American Gospel by Jon Meacham

Cover of "American Gospel: God, the Found...

I will confess to not being a big fan of the radio. I try sports radio and NPR on occasion, and sometimes flip around between music stations, but for the most part much prefer choosing my own music (Spotify and Pandora being two ways I do that online). I have enjoyed books on CD in the past but often balk at the cost (they are not cheap). So when I stumble on intriguing topics (like Barnes & Nobles discontinued Portable Professor series or Drive to Learn) or books I pick them up.

I picked up American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham at a Friends of the Library sale. I started listening to it on CD but then had to switch to Audible when the CDs were scratched beyond repair (the danger of paying $2).

In this book, Jon Meacham tells the human story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.” Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a “wall of separation between church and state,” while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. American Gospel makes it clear that the nation’s best chance of summoning what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding.

I enjoyed it and thought it was very well done. And I have to say that I agree with him on the big picture. The relationship of church and state in this country is a matter of balance not a clear black and white line drawn with precision and clarity.

One of the challenges of listening to a book rather than read it is that taking notes gets a little more complicated. With a non-fiction book of this type I would generally attempt to note important or particularly insightful passages which would then help me construct a more informed, or at least sourced, review.

Alas, having listened to this book in the car I don’t have any notes at hand but only my recollections of having listened. So herewith, said recollections.

One of the things I liked about the book was how Meacham let the words of key political figures drive the story. Listening to it, I felt like Meacham really let critical figures in this debate, and key participants, speak for themselves. He connected their thoughts and opinions in this area of culture, law and jurisprudence and uses them to flush out the issues while at the same time showing a key thread of consensus that runs through American history. You can argue about whether that thread really exists or if Meacham is creating it by artificially highlighting key events and figures but it successfully brings important issues into relief for discussion and debate.

As the summary above indicates, Meacham argues that American history suggests that neither “completely and utterly secular” or “Christian Nation” work as history or a guide for the future. Instead, what has worked, and will work according to Meacham, is an often awkward balance between piety and public religion that can appeal to a wide swath of America and a strong commitment to the rights of minority opinion and groups.

Meacham argues that this balance grew out of the experience and philosophy of the founders and developed as America’s most important thinkers, writers and statesman practiced and refined this balance. When we have strayed from that balance, however, strife and problems have arisen. Meacham argues that there is a center that can and should hold on this topic.

This is in some sense an over-simplification, of course. History is messy and contingent and rarely can be corralled into such a clear outline without some violence to experience. But it is worth it for some clarity and for some much-needed common ground.

For those interested in this topic, American Gospel provides a great introduction and useful argument to engage and wrestle with. Highly recommended.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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