I just finished American Gospel, a fascinating book by Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek magazine. According to the back cover, Meacham’s goal was to “draw upon history to offer a new perspective on God and politics.”
Now, I’m all for “new perspectives.” My own book on marriage is subtitled “Fresh Help and Hope from the Bible.” And I think it’s important that we keep coming back with fresh eyes and new perspectives.
What I didn’t know was Meacham’s conclusion about politics and religion. And I was curious.
First, let me say that I’m not a history buff. It’s not that I don’t know or understand history, but the textbooks just never appealed to me. American Gospel is no textbook.
Though not a novel, either, American Gospel takes us behind the closed doors of the Founding Fathers – their offices, private residences, and congressional meeting halls – directly into their thoughts about God and his place in the great American experiment.
I was brought up believing that America was founded upon Judeo-Christian principles, and that we had gone away from what the Founders had prescribed. The problem is that I couldn’t find that in my own (albeit limited) research. And Meacham proved the same.
The fact is that the Founders all firmly believed that religion was imperative in the American public life in order to promote morality and civility. Indeed, without it, America would be a lost cause.
At the same time they all firmly agreed – and demanded – that the public religion not be a specific or forced religion (whether Christian, Jewish, or anything else). Instead, America as a whole was to allow individual Americans the freedom to believe anything they wanted, including the freedom to believe that there is nothing in which to believe. That is, the public religion was to be held available by all, regardless of each person private faith.
It is a fine line – one that America will try to walk for as long as the American republic exists. The goverment is not to run the church, and the church is not to run the government. Instead, they are to each lead in their unique jurisdictions over and through people.
I highly recommend American Gospel. Meacham carefully and (I believe) accurately both describes and explains this necessary balance that, if we practice it intentionally, can offer America many years of religious-political harmony.