American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham - Used (Acceptable) - 0812976665 by Random House Publishing

“The preservation of American liberty is the most demanding of tasks, requiring unrelenting work and a resilient spirit, but to whom much is given, much is expected.”


(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post to learn more!)

Just over three years ago, eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania lost their lives.  A man who had ties to extremist groups that, among others, held anti-Semitic views allegedly killed them.  That this incident was one of 836 crimes against individuals of the Jewish faith that year.  This fact challenges the value of religious liberty – one’s freedom from persecution – that was an integral element in the roots of American history.  James Madison who, among other contributions, provided the initial draft of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment.  Based on the ideas previously stated in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, he argued for such freedom as a fundamental right, because authentic belief comes only from personal conviction and not by force (Article 1).  Crimes like that which took the lives of the Tree of Life members reveal that even today, not all Americans have religious freedom, even as religion is active in American culture and politics.

In American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham demonstrates that religion has had a very nuanced role within American history.  Following in the contemporary civil religion tradition of Robert Bellah, Meacham acknowledges the presence and influence of faith from the separatist arrival to the present, while clarifying its limits as public and not exclusively Christian.  Consistent with many other analyses on the topic – for example those by professors Amy Black and John Fea – Meacham offers significant evidence that the United States was not founded as a Christian state, but rather by individuals religious beliefs that shaped their views and work – among which was Christianity.  Most importantly, like Tocqueville, he emphasizes the importance of the sovereignty of private religion for each individual as well as ways in which it can contribute constructively to our common life.

Though certainly not reflective of a harsh separation of faith and political life, Meacham does not find support for theocratic or religious nationalist roots in America.  Settlers from the early years came from different religious traditions, which did not always lend to similarity of beliefs and peaceful coexistence (52-54).[1]  Some of the central founding documents, notably the Declaration of Independence and the later Constitution of 1787, were shaped as much by the ideas of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, as they were by theological ones (60-63).  In addition, the use of God’s name and reverence for “divine providence” also reflected the Deist beliefs of some founders – including Jefferson – who did not also necessarily believe in the Christian Trinity (8).  Beyond the First Amendment, other official documents, such as the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, explicitly emphasized that American was “not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” (Article 11, 262 – see full text of the treaty here).  As Meacham notes, religion and politics could not be “hermetically sealed off one from another” as, practically speaking “if the people held religious values, there was no escaping the projection of those values in to the republic (79).  Thus, no “smoking gun” exists either for those who want to wall off religion completely from public life nor for those who have wanted to promote policies that effectively “establish” – or privilege – religion, especially at the expense of the beliefs of others.

Rather than considering the influence of religion on the nature of the state or explicitly its policy, Tocqueville recognized its inevitable impact on society.  The religious beliefs of adherents, he observed, would inherently shape their public views.  “The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions, is to furnish to each of these fundamental questions a solution which is at once clear, precise, intelligible to the mass of mankind, and lasting… if faith be wanting in him, he must serve; and if he be free, he must believe” (Vol II, Chapter V, pars. 4-5).  Faith thus provides a perspective and ethical frame – though history is rife with examples of humans perverting the intent of the ethics for material gain, power and other motives.  Thus, he also cautions against too extensive a display, finding it “peculiarly dangerous to multiply them beyond measure” (par. 10).  In larger part, the danger comes from the potential oppression of those who do not share such beliefs.

Despite this well-documented analysis of the writing of key figures – Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, King and others – Meacham also illustrates the value that religion, when used beneficently, can bring to public life.  First, among the many elements of John Locke’s thought that Jefferson carried forward, was Locke’s view that inalienable rights of nature were God-given (28). Thus, they saw God as the source of popular sovereignty – both in the colonies break with Great Britain, as well as the adoption of not one, but two constitutions.  Second, faith offers a means by which individuals can perceive a common good and develop into virtuous citizens, “a habit of mind and of heart that enables Americans to be at once tolerant and reverent” (23).[2]  It may also serve as a basis in morality reflective of “justice, decency, duty and responsibility” (27). [3]  However, Meacham notes that given competing scriptural arguments over issues like slavery, Lincoln and other leaders recognized the need for not only revelation to discern ethical outcomes (128).  In this way, religion was not a means to force ideas on others, but serve as a guide for one’s individual actions.  It is in this vein that Meacham draws on Tocqueville’s observations and insights.

Tocqueville likewise draws the connection between religion and civic responsibility, showing faith to be a potential curb for the excesses of individualism, one of his central concerns for democracy:

There is no religion which does not place the object of man’s desires above and beyond the treasures of earth, and which does not naturally raise his soul to regions far above those of the senses. Nor is there any which does not impose on man some sort of duties to his kind, and thus draws him at times from the contemplation of himself (Vol II, Chapter V, par 6).

Here Tocqueville captures an essence of civic religion as a social imperative of humanity.  He nonetheless admires the distinction he sees between the religious and political spheres (par. 14).  During his time in America, he did not see strong impulses for the establishment that concerned Madison so. However, Meacham illustrates the shifting beliefs on this subject with the two Great Awakenings (Chapter 3) and the rise of the New Right (Chapter 5).  These movements, among others, have promoted the privilege of Christianity, as well as some theological traditions within it.

Religious liberty has shaped the development of this country, and holds an attraction for individuals who wish to live out their faith.  As Meacham and Tocqueville have both shown, it also has the potential for a positive influence on society.  However, that influence becomes problematic when not all Americans have this right respected.  Comparative ratings of democracy, show the United States with a mixed record on this front.  Theologian Miroslov Volf asserts the importance of responsibly and respectfully engaging one’s faith in the public sphere, emphasizing that it can happen by finding common ground.  For example, the shared scripture of Genesis in the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – ground them all in the value of each person as created in the image of God.  Building from this foundation, differences between the sacred texts and traditions can benefit from “hermeneutic hospitality” – sincere attempts to interact with and understand those with different traditions (136).  Harvard’s Pluralism Project offers resources to learn more about the many traditions across the world and within America and to promote constructive interfaith relations.  Such practice can begin with the respect for religious freedom, especially one’s physical security in its exercise.


[1] Madison expressed this significant concern in Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, stating, “the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” (#3).  However, we should also recognize that no freedom is absolute, nor have they been ruled as such in American history.  Beyond the obvious concerns when the liberty of one or some individuals infringe on the exercise of others, the Supreme Court has established criteria weighing the role of government action with individual liberty.  As part of the strict standard of judicial scrutiny, which includes fundamental rights such as religion, the court has determined that the government must show a “compelling state interest” and that the action must be “narrowly tailored” to achieve that interest.  Moreover, the Lemon test – so named for the case from which it originated – adds further criteria.  Even though the criteria from Lemon have been modified, the result is still a complex relationship between religious exercise and government action.

[2] Hebraic tradition, particularly the Ten Commandments, place emphasis not only on one’s relationship with God, but also with right relationships with others.  For example, the commandment against killing, which varies in its numerical designation depending on tradition, is often interpreted as a call against not only doing harm more generally but also a positive expectation to help others. (See, for example, Luther’s discussion of the Fifth Commandment in his Small Catechism, included in the Book of Concord.)

[3] Meacham also notes that this framing is inclusive of individuals regardless of the source of their “wellspring of that goodwill” whether religious or of other ethical nature (29).


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