303 of 333 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2006
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. It does little good to say Washington said this and Jefferson said that in the abstract, without knowing what they were talking about.
Frequently there are references to people who worship twenty gods, or no gods being treated equally. In fact there were few who worshipped no gods then, and probably fewer who worshipped twenty. The point was made, however. There were also references to the ideal that the Muslim would be just as free to worship as anyone else (I think an amazingly impressive foresight in a country that had few if any Muslims).
It's hard to pick and choose from the book. In a way, it's so objective that more will find fault with it than do not. That's probably a sign of a good objective overview.
The main problem I see with the book is there's too little perspective of what it has meant to be pluralistic or secular in the context of the rest of the world. At the time of the American Revolution, a state without an official religion was a strange concept. The way of the world had always been that the government was run by a King who ruled by the grace of God, and in return protected God's true religion from heretics and blasphemers. Now in large parts of the world democracies in which people are more or less free to worship as they please are at least the aspiration, if not the reality, in most of the world. America was unique in creating and sustaining a state without an official link to a particular religious tradition.
Today, I think much of the world has passed us up. Today, Franklin's public religion has been replaced by a generic Judeo-Christianity where we are lucky, and a doctrinaire narrow fundamentalist Christianity where we are not. The doctrinaire Christianity does not seem to me to have much to do with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but I've ranted about that before. It is true, however, that it is always hard work to maintain freedom, including freedom of religion. Preserving that freedom is a job that will never end.
This book may not be the definitive word on the subject, but it's balanced and well-researched. It's something that one should take into account before asserting that America is either a Christian nation or a godless one.
153 of 170 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2006
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."
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2006
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.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2006
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. Predisposed to their own perspectives, people see other views as 'wrong' and even 'dangerous'---potentially creating a volatile political situation in a democracy needing pluralism to exist. However, Meacham's well-researched book keeps readers engaged through thoughtful prose.
This book is great for leisure reading. It is also recomended for students of constitutional issues.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2006
Be warned. If you think a book about the early days of the American Republican won't keep you up at night, you might be in for an insomniac surprise. Meacham writes with such an engaging style, the founding fathers come alive as they struggle and stumble toward the creation of the constitution.
Our nation was not put on its feet by mythical men who were invariably unwavering in their resolve. Meacham presents them as they were: brave but flawed men, who endlessly confronted their own misgivings and ambivalence. He shows us the imperfectly human leaders of the new nation, warts and all, as they hammer out the structure of the government as we know it.
"American Gospel" is not just a rehashing of the history you already know. It's a fresh, clearheaded look at the early struggles over how to balance a government by the people and for the people, and how to determine what role God should play in that.
There is perhaps no better time to pick up this book and subject yourself to late nights and bleary-eyed mornings. With debates over God's place in a modern society continuing unabated, "American Gospel" may be more relevant now than ever.
This is a book you will read with the same fevered pace as the hottest novel on the bestsellers list. The difference being, you will learn a great deal about our history and perhaps glean some insights on how things stand today. An absolute must read you'll want to leave on your coffee table, to be picked up again when a houseguest offers his own views on God, the founding fathers and the making of a nation.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2006
This book provides a persuasive, historically based argument for accepting the important role of inclusive religion in American political life. Meacham shows that God and religion have been consistently important in the language and actions of our political leaders, from the founding fathers to our most recent presidents. He also shows that our religious leaders have historically clung to and united the country around an inclusive, humble approach to God in which a broad array of religions can find common ground. Meacham rejects both militant secularism and intolerant "Christian Nation" approaches to the relationship between church and state, and he makes emminent sense.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2007
This book confirms the Founding Fathers got it right and allowed all to have a position of thought and belief system. It also tracks how public position cycles from sectarian to secular and if dates were not associated with quotes, it would be difficult to say these were not from today.
Meacham does a great job in demonstrating the Founding Fathers knew what they were doing with the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. They knew there was a requirement for "separation" between politics and religion, but government and belief systems are consistent. Their actions ensured a particular religion's doctrine would not become the law of the land or in anyway influence it, yet allow for one to believe as they wish, free from influence from any source, state or church.
Every chapter tells a story of American history. Those that center on the Presidents and their personal beliefs are most interesting. How these men balanced their personal beliefs and their duties in leading the Nation makes for good reading.
I highly recommend American Gospel to anyone that finds history exciting, dull, or curious about how this nation has arrived where it is today. It does a solid job in documenting this huge experiment, not just as a representative government, but one that allows any religion, or not, to (co)exist, successfully.
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
In a time when discussions on religon and politics has split America in half; Jon Meachem has taken the high rode and explains how, to some extent, everyone is right. Religon was expected to play a vital role in the day-to-day life of America, but that religon was a central focus on God and not to one particular religon.
