only be obtained by free will choice and not by religious law (miss your second Sunday and your dead). They also understood faith was important to man, and Mecham makes a strong argument when he tells his readers that our founding fathers would not have liked men trying to take the word "GOD" out of the pledge of allegiance. In the end Mecham argues America has remained free because wise men chose the route of moderation.
I give this book four stars because I feel the author could have easily made this book 500 pages (not the 250 pgs. It is now). I found that Mr. Mecham failed to fully develop all of his concepts or to fully support some of his conclusions (some of which I don`t agree with). However, in the end this book is probably one of the most moderate books on the concept of public religion in America.
- Balanced, insightful look at religion in our country's founding
If only everyone in America could read this book, for here is a sensible, well-told account of how religion is viewed in our Constitution and in our country. From Washington and Jefferson through Reagan, Mecham depicts how our founding fathers determined "public religion" and set the mechanisms in place to keep government out of religion. Ironically, that same mechanism has served to keep religion out of government, and has served to create a climate in which religion may be chosen freely, exercised freely, and that right protected with vigor. Mecham does an amazing job of giving us an overview on a subject that's worth at least three more volumes....more info
- A Balanced Study
"American Gospel" examines the story of the role religion has played in American public life from colonial times to the present. Utilizing quotes from clergy and presidents, among others, author Jon Meacham presents an interesting narrative of one of the most important forces of history.
Through this book, Meacham follows the role of religion in shaping crucial eras. The inspiration or use of religion molded the colonial experience at the beginning of the story. One of the most interesting sections deals with the role that the founding fathers, whose religious orientation often differed markedly from that of many modern readers, saw for faith in the nation's birth. Later high points included the Civil War, both World Wars and the Depression when God was invoked to guide the country through these trying times. Not limited to periods of crisis, Meacham also involves the words of Theodore Roosevelt, Billy Graham and some historical figures who are less frequently quoted.
The theme of this book is that public religion has and always will play a role in public life, most effectively when it respects the religious diversity of America. Those looking for book to praise or denigrate religion will be disappointed. The reader looking for a balanced study of the religious thread woven into our history will be well satisfied.
- American Gospel - No Answer
I have to admit, after reading A Peoples' History of the United States, I had much concern about this book. It seems that it was either going to state that the United States was founded on Christian beliefs or it was going to say that it was absolutely not founded on Christian beliefs. Much to my surprise, the answer was 'sort of.'
As much as one could, Mr. Meacham seems to have taken a middle road, analytical view of the topic. From the origins of separation of church and state to discuss what God and maker were the founding fathers speaking of, the book was found to be most informative an interesting. It seems that some readers will get annoyed because they want the book to pick a side and argue it but instead he presented both parts of the argument and follows history to where we are today with respect to faith, God and government.
His citation system is far superior to that found in A Peoples' History though it was still lacking. He provided a long citation list but only by page with no corresponding reference on said page. I don't know...maybe in popular history books editors feel that when a reader sees a superscript number that they will be turned off. What I would hope is that two editions could be published, one as the book currently is but also one with exact citations so the reader, if she so chooses, can look up a quote or fact and see if it is presented in an appropriate context. Another good thing was the inclusion of entire documents within the appendix to allow the reader to see the source material as it was and to either agree or disagree with Mr. Meacham's interpretation.
- An Insightful Look at Religion in US politics and History
Jon Meacham has written yet another fine book that gives some real meaning to the phrase "Seperation of Church and state. His look at the Institutional religion of the Founders is very insightful and full of meaning in the current religious/ political controversies. Recommended....more info
- Great - quick overview of religous thought in American politics
Well balanced with sources well referenced. Great glimpse into the thoughts of many of the people that of have shaped our Democracy. Very brief discussions covering the pre-Revolution thinking through the Reagan era.
Only 4 stars given because the discussions dealing with civil war mind set was very one-sided without any depth. Lincoln illuminated in a very biased light. Categorized all pre-war Southerners as ignorant slave-holders, when in fact only 6-8% of Southerners owned slaves in 1860, and most were against the institution.
This was just small section of an overall, well written book....more info
- American Gospel:God, the Founding Fathers, and the aking of a Nation
Intelligent,informed, and intelectually honest...more info
- American Gospel: Clarity about the founding of the nation
With solid research and absolute clarity, John Meacham tells a story that every political and religious leader should be required to read. Without becoming a partisan, Meacham debukes a lot of myths regarding the religious beginnings of the U.S.
When the religious right speaks of the "values the nation was founded upon", which values are they speaking of: the values of Jamestown and Mass. Bay colony or the values of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington? Meacham makes clear that there is a difference.
The author is encouraging in that he makes a case that the "center" position re: religion has always held forth in American. I "pray" that, through his book and others, it shall always be so....more info
- ... precisely what Meacham claimes it to be ...
