John Meacham’s American Gospel

My friend Truitt Martin (FBC Dawson Sunday School teacher and deacon extraordinaire), handed me John Meacham’s American Gospel earlier this year and told me it would be worth my time to check it out.  Though I had to read it in moments grabbed here and there, I found it enthralling from the get-go and determined early on that this was a book that really needed to be read slowly and carefully.  As I finished it last night, it occured to me that I had just finished a book that deserves one of the better compliments a book can receive:  important.

Meacham’s central thesis (it seems to me) is that “American public religion” as it has been articulated in our founding documents and in the pronouncements of American public officials, honors the existence of God but does not go very far beyond this pronouncement into detailed theology or evangelistic efforts.  Theology and evangelism, as Meacham portrays this public religion, is the job of the church, not of the state.  As such, the freedom of religion clause as well as the idea of a separation of church and state guard against the establishment of a state church (“state religion” being distinct from “public religion”), but the presence of an early and consistent “public religion” (which Meacham documents with aplomb) keeps this separation from growing coldly secular or crudely atheistic.

As such, Meacham says that both the secular left and the religious right are mistaken.  To the secular left Meacham points out, again, the presence of public religion from our nation’s founding.  He would agree with the idea that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom from religion.”  To the religious right Meacham points out that the public religion, while nominally Christian from its inception due to the large numbers of Christians living in the nation at the time of its founding, has nonetheless never asserted itself in the guise of Christian orthodoxy in any consistent way.  In fact, he helpfully documents that the earliest attempts at inserting blatantly Christian language from the beginning have been resisted by both the government and the people of the nation at large.

Meacham readily acknowledges that Christians (and Meacham is one) will find the public religion inherently insufficient due to the fact that it says much less than Christian orthodoxy.  On the other hand, the Christopher Hitchens’ of the world will find the public religion frustrating because it certainly assertsmuch more than atheism is willing to assert.  As such, we find ourselves in a kind of dialectic dance between secularism and theism, and the death or dominance of either partner in the dance, Meacham argues, would ultimately be injurious to the nation as our founders envisioned it (i.e., it would either become starkly secular or theocratic).

It’s a very interesting thesis, and one that I find largely convincing.  As a Baptist who holds to the early Baptist emphasis on religious freedom, I have never envisioned the government as the nation’s “church,” though many Christians almost seem to be saying that they want this to be so.  On the other hand, it is refreshing to see an editor of Newsweek slapping the hands of the rabid secularists who are contributing to what Neuhaus famously called “the naked public square,” or the removal of God from the public square.

The book is very well written, extensively documented, and, in my opinion, quite fair.  As a Christian, I am indeed aware of the severe limitations of “public religion.”  I place no trust in it and it is certainly not the essence of my faith.  What is more, I have no interest in the Church of the Risen Lord refusing to engage and speak truth to the political establishment, including the public religion, with prophetic timeliness under the guise of keeping everything comfortable (nor, I gather, would Meacham).  But as an assesment of the kind of theism that has pervaded the political life of our nation from the beginning, and as an argument for the idea that this was the kind of public religion the founders envisioned for the public square, even as many of their own personal convictions went far beyond this public religion (an important point to make!), and as a warning against secular iconoclasm on the one hand and the naive desire for the establishment of an outright theocracy on the other, the book is a convincing, persuasive, and helpful study that I think anybody would read with great profit.

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