Meachem is masterful in bringing out the arguments in how the Founding Fathers wanted God to be a unifying focus of our lives, but were able to avoid the paradox of its dividing properties. Most Americans can rally behind the belief of God, but once that belief is broken down to a variety of sects - Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Judaism and so forth - this is where get our anger/angst from the divisions of doctrine. We become divided and argumenative in the "rightness" of our individual beliefs.
What Meachem effectively argues is that the Founders saw of this coming and therefore placed the seperation of church and state. Meachem also points out that in a treaty in 1790's the United States proclaimed that it "Was not a Christian Nation but a nation that accepts all faiths". While I am sure that some will say that this is an attack on Christianity, I say that this is Meachem effectively proving that Jerry Fallwell (and most of the extreme CHrisitan right) is a liar (And by the way - I am a Baptist!)
Why is this important in today's world? With the likes of Michael Moore and Ann Coulter each spewing their hate (and Coulter expecially) using religon to wedge our citizens further and further apart, we must be reminded of how we got here. Meachem shows us that great men have always kept the spheres of these two entities apart- he points to Billy Graham as a man of unquestioned faith who has mostly stayed out the political scene (here is a quick question who has Billy Graham endorsed in the last three elections? Answer: No one - he doesn't publicy support any canidate). What has this done for his ministry...? It has allowed him to UNITE his congregation behind his message without the nastiness that is involved with politics. Is there ANY question at all that Billy Graham has been the GREATEST evangelist of the last 100 years? There is a reason for that - his message is of God, Jesus, the Bible, and love - and not on why Bill Clinton is immoral. Why judge Clinton and his supporters and divide them away from his message about Christ? Graham realizes that if everyone follows the Bible and the teachings of Christ then Gay mariage ceases to be an issue.
In short- while Meachem's book reads as 250 page essay and is NOT filled with humorous anectdotes or side stories it does hit the mark. It may not be a quick read but it is a very important read. Today like no other time in the last 60 years America needs to be united we need to move away from the wedge issues that keep on dividing us through our individual beliefs. For that I feel that everyone who "American Gospel" will be indebted to Jon Meachem for giving us an insightful glimpse into the role religon plays and has played in our country.
41 of 51 people found the following review helpful
This book will interest those who like reading about early U.S. political, cultural, and religious history, and how the foundations of the United States were set up, and how the role of religion was discussed, debated, disagreed upon, and compromised on. This is a great book for scholars, but also casual American history buffs. What's surprising is that the very issues in this book - are still being debated today - over 200 years later.
"American Gospel" notes that the secular tone was set very early on by the founders. Actually, the very beginning: it was the first debate. And, the result could have gone in the other direction. At "Carpenter's Hall" in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress gathered for it's inaugural session in 1774. A move to have the delegates open the session with a prayer led to disagreement because of the different religious denominations of the members. The first governmental disagreement in 1774 concerned, public prayer. Do we hear about this issue today, in 2006?
Many statements (quotes) and writing excerpts selected by Meacham provide insights into what the Founders and influential people were thinking, and to what degree religion was supposed to be integrated or secularized into an emerging American society. John Adams stated in one treaty, later ratified in the Senate in 1797, that "the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...." And other excerpts reveal statements showing some integration of government and religion, both legally and philosophically, to various degrees.
The Founders and other architects involved in the American-cultural-governmental-religious relationship were indeed, thinking about the future. This was an experiment. And this experiment was taken conscientiously.
Of course, many people that initially came to the "New World" were escaping political persecution. But it can be difficult to
ponder the internalized perceptions of what people *really* thought 230+ years ago. Religion did play a significant role in the motivations of the Founders. Some of this motivation was out of convenience. But the main motivation for American colonial independence was promoting the economic and financial interests of a small group of influential people. Religion, then and today, is a very useful tool in helping influential people do what they want to do. Religion was utilized in making justifications and excuses for not only independence, but slavery, Indigenous American genocide, and persecuting the so-called non-believers. As in many nations, past and present, religion serves as a vehicle to procuring political power, and gaining and maintaining, public support.
In "American Gospel," we also are reminded how religion was much more enmeshed with the nation-states in Europe 200 years ago, whereas today most Europeans citizens are secular. currently, if a European political leader is religious, he/she doesn't "wear it on their sleeve" like American public officials often do. Now in the USA, most people's religious affiliation is merely a superficial token of expression, and not a motivator for mass movements to promote a political agenda. However, this has been changing recently.
Currently, the debate over religion and its role in government, schools (intelligent design), and medicine (stem cell research) continue, and likely will for time to come.
Author John Meacham is extremely balanced and non-biased, which is what a superb historian does. He did great research and writing, also.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2006
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.