As author Jon Meacham admits in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, American Gospel is “not a work of historical or theological scholarship, though it draws on both traditions.” Instead it is a well-written, logically organized discussion of the role of religion in America.
Meacham argues that the Founders differentiated between “public” and “private” religion. They recognized the importance of not excluding God from government, but at the same time took great pains to avoid any sense of sectarian preference in the founding documents.
Meacham’may raise the ire of some evangelical Christians with one of his premises, that America is not a “Christian Nation”. Similarly, some on the left will no doubt take exception to his assertions of the inevitability and beneficial impact of religion in the public arena. In the words of the author:
To hope, as some secularists do, that faith will one day withdraw from the public sphere, if only this or that Supreme Court nominee comes to power, is futile. Humankind could not leave off being religious even if it tried. The impulse is intrinsic.
or as William Penn said:
. . . men who will not be ruled by God will be ruled by tyrants.
And so, American Gospel is a careful argument for the middle ground. Meacham shows through countless references and quotations that the Founders knew what they were about in designing a system that was broad enough neither to exclude God or impose Him on it’s citizenry. Hence, his argument that “public religion” is endemic and inextricably bound into the fabric of our nation’s founding. They were careful to speak of God in ways that were unifying rather than dividing. They created “a culture in which religion would rise or fall on its own merits.”
Unlike some who argue for the separation of church and state, Meacham does not make any attempt to portray the Founders as irreligious, or as deists with a belief in a disinterested God.
It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of the Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution. James Madison
But, he does argue for separation of “private” religion from the state, and consequently that this is not a “Christian nation”. So while this nation’s premise is spiritual and not secular, it is not sectarian. Sects in this instance are defined not as branches of Christianity, but rather as anything other than the broadest definition of God, or “nature’s God”, as Jefferson put it. To illustrate his point Meacham uses President Eisenhower’s explanation that it was “hopeless” to try to convey to a Red Army officer what made American democracy unique:
. . . our form of government is founded on religion. . . . Our ancestors who formed this government said . . . ‘We hold that all men are endowed by their Creator. . . .’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Jud[e]o-Christian concept but it must be a religion that [believes] all men are created equal. . . . Even those among us who are, in my opinion, so silly as to doubt the existence of an Almighty, are still members of a religious civilization, because the Founding Fathers said it was a religious concept that they were trying to translate into the political world.
Since the communist had no sense of faith, there was no point in trying to explain anything to him. Eisenhower understood that “Nature’s God” forms the center of the Founding. He was a lot smarter than he gets credit for.
In addition to Eisenhower, Meacham uses the words of numerous other presidents including the nation’s first:
The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions whom we shall welcome to participate in all of our rights and privileges . . . They may be Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists.
In the concluding chapter Meacham addresses the question of why modern day Americans should “profitably follow the lead of a gaggle of dead white men from the eighteenth century . . .” As Washington’s words indicate, the Founders actually did anticipate the pluralism of the twenty-first-century. Although mostly Christian, the country was much more diverse than one might think, with a myriad of sects and differing religious beliefs.
The Founders figured out how to construct a republic that would “withstand the vicissitudes of time and chance.” They carefully designed a “government that would check passions, thus raising the odds that it would serve Americans from age to age. . . . the Founders’ decision to nurture public piety and treat faith as one force among many to be honored but heeded only in the measure sensible citizens of the day chose to assign it stands as an epochal accomplishment according to the standards by which we judge such things.”
Meacham is convincing when he asserts that the blending of “public” religion and government is an indelible aspect of the American experiment. The wisdom and practicality of the Founders ensured that “reverence for one’s own tradition is not incompatible with respect for the tradition of others.” American Gospel is a thesis with sound argument and pertinent examples. Neither the right nor the left is likely to agree entirely with all of the author’s premises, but reasonable people should agree with his conclusion.