Monday, December 14, 2009

Now Reading: American Gospel.

Greetings, blogosphere. I have returned from my semester's sojourn at college, and my long-awaited First Post of Winter Break is here. And what better thing to post about than books? I love to read, but vastly prefer the reading I do for pleasure to the reading I have to do for class. Something about the analytical papers I have to write and get graded on afterward. Anyway, the first book I picked up this break was Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. Yes, that IS what I read for pleasure. I don't believe that taking a break from classes inherently means taking a break from learning.

Meacham is an excellent writer-- the editor of Newsweek, he has also written biographies like Franklin and Winston and, most recently, a biography of Andrew Jackson called American Lion. The book I just read, American Gospel, takes a historical look at the nature of religion in American public life, from Jamestown to Ronald Reagan. Citing documents written by many of the best-known Founding Fathers and some lesser-known ones, Meacham makes the case for the dominance of America's "public religion" in society-- the one that presidents have invoked since the country's earliest days, but that does not tie itself to any one particular religion. Meacham's core thesis here seems to be respectfully refuting the notion of the "religious right" that America is a Christian nation in its origins. Rather, Meacham writes,
The problem with their reading of history is that it is wrong. There is no doubt, as we have seen, that the Founders lived in and consciously bequeathed a culture shaped and sustained by public religion, one that was not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist but was simply transcendent, with reverence for the "Creator" and for "Nature's God."
To make his case, Meacham references a variety of early American writings, including the First Amendment (of course) and Jefferson's famous "wall of separation" letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, but also Article 11 of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary (which explicitly stated that the government of the United States was not "in any sense founded on the Christian religion") and George Washington's letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport (saying that the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction [and] to persecution no assistance").

The Founding Founders designed the American democratic republic and the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom with the idea that a separation between the church and the state would avoid the religious strife that the rest of the world had experienced. American Gospel is Jon Meacham's call for a return to the roots of American perception of religion, and to the truest interpretation of these viewpoints and intentions.

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