This book is precisely what Meacham claimes it to be in his introduction ... "The point of this book is to explore the role faith has played in the Republic and to illustrate how the Founding Fathers left us with a tradition in which we could talk and think about God and politics without descending into discord and division. It is not a full-scale history of religion in America or of the issue of the separation of church and state. It is, rather, a narratice essay that covers much ground quickly and briefly."
Meacham proves true and his writing is outstanding. I found this book to be very fair to all sides concerned, which - as other reviewers have pointed out - will make those on the religious and political fringes unhappy with some of the content. That, I suppose, is as it should be, and only confirms the wisdom of our Founding Fathers and magnifies the solemn beauty of the incredible turning point in history, effectuated by the results of their labors, regarding the formal creation of this great nation....more info
- Read with Three Other Books (Or My Reviews of All Four)
I bought and read this book as part of a series, with The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason being the first book. I recommend both highly. "The End of Faith" depicts the threat to America and the world, while this book is more of a historical treatment of how America has always favored religious tolerance and pluralism, but secular governance. Other interesting books deal with misquoting Jesus and the myths of the Bible. I hope to get to them soon.
This book over all an extraodinarily balanced and vital perspective on the good of religion in American life. It puts extremist ideologies in historical context, and concludes in the final chapter that whenever religions become extremist and exclusive, as have both the extreme right Christian evangelicals in America and the radicalized Muslims around the world; they become a tyranny, and must be fought down at all costs.
This is a history book, but it is vibrant with clear and direct quotations showing how successive Presidents used religion to make important points. The books begins with an explosive characterization of liberty and democracy in relation to freedom of religion, and this sets the stage for the entire book which ends by denouncing religious extremism of any sort.
Page 16. "...the Founders understood the dangers of mixing religious passion with the ambitions of politics."
Page 17. "If totalitarianism was the great problem of the twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the twenty-first."
The author, while documenting the need for a separation of church and state, is also careful to note that a shared acceptance of public religion and religiosity in all its forms is very helpful to democracy and essential for civil domestic solidarity.
Two books that are unique and distinct from this one, that I recommend be read in addition to this book and "The End of Faith," are The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right and Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik The four together frame the power of religion in this century, for both good and bad.
The author is quite clear in stating that religions become a problem when their practitioners demand conversion to their own faith, or denigrate all who are not of their faith as unbelievers subject to genocide, confiscation of goods or--as the more rabid Jews taught me in college, full licenses to rape and dishonor, since "chicksas" or gentile girls are "free game."
This book is the single best authoritative documentation for the hard fact that America was founded as a secular Nation providing for religious tolerance, and it is especially strong in pointing out that Judaism and other religions, including Islam, were present in the early years and America is NOT, per se, a Christian Nation in its founding roots.
The author documents how the Constitution and the intent of the Founders specifically forbade any religious requirements or qualification for holding public office.
On page 93 the author discusses how the Founding Father explicitly favored and sought a diversity of churches and faiths to reduce the possibility of any one faith "coming to play too large a role in politics," (something I believe we can all see has hurt America gravely as the extremist religious right has trashed civil liberties at home and the Nation of Iraq as a whole--never mind global rendition and torture and a refusal to respect the Geneva Convention.
The author concludes that the USA and radicalized Islam are indeed on a collision course, of pluralism versus monotheism, but a careful reading of the book suggests that we must first heal ourselves internally and stamp down the extremist religious right (I am a moderate Republican who segued from Catholicism to high Episcopal to Methodist via two marriages).
The book includes ten extraordinary appendices and one excellent compilation of Presidential scripture citations up through President Eisenhower (I recommend the DVD on "Why We Fight" to better understand the pernicious effects of faith-based decisions to go to war that ignore all facts and evidence).
This is a serious book. Religion is going to be, as the author documents, a key factor in whether we prosper or implode in the 21st Century. For that reason alone, I strongly recommend all four of the books I have cited above, including this one....more info
- the history of public religion in the US, painted with broad strokes
Meacham provides a great summary of the history of religion in public life, and our nation's "public religion" over the years, in a well-researched, well-written, easy-to-read book. It was somewhat informative, particularly (for me) in discussing the variety of religious viewpoints present at the founding of the country and the founders' efforts to be inclusive of Jews (who were here) and Muslims (who weren't yet), as well as various recognized Christian sects.
Essentially, Meacham's thesis is that religion has always been a part of public life in the United States, but that our religious diversity has led our public religion to be ecumenical and tolerant. Accordingly, those who don't want government recognition of God in any form, or who want legislation that pushes their religious agenda at the expense of others, are out of touch with American history.
The reason I'm only giving this book three stars is that Meacham seems a little too dedicated to his thesis. He seems to gloss over some fairly striking episodes of religious intolerance in American history, for example. Little mention is made, for example, regarding the KKK's efforts, rather successful in some parts of the country, to disfavor Roman Catholicism. My impression is that it would run counter to his picture of America's tradition of tolerance, so it wasn't addressed head-on. He also mentions, from time to time, that God wouldn't like intolerance. I don't disagree, but brief statements about what God wants seem out of place in a book about history.
