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

by Jon Meacham

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Meacham writes to clarify the place of religion in our political system. He posits that religion from the beginnings of our republic until today has played an important role in the cultural ethos that defines us as a society. In many ways, religious values anchor our civil relationships and bind us together in harmony and comity. Moreover, he contends, the boundary between religion and our political institutions is not as bright a line as is often portrayed by camps on both sides of the state v. religion ideological divide. He says that there is a "public" religion that heavily influenced the founding fathers and still today shapes our core values. The founding fathers certainly recognized that notions of Providential connections to and influence over us as a people greatly shaped who we are and how we should behave toward each other. That the founding fathers were believers is without question, although there was a diversity of thought about the nature of God and the divinity of Christ. Jefferson's deist views are illustrative of the range of thinking about the nature of God and religion.

While there is no doubt that the founding fathers were not secularists, it is also inarguably clear that they were determined to maintain a separation between religion and the public sphere. They had seen too many examples in history of the oppression that could result from sanction of particular religions by the state. They understood that the way maintain the allegiance of the people to the state was to favor no specific religion or even religious belief. The key to maintain civil ties was to expect tolerance of all manner of beliefs extending even to non-Christian beliefs and atheists. They believed that the rights of individuals derive from God, but a creator" God who bestowed on man "natural" rights, not those permitted by any government or any religious entity. In other words, God grants rights of liberty to people and such grant is not contingent on approval by any government or any religious institution. Hence, while religious belief were highly pertinent to our political compact, the endorsement of, or discrimination against, any religion by the state was not be be permitted.

His argument and reasoning is compelling. To say that religion and the values thereby expressed has no place in the ties that bind us is an error. Meachem gives many historical examples of how religion or religious beliefs influenced political outcomes. (Lincoln's considerations of God's involvement in the Civil War are most interesting, especially since Lincoln, clearly motivated by spiritual beliefs, belonged to no specific religious denomination.) Meacham makes a useful distinction between how religion, and the values it espouses, was, and continues to be, hugely influential is our polity, while making clear that overt endorsement of religions or religious tenants is beyond what the founders intended. ( )
  stevesmits | Dec 18, 2013 |
As a non-American, it has always been intriguing for me to grasp the understanding of "separation of church and state." The idea seems to mean differently for different people. Does it mean the church should not touch politics? Or, the state should leave religion alone? Or both? There is no doubt that the founding fathers as well as many historic, key political figures found their Christian belief had guided their thoughts and values. I am glad to have read this book. Jon Meacham has made a compelling argument to link Christian belief and the American history. ( )
  Simple.life | Dec 17, 2012 |
"In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book.”–David McCullough, author of 1776 “ HCPL catalog ( )
  vsandham | Dec 17, 2009 |
I went to a discussion group last year where we talked about the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and religion. I wish I had read this book before going, because I would have been more able to defend my case. This book examines the true religious principles that guided the writing of the Constitution.

The basic idea of the book is that religious freedom has always been important in the history of America. The Founding Fathers did not want to eliminate God, or Providence as they often referred to him, completely from public life, but that they felt it best to leave the matter as open as possible, so that each person could define that Providence however they wished. They also designed the Constitution and the Republic to make it more difficult for minorities to control the whole, but also so that they would also be protected.

Meacham does a great job in this book. I found it extremely readable, and certainly relevant. The book is not very long, but it has over 100 pages of appendix, including source notes, bibliography, and selected documents that he quotes in the book. The only thing it lacked was an index, which I would have appreciated.

Still, such a great book. Here is my favorite quote:

"Democracy is easy; republicanism is hard. Democracy is fueled by passion; republicanism is founded on moderation. Democracy is loud, raucous, disorderly; republicanism is quiet, cool, judicious--and that we still live in its light is the Founders' most wondrous deed." ( )
  cmbohn | Jun 13, 2009 |
a good read for the lay person ( )
  Bonpetitepoodle | Oct 24, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812976665, Paperback)

The American Gospel–literally, the good news about America–is that religion shapes our public life without controlling it. In this vivid book, New York Times bestselling author Jon 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, American Gospel draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the fascinating 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 the Revolution to the Civil War; 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.

Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a “wall of separation between church and state,” while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. At the heart of the American experiment lies the God of 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.

Meacham has written and spoken extensively about religion and politics, and he brings historical authority and a sense of hope to the issue. American Gospel makes it compellingly clear that the nation’s best chance of summoning what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding. In looking back, we may find the light to lead us forward.

“In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book.”–David McCullough, author of 1776

“Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life.”–Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation

“An absorbing narrative full of vivid characters and fresh thinking, American Gospel tells how the Founding Fathers–and their successors–struggled with their own religious and political convictions to work out the basic structure for freedom of religion. For me this book was nonstop reading.”–Elaine Pagels, professor of religion, Princeton University, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

“Jon Meacham is one of our country’s most brilliant thinkers about religion’s impact on American society. In this scintillating and provocative book, Meacham reveals the often-hidden influence of religious belief on the Founding Fathers and on later generations of American citizens and leaders up to our own. Today, as we argue more strenuously than ever about the proper place of religion in our politics and the rest of American life, Meacham’s important book should serve as the touchstone of the debate.”
–Michael Beschloss, author of The Conquerors

“At a time when faith and freedom seem increasingly polarized, American Gospel recovers our vital center–the middle ground where, historically, religion and public life strike a delicate balance. Well researched, well written, inspiring, and persuasive, this is a welcome addition to the literature.”–Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University, author of American Judaism: A History


From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:27 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

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.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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