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American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation

159 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1400065554
ISBN-10: 1400065550
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
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Advance Praise for American Gospel

“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 written, inspiring, and persuasive, this is a welcome addition to the literature.”–Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University, author of American Judaism: A History

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (April 4, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400065550
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400065554
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (159 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #464,982 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jon Meacham is the author, most recently, of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller that has been named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, The Seattle Times, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize for American Lion, his bestselling 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson. He is also the author of the New York Times bestsellers Franklin and Winston and American Gospel. Executive editor and executive vice president of Random House, Meacham is a contributing editor to Time magazine, a former editor of Newsweek, and has written for The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. He is a regular contributor on Meet the Press, Morning Joe, and Charlie Rose. A Fellow of the Society of American Historians, Meacham serves on the boards of the New-York Historical Society; the Churchill Centre; and of The McCallie School. He is a former trustee and Regent of The University of the South and has served on the vestries of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue and Trinity Church Wall Street. Born in Chattanooga in 1969, Meacham was educated at McCallie and at The University of the South, where he was salutatorian and Phi Beta Kappa. He began his career as a reporter at The Chattanooga Times. He and his wife live with their three children in Nashville and in Sewanee.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

303 of 333 people found the following review helpful By J. G. Schulze on April 8, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just finished American Gospel, by Jon Meacham. I enjoyed it. I recommend it.

It was just recently released. I got it from Amazon this week. It's not unusual that I'll set aside all the other books I'm reading to start a new book, but it's less common that I'll actually finish it.

It is a well researched book about the influence of religion in American government. His premise is that the Founding Fathers created a kind of "public religion" in the words of Benjamin Franklin. The public religion was not specifically Christian, but broad enough to cover the Christian, the Jew, and the Deist. The Founding Fathers were classically educated as well. Annuit Coeptus is a paraphrase from Virgil. The Founding Fathers had a greater variety of religious beliefs than we realize. I find much truth in some of the ideas of Jefferson and Franklin, neither of which would be considered orthodox Christians in their time or ours. I think Thomas Payne offers some good ideas, too.

Christianity was more divided at the time of the revolution than it is today, and the importance of the differences was considered greater. One thing that is hard to recognize today is that not only was there a certain animosity toward Jews, or even Catholics, but the Protestant sects considered their differences important. In 1774, there was opposition to prayer in the Continental Congress, inspired in part by the Episcopalians' fear that having everyone join in a prayer would tend to treat all the religious traditions as equal.

Many of the quotes we usually hear in debates whether the United States is a "Christian" nation are given here, but what is particularly useful is that they are put in context.
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153 of 170 people found the following review helpful By Robert W. Kellemen on April 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When I read the riveting prose of "American Gospel" my second thought was, "This is sure to infuriate diehards on both sides of the "religion in America" debate. If Amazon reviews are any indication, my second thought was correct. Fortunately, "experts" on "both sides" such as David McCullough and Elaine Pagels, hardly naive historians, offer a more balanced assessment.

My first thought? "God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation" is a well-written and well-research summation of a long-debated and still needed topic. The author, Jon Meacham, is an established writer (BA in English Literature, managing editor of Newsweek) and historian ("Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship").

In "American Gospel" Meacham avoids the extreme that every founding father was an atheist or deist, and the extreme that every founding father was a Christian. More importantly, what he quotes (and he uses a plethora of primary sources) he quotes in context--both the historical context and the documents context. Many of the quotes are well-established in the debate about our religious history. His work sheds new light on them.

His book will serve as a launching pad for continued debate on the place of religion in American society, in particular, in government, law, and politics. It certainly won't end the debate, but it has the potential to make it more intelligent. For this reason, and because the writing is tight, creative, and imaginative, "American Gospel" is a must read for all history buffs and politicians.

Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction," "Soul Physicians," "Spiritual Friends," and the forthcoming "Sacred Friendships: Listening to the Voices of Women Soul Care-Givers and Spiritual Directors."
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Randy Harris on June 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Meacham's style allowed for a quick, easy read. The book did a great job of discussing both the well known documents relating to religion in American history and the lesser known ones. As I read the introduction, I was dissapointed by the thesis, because it seemed to not really take a definite stance. After finishing the entire book, although I am still annoyed that there is no set standard for what aspects of religion are acceptable in the public arena, I believe that his thesis was supported with an enormous amount of evidence. I recommend the book to anybody interested in the ongoing debate over religion in America.
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Robin Orlowski on April 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This book bypasses traditional partisan accounts of Church-State scholarship to deliver a truly entertaining read. It argues that the American state's relationship with religion, religious freedom, and democracy always has been more complex than we want to admit.

After religious strife in England and the colonies, religious freedom intentionally was inserted into the Constitution. However, because the founders own idea of religious freedom was narrower than what actually exists in America today, pinpointing the First Amendment's exact and original intentions is challenging for the best and most well-intentioned scholars.

This book also examines how subsequent American politicians dealt with and dealt with Church-State issues. I don't doubt that there was enough material for the author to stop after the 19th century, but to his credit he kept going---and did not abandon the quality of writing during the process.

Franklin Roosevelt is considered the architect of modern liberalism. Yet, he adopted oratorical skills which are today more associated with fundamentalist preachers and the far right politicians who court them. Roosevelt campaign materials clearly illustrate that he knew establishing the association would provide substantial political returns. .

Likewise, another prominent Democratic president understood the importance of downplaying his religious affiliation. Regardless of his personal religious convictions, John Kennedy knew his presidential nomination and election hinged on opponents convincing voters that the Pope would rule through the White House if he were elected. That history has certainly proved otherwise is an irony.

Because religion is such a personal issue, the topic tends to provoke conflict.
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