I enjoyed reading this book, and I agree with the author's conclusions, but the reader should be cautioned to look beyond these pages for the big picture. ...more info
- A very shallow analysis of the critical issues
When I bought this book, I wasn't exactly sure what the author's viewpoint would be, but expected a fairly rigorous treatment on the history of church & state issues in America. I thought this might lead to some meaningful conclusions. To say the least, I was disappointed. This is a work which is long on rationalizations, but short on rationale. Meacham largely sidesteps the critical questions and instead wallpapers over them with anecdotes about the support that presidents and other leaders have given to expressions of "public religion". He seems to build his whole case out of historical inertia rather than a clear-headed and logical analysis of law. Meacham points demonstrably toward the fact that presidents have consistently expressed their religious beliefs in public, but completely ignores the reality that those are the kind of people who get elected to national office. Is someone with strong non-theistic leanings likely to become Commander-In-Chief? Of course not. It is important to recognize, however, that this is a bias which is built into the political climate, not the Constitution. Yes, there is a longstanding history of infusing religion into the public sphere, but this hardly supports the author's contention that it would be impractical for things to be any other way. He only demonstrates the limits of his imagination and vision. If he offered a strong case for his views, that would be one thing, but he largely obfuscates the most important questions by offering a collection of stories which really doesn't make much of a point.
In the end, if you're looking for tales about the religious perspectives of various presidents, give this book a read. The content is hardly riveting, but you may find a few points of interest. If you want an objective analysis and detailed exploration of the issues which divide our nation on the question of separation of church and state, you won't find it here.
- American Gospel
This book challenges me to relfect on my faith, my country and the relationshps between the two both from an historical and contemporary perspecitive. I had the joy of listening to John Meecham discuss his book and was inpsired to purchase a copy....more info
- The wall between church & state is between A PARTICULAR Church AND the state; not, Meacham argues, between secularism & religion
"Many Americans, especially secular ones, tend to stake everything on Jefferson's wall between church and state. The wall metaphor originated with the Anglican divine Richard Hooker, was used by the dissenter Roger Williams, the Scottish intellectual James Burgh, and by Jefferson, and gained its current weight when, in 1947, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black quoted Jefferson's phrase. The wall Jefferson referred to is designed to divide church from state, not religion from politics." "The nation's public religion,then, holds that there is a God." Just "not the God of Abraham or God the Father of the Holy Trinity." Thus "every American is free to define God in whatever way he chooses" when a president says God Bless America, or invokes a non-denominational God in whatever manner. That's the wall between church & state, between A PARTICULAR Church AND the state. "In 1959, 1662, and 1663, Jefferson reported, Virginia made it a crime not to have children baptized in the Anglican Church." That's the basis for the separation, in the author's argument: "The argument that the government which governs best governs least suffused American politics and this applied to the idea of favoring one church over another." Hence the use of the term 'Nature's God' in the Declaration of Independence and the statement that men are 'endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,' avoiding sectarian religious imagery or associations, but not religious faith." As Dwight Eisenhower said: "Even those among us who are, in my opinion, so silly as to doubt the existance of an Almighty, are still members of a religious civilization." Meacham concludes from this that "Eisenhower understood something many Americans do not quite grasp, even now: that 'Nature's God' resides at the center of the Founding [of America]." The author then discusses how JFK, Jimmy Carter et al (besides Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, & FDR) employed religion while president. "A grasp of history," the author states consequently, "is essential for Americans of the center who struggle to know how much weight to assign a religious consideration in a public matter." What about those not in the center? After quoting a number of odd statements made by Jerry Falwell & Pat Robertson the author goes on to state that these men "do not, of course, represent all of evangelical Christianity." Then, seemingly trying to be evenhanded herein, the author adds that "extreme secularists have not helped matters either." In summary, he concludes that "voices like Robertson's, Falwell's, and O'Hair's come from the farthest fringes;" O'Hair being the only securalist (extreme or otherwise) that Meacham even mentions (a radical activist from the 1960s who has been dead for over a decade). And while Meacham's point that "many committed secularists in our own age have largely made their peace with public religion" is true, it is also meaningless; for it is just as true that "many committed secularists" have not. None of the latter are mentioned, but he does have ample space to offer up examples of extremist anti-abortion protesters, all the while bandying around the examples of Falwell & Robertson in liberal (pardon the pun) measure. Regretably this book has no index & is only 250 pages long: The rest consists of excerpts of over 25 presidents' inaugural addresses which quote biblical scripture, source notes (82 pages), and a 27 page bilbliography of over 500 works! (without a word as to what is worthy of exploring further or not). (06Jul) God Bless! ...more info