When I read the riveting prose of "American Gospel" my second thought was, "This is sure to infuriate diehards on both sides of the "religion in America" debate. If Amazon reviews are any indication, my second thought was correct. Fortunately, "experts" on "both sides" such as David McCullough and Elaine Pagels, hardly naive historians, offer a more balanced assessment.
My first thought? "God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation" is a well-written and well-research summation of a long-debated and still needed topic. The author, Jon Meacham, is an established writer (BA in English Literature, managing editor of Newsweek) and historian ("Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship").
In "American Gospel" Meacham avoids the extreme that every founding father was an atheist or deist, and the extreme that every founding father was a Christian. More importantly, what he quotes (and he uses a plethora of primary sources) he quotes in context--both the historical context and the documents context. Many of the quotes are well-established in the debate about our religious history. His work sheds new light on them.
His book will serve as a launching pad for continued debate on the place of religion in American society, in particular, in government, law, and politics. It certainly won't end the debate, but it has the potential to make it more intelligent. For this reason, and because the writing is tight, creative, and imaginative, "American Gospel" is a must read for all history buffs and politicians.
Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction," "Soul Physicians," "Spiritual Friends," and the forthcoming "Sacred Friendships: Listening to the Voices of Women Soul Care-Givers and Spiritual Directors."
Meacham is managing editor of Newsweek, and subsequently it is perhaps not surprising that this reads like nothing so much as an extended news-magazine op-ed piece--vaguely pluralistic, moderately researched, mostly meatless middle-of-the-road pseudo-philosophical claptrap. Extensive additional quoting and analysis in the end notes appears to be either unneeded padding or undigested parts of the argument that should have been thought through and incorporated in the body of the book.
In a time when discussions on religon and politics has split America in half; Jon Meachem has taken the high rode and explains how, to some extent, everyone is right. Religon was expected to play a vital role in the day-to-day life of America, but that religon was a central focus on God and not to one particular religon. Meachem is masterful in bringing out the arguments in how the Founding Fathers wanted God to be a unifying focus of our lives, but were able to avoid the … more
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Historian and Newsweek editor Meacham's third book examines over 200 years of American history in its quest to prove the idea of religious tolerance, along with the separation of church and state, is "perhaps the most brilliant American success." Meacham's principal focus is on the founding fathers, and his insights into the religious leanings of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Co. present a new way of considering the government they created. So it is that the religious right's attempts to reshape the Constitution and Declaration of Independence into advocating a state religion of Christianity are at odds with the spirit of religious freedom ("Our minds and hearts, as Jefferson wrote, are free to believe everything or nothing at all-and it is our duty to protect and perpetuate this sacred culture of freedom"). Meacham also argues for the presence of a public religion, as exemplified by the national motto, "In God We Trust," and other religious statements that can be found on currency, in governmental papers and in politicians' speeches. Subsequent chapters consider a wartime FDR and a Reagan who grew increasingly enamored of Armageddon. All are well-written, but none reach the immediacy and vigor of the chapters on the nation's birth. Two extensive appendices reprint early government documents and each president's inaugural bible verses. Meacham's remarkable grasp of the intricacies and achievements of a nascent nation is well worth the cover price, though his consideration of...