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303 of 333 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Good Summary, April 8, 2006
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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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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 1, 2007 6:09:26 AM PST
"At the time of the American Revolution, a state without an official religion was a strange concept." BINGO. It still is. This is what the great "War against terror" really is, isn't it? In Muslim thinking, as I understand it, there is no divide between religion and civil administration, because the state enforces God's laws. They see us as "heretics and blasphemers."

I am 68 years old, and just during my lifetime, when I think about it, there has been enormous change in public morals. My grandmother would have probably been as repelled by modern mores as OBL is. She never went out shopping without a hat and on Sundays a veil. My mother wore a veil to church when I was a little boy, but stopped in the 1950s. Yet, watching midnight mass at the Vatican on TV I was even surprised (I am not a Catholic but respect their liturgy) to see, when mass was over, the Pope greet one of the leading emissaries of the Diplomatic Corps (in full dress) and his wife, who wore no head covering at all, just this marvelous head of blond hair.

Yes, things have changed. The Muslims reject us as godless and and blasphemers. Inevitably, the Muslims will move in our direction, I believe that. But, perhaps, we need to take stock as well and re-examine our public mores.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 17, 2008 10:51:04 AM PST
KerrLines says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Feb 17, 2008 10:53:42 AM PST
KerrLines says:
Gerry, Your review was fantastic and extremely thorough.I heard Meacham speak for an hour on the radio, and then read his book two days later.I was transfixed.I thought it incredibly balanced and engaging.Your review reflects my sentiments.Well done.

Posted on Jun 28, 2010 9:00:29 AM PDT
Thanks for your plain-spoken review. Your point about the lack of international context for the new-born USA's failure to feature and maintain state religion is especially well-taken.

Posted on Dec 3, 2012 5:07:27 AM PST
Christianity is a philosophy, not a religion. This fact alone may explain many of the arguments waged in the politically correct, predominantly secular society we live in today.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 3, 2012 7:31:20 PM PST
I'm not sure what the distinction is supposed to be. Philosophies can be profoundly religious. Religions can be philosophical. The idea that somehow the Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic and Presbyterian faiths are religions, but Christianity is a philosophy doesn't answer many questions for me. Historically, Christianity was an institution. The institution was divided with the Great Schism and splintered by the Protestant Reformation.

Christianity refers to a set of beliefs including that there is a God, that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, that people are saved by faith in Jesus, and that we have an afterlife in which we will be rewarded or punished. All of those beliefs seem to me to be more religious than philosophical.

Now granted, Jesus of Nazareth taught philosophy as well as theology. A thorough philosophy of life can be extracted from the teachings of Jesus and the letters of the New Testament. But in history Christianity has been more about the supernatural teachings than the worldly teachings of Jesus.

I'm just not sure how helpful the distinction between a religion and a philosophy is in this context. To the extent Christianity makes affirmative statements about the supernatural, I would have to consider it a religion. Again, this is not to deny the existence of Christian philosophy.

Posted on Oct 13, 2013 11:06:50 AM PDT
Mark Grago says:
Excellent review,Gerry! I would agree with all of it...
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