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A Good Summary
, April 8, 2006
This review is from: American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Hardcover)
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.
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