The National Catholic Review
R. Bentley Anderson

Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek and author of the bestselling book Franklin and Winston, states in American Gospel that the United States of America is not a Christian nation; that is, it was not founded as a confessional state. Rather, the United States is a nation that allows for religious pluralism, including those who do not believe in a transcendent being. He challenges the common notion of the role religion has played in the history of the nation, specifically by those promoting a particular interpretation of our religious history for social and political purposes.

American notions concerning religious freedom and liberty, Meacham argues, have allowed its citizens to worship as they please, without falling into sectarian discord and violence. This balance between liberty and belief has served us well these past 230 years, he observes, and it is this understanding that needs to be recovered and reclaimed in the present contentious political climate.

The United States is not a godless nation—far from it. It is a land of believers, and the country has a “public religion” (Benjamin Franklin’s term) with its own deity, understood as the “Creator” and “Nature’s God”—the God of the Declaration of Independence. This notion of a public religion is not, as Meacham points out, “a substitute for private religion”; rather, it allows Americans “to be at once tolerant and reverent” of one another and each one’s particular beliefs and to focus on the “sacred origins of individual rights, the virtue of the populace...and the American sense of duty to defend freedom.” It is these principles and rights that are the nation’s vital core.

One focus of this book is the religious deconstruction of such American icons as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Though not traditional believers, these figures nevertheless guided this country through some of the most perilous periods in its history. Had there been a litmus test of religious or ecclesiastical orthodoxy, neither Jefferson nor Franklin would have been elected to the Continental Congress, nor Lincoln to the U.S. Congress.

Citing philosophers and politicians, as well as preachers and presidents, Meacham examines the religious rhetoric of our nation’s leaders. What he discovers is their use of religious language to lead the nation toward its fulfillment as a democratic nation. From the War for Independence, through the Civil War and World War II, to the civil rights movement, American leaders have called on the “Almighty,” “Nature’s God” or their “Creator” to provide guidance, protection and, ultimately, freedom.

Another focus of American Gospel is an examination of the First Amendment, which does not allow the government to promote any one faith or belief system over another, thus ensuring religious liberty. Meacham examines the development of this amendment and the principles behind it from colonial times through the early Republic and beyond. Had there been a Protestant confessional test, John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would never have become president of the United States. William Howard Taft, a Unitarian, would also have been barred; and Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, would never have been Al Gore’s running mate. The irony of our present times, Meacham states, is that those groups who today decry the separation of church and state (e.g., bans on school prayer, Nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments) were the people most responsible for this development. They, after all, had promoted separation against Roman Catholics, who sought federal funding for parochial schools because of Protestant bias in public schools.

American Gospel forces Americans to acknowledge that the United States of America was not founded as a Christian nation. Nevertheless, Meacham points out, fundamentalists of various backgrounds are trying to convince the general public that it was and that the country has lost its way because it has abandoned its Christian roots. Return to God, they claim, and America will be strong again. This false reading of our country’s history is enabling individuals and groups to seek to impose on the body politic particular moral stances—be they against gay rights, legalized abortion or right-to-die laws—all because these laws are against the precepts of God. But Meacham fails to examine other arguments put forth by those opposing the acceptance of these practices that are not based on religious precepts.

Resolution of controversial and emotionally charged issues will never be easy. Faith, politics, religion and political life will continue to present their own dilemmas, Meacham points out, and resolving them will call for “collective cultural consensus” based on religious and secular interaction. “Respect religion, hear it out, learn from it,” he concludes, “then let the work of the country unfold as the parties to the republican contract—the Constitution—will have it.”

Meacham has written a cautionary tale. Unlike George Santayana’s maxim that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Meacham warns Americans to recall their past in order not to be abused by it. American Gospel presents a sweeping narrative of religion and politics in American history. This is not a scholarly book, Meacham admits, but he does draw from historical and theological traditions to produce a work that all Americans should read, especially as we enter another election cycle and look down the road to 2008, when the people of the United States may elect its first Mormon president.

R. Bentley Anderson, S.J., is an assistant professor of history at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.