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

Eight stars

“In God We Trust”, the official motto of the United States of America, emblazoned on places as important as the Supreme Court and as basic as an off-colour Lincoln penny. That simple, but powerful, sentiment fuels Meacham’s exploration of the basis of religion in America, offset by the Founding Fathers’ constitutionally entrenched separation of Church and State. By no means was this division as longstanding as the presence of people in the original colonies, for the early residents had fled England because of religious persecution and organised their settlements with a strong set of Christian beliefs. Meacham tackles discussions by those who attended the Constitutional Conventions, where early ideas of religion and faith within the new America proved somewhat divisive. Some wanted to entrench Christianity in their new country, as it was imbued in all laws and proved to be largely practiced throughout the Thirteen Colonies. However, Thomas Jefferson argued strongly that the country should be a more inclusive and less entrenched nation, possibly tied to his less than stalwart views on a Higher Being. The Founding Fathers knew that the country they sought to create would be one built on tolerance and, while not ridding the state of Christianity, ensured religious openness with the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment. Meacham explores how Washington steered the state through its early years, balancing on this precarious thread, which proved successful. Other presidents handled the religious debate with less aplomb, outwardly espousing the Christian God to save them in their time of need. Of greatest interest is Meacham’s exploration of the three presidents who saw America through the tumultuous war years. Lincoln, whose various speeches sought to steer away from seeking God’s blessing and sought instead to place his trust that the ‘right’ answer would come to pass. Woodrow Wilson and FDR took a more preacher-cum-president approach, seeking Americans to pray for success over their foes and vilifying those who did not fall into line or spoke out against these pleas to the Christian God. One might extrapolate this and look to Bush 43, whose fabrication of facts and declaration of a War on Terror bred xenophobia and a degree of Islamaphobia that still simmers to this day. The American State also had periods where public sentiment clashed with the inherent beliefs of some religious groups, namely acceptance of abortion and the ongoing debate over capital punishment. Meacham effectively argues that America weathered this storm and its leaders, while sometimes left to grit their teeth, never lashed out against all that was going on. These personal beliefs did not bring the country to its knees, nor did it create chaos amongst the masses, some of whom would not have worshiped the same God as their leaders. Meacham looks to the latter part of his book to explore public religion, which differs greatly from the personal tenets that Americans held in their hearts. Acknowledgement of religious holidays (Christmas and Easter), as well as the Judeo-Christian set of legal beliefs are two strong examples of this. These public ideals remove the neutrality that would be required for a complete separation between Church and State, though it does not adversely affect the citizenry, at least to the point of any violation of certain beliefs. This might seem like a minor point, but Meacham makes it nonetheless, wishing to keep all discussions aboveboard. Worthy of a brief mention, Meacham does touch on the judicial branch, which acted as a shepherd in guiding the state through some of its more trying times, ensuing that the First Amendment’s freedoms were never curtailed, but that there was a balance to ensure the greatest cross-section of the population could live free from intrusion. While religion and the state remains a highly divisive issue and one that can spark many concerns, Meacham come to the conclusion that America’s personal gospel is one of acceptance and openness, even when its leaders may seek to push the envelop and subtly turn the country into an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ battle. This is by no means a simple topic to digest, though Meacham has done a brilliant job in educating the masses. 

Having recently completed a book that explored the depths of the First Amendment, I thought it a good idea to take some time to explore this topic. Meacham does a fabulous job in laying out his arguments clearly, with strong examples pulled from history, documents, and documented reports. He takes the entirety of the American political experience and focusses the Church versus State argument through the various political eras without weighing things down with too much information. Meacham’s primary argument or freedom and acceptance flows throughout, while offsetting this with an equally compelling belief that one would have to live under a rock not to see the long-standing Christian values that shine through all laws and speeches made by political leaders. With two hundred and forty years of experience, America’s views have held firm, though history has tossed enough tests into its path to force a few course corrections. But, as with any belief system, a reevaluation is always useful to match the flavour of the times.

Kudos, Mr. Meacham for another stellar political analysis. I wish I could do your work justice with my review. You take on so much and yet make it seem so effortless.