When I saw Jon Meacham‘s book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, I put it on my reading list. I was looking for a book that would provide a layman’s perspective of how the relationship between God and government developed in this country. Having read Meacham’s work on Andrew Jackson (American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House), I was hoping it would be another concise and enjoyable read.
Meacham is executive editor and executive vice president at Random House, former editor of Newsweek and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. I’m most familiar with Meacham as a guest political commentator on MSNBC’s Morning Joe (weekdays, 6-9 am), a show I usually watch while getting ready for work in the morning.
Meacham starts off by highlighting the theme that’s consistently drawn upon throughout the book, the difference between Public religion and Private religion as the Founding Fathers had envisioned. The concept of Public religion recognizes faith in God (in all forms in which He exists and is worshipped) as a unifying influence, one that unites “the virtue of the populace”. In this regard, the concept and belief in God takes on whatever religious form is meaningful to an individual, be they Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.
Private religion seems a concept that is self-explanatory. That all people have the right to worship – or not worship – God in whatever manner they choose. This was the antithesis of the religious atmosphere in Europe which led to the founding and colonization of America, which Meacham covers in the first chapter, God and Mammon. The American experiment provided that no individual would be prevented from worshiping God – if so inclined – in whatever form they should choose, a direct result of what drove the early pilgrims to hazard the perilous Atlantic crossing.
From the beginning, the thinkers among the Founders recognized the importance of religion. Although they were almost all Christian, almost all Protestant (Several deists, such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were also prominent players.), they recognized the importance of religious tolerance. Yet they also appreciated the threat to religion that government could pose should the two become too close and become intertwined. These principles hold true regardless of who you worship or how you worship them.
(This is why I find The Founding period in our country’s history so fascinating! The timelessness of The Founders wisdom and foresight is amazing. The Founders were far from perfect. Their failure to resolve issues such as slavery and women’s rights – among others – would complicate the road ahead; but the foundation and framework were sound and have survived multiple tests throughout our history. Despite their shortcomings, The Founders were incredibly prescient.)
Meacham’s greatest accomplishment here is his discussion of the concept most commonly referred to as The Wall between church and state. A common theme throughout the book, Meacham subscribes to the concept that The Wall was intended more to protect religion from the state as opposed to the other way around. This is why he finds no contradiction in expressions of God in the public sphere, including mentions of God on our money or in the Pledge of Allegiance.
As he explores the role of Public religion in America, Meacham takes us through many of the nation’s struggles and accomplishments where Public religion served to unite the country behind the causes that defined the nation, such as the fight for Liberty; the struggle to end slavery and Jim Crow laws; the Great Depression, and the defeat of both Nazi and Communist suppressions in Europe. In these instances as well as others, Meacham illustrates how American Presidents, political and social leaders invoked the concept of God and the values that flowed from that belief as a compelling, uniting influence for the country.
The book reads much shorter than it looks, running only 250 pages in narrative length. The rest of the book is a compendium of extensive source notes and bibliography, references to historical letters and documents, even excerpts of presidential inauguration speeches where religious themes were integral.
Meacham’s effort here is not intended to be taken as an in-depth, historical essay. He attempts only to provide a historical perspective to the questions “What part did religion play in the founding of the American experiment?” and “How has religion affected the moral development and success of the country?” Regardless of where you stand on – or know of – the relationship of religion to the American experiment and American governance, you will enjoy Meacham’s perspective on how that relationship came to be.