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

American Gospel Book Cover American Gospel
Jon Meacham
Random House Incorporated

Author Meacham tells the human story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice. At a time when our country seems divided by extremism, this book draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the history of a nation grappling with religion and politics--from John Winthrop's "city on a hill" sermon to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence; from a proposed nineteenth-century Christian Amendment to the Constitution to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for civil rights; from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. At the heart of the American experiment lies what Benjamin Franklin called "public religion," a God who invests all human beings with inalienable rights while protecting private religion from government interference. It is a great American balancing act, and it has served us well.--From publisher description.

“There is a collective cultural consensus grounded in common sense allowing for the kinds of broad religious expression one hears in presidential and public rhetoric.”

–Justice William O. Douglas

It is commonly asserted that there are two things one does not talk about, without inviting a debate at the least, a fight at most: religion and politics. In this book, Mecham undertakes the task of discussing the role of religion and religious belief in American society — with a particular emphasis on how it relates to the American government. The main argument of this book is that religion has a place in American society, and always has; while we may not always agree on a specific faith — the spiritual and religious aspects of American culture is alive and well.

This book explores how America shaped a purely secular government in the shadow of a strongly religious culture. Mecham argues that from the origins of our American beginnings, this nation has been and remains a truly religious culture. What is unique about our national belief system is not that it exists — but that it is not state driven. Simply put — Mecham argues that our nation does not legislate and regulate church; neither does it deny Americans the right and privilege of worshiping God according to their own understandings and beliefs. Likewise, the church does not dictate the function of government. That is not to say that there isn’t a place for faith and belief in government. Our government was never founded on the principle of no religious worship in government — rather a church is not to dictate the actions of government, while individuals in government still maintain the religious and moral values originating from an individuals’ “religious” beliefs. It is this precarious and frequently rocky relationship between religion and government that creates the challenges the American culture faces when answering the question of religion in America.

Mecham argues that an understanding of our origins and the work of the founding fathers is an exercise in understanding how we, as a nation strive towards cherishing freedom while protecting faith. His argument is premised on the idea that our government is established as a bastion of individual freedom, and as such, must protect the rights of all individuals, particularly in the area of religious beliefs.  It does not seek to legislate belief or legalize morality through religion. However, that same government, from its inception has been designed to allow the individual to believe in whatever concept they choose and to bring that belief into their work, both in and out of the government. It is through the moral values, inherited through religious belief and instruction that ensure the government does not go off track and lose sight of those it seeks to protect. “Faith and freedom are inextricably linked. It is not for priests or pastors or presidents or kings to compel belief, for to do so trespasses on each individual’s God-given liberty of mind and heart.” (Mecham, Introduction).

Mecham’s book also argues that what separates us from the old world is our strong adherence to learning and reason. This attachment is used hand in hand with faith to build a strong cultural society that can live according to the dictates of conscience, while still allowing others to do the same. This is clearly seen in the list of presidents and civic leaders, all of whom professed strong but varied belief systems. Even in this more recent age of agnosticism — the movements of agnosticism and atheism have become their own kind of religion. Mecham suggests that the American culture and government is not to protect or eradicate sin but to recognize that just as the individual can sin, so too does there exist national sin. As individuals, we have an obligation to avoid that eventuality and right the wrongs when the government goes off course. Mecham argues that “the point of America, as constructed by the founders was, as Jefferson put it, ‘to fix essential rights in the eternal.'” (Mecham, as quoting Jefferson). We have an obligation as a people to look beyond the here and now and figure out how we can improve the actions of government, to more fully ensure that the rights it protects — particularly the religious rights of all individuals, of all faiths — are protected equally and assiduously.

Mecham also argues that freedom of religion is, essentially freedom of thought and freedom of speech. These concepts are synonymous. It is for the government to protect these at all costs and leave the protection of belief as the individual understands it to the individual. Here in America, we are starting to turn from these founding principles and beliefs. We are moving into an age of greater fear and less compassion for those of differing ideals and beliefs. 

This is a book that is an interesting read, though considered controversial in our modern time. Mecham’s arguments are well supported and documented and he presents it in an easy to read format with easy to understand prose. This is a book that I would consider a must read at this time in our national identity crisis, as we reflect on how we have come to where we are today, and what origins gave birth to this nation’s culture.

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