American Gospel

I recently read this book American Gospel by Jon Meacham. In this book the author gives a wide overview of religion in America by looking at how the Founding Fathers, past Presidents and prominent public figures have spoken about and used religion from the founding of America to the present.

The author argues that what we have in America is not a Christian religion but it is one that draws heavily on the Judeo-Christian tradition. He writes that the Founding Fathers could have used explicitly Christian language in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution but they did not. Instead the Declaration uses generic terms such as “Nature’s God” and “their Creator”. “Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, Jay, and their comrades could have chosen to draw on the examples of Jamestown, Plymouth, or Massachusetts Bay, but they did not.” (244-245) In the treaty of Tripoli which was “ratified by the Senate in 1797, the Founders declared that ‘the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion…'” (19) However the author states that “the wall Jefferson referred to is designed to divide church from state, not religion from politics.” (19) This leaves us with a “public religion”.

The nation’s public religion, then, holds that there is a God, the one Jefferson called the “Creator” and “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. The God of public religion made all human beings in his image and endowed them, as Jefferson wrote, with sacred rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What the God of public religion has given, no king, no president, no government can abridge—hence the sanctity of human rights in America. The God of public religion is interested in the affairs of the world. The God of public religion may be seen as capable of rewarding or punishing individuals or the nation either here and now or later, beyond time. And the God of public religion is sometimes spoken of as a God bound to the American nation, in Jefferson’s words, “as Israel of old.” (22)

It turns out that public religion is something close to but not quite Christianity. The book addresses how various Presidents and others have grappled with this public religion and balanced it with their personal faith. Some of the people discussed other than the Founding Fathers are Lincoln, Roosevelt, Carter, Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billy Graham. The author ends by trying to strike a middle ground between what he calls extremists: those on the far right who think we are a “Christian Nation” and those on the far left who think we are purely secular.

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