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Author Meacham Writes About Faith and Government

June 30, 2006 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: George Washington actually did worship here
at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria,
Virginia. For the first president
of the United States,
as for the other founding fathers, the role of religion in public political
life was a key and often contentious issue.

Just as it as has remained ever since, down to our debates
over the teaching of evolution; prayer in school; marriage, the beginning and
the end of life; not to mention issues of war and peace for another president named
George.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Freedom is the
almighty God’s gift to every person, every man and women who lives in this
world.

JEFFREY BROWN: A new book, “American Gospel: God, the
Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation,” explores this embattled
history. Its author, Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek magazine, follows
the path from the compromises and decisions made more than 200 years ago to the
divide between the Christian right and liberal secularism today.

He joined us recently for a conversation at Christ Church.

Your chapter on the Continental Congress, 1774, begins,
“Their first fight was over faith.”

JON MEACHAM, Author: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: The founding fathers were, in fact, a diverse
lot when it came to their religious views, right?

JON MEACHAM: They were. They were Quakers; they were
puritans; they are Episcopalians; they were Deists; they were agnostics. In Tom
Paine’s case, he was a Deist who was later seen as an atheist.

These were men who had very diverse views, even within the
traditions that they might represent, they might come out of. And I think one
of the most important thing about them is they saw in their diversity that there
was strength there, that there was something in the fact that so many of them
thought in many different ways about God, and destiny, and man, and the rights
of man, that ultimately, in that diversity, would come a kind of strength that
was not part of the old world, was not part of the world that they were
leaving, and they wanted to be part of the world that they were beginning over
again.

Defining religion in America

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you define what they came up with,how they resolved these differences?

JON MEACHAM: It's not tolerance. James Madison, who as avery young man objected to the idea that there was religious tolerance in thecountry, because tolerance presupposes that someone, a majority, is granting a minoritythe right to believe something and that that right could then be revoked ifneed be.

He insisted in the Virginia State Convention on the idea ofreligious liberty, the liberty to believe or not believe, to worship or notworship, liberty of conscience. And it was that idea, I think, which is the centralAmerican insight that religion is hugely important in the life of the nation,but it has to be a matter of individual conscience.

JEFFREY BROWN: The key phrase that comes up time and timeagain is "public religion," Benjamin Franklin's phrase, that isparsed that goes to much of what you're saying. What did he mean by it? Why wasit so important to you?

JON MEACHAM: Franklin used itin 1749 when he was laying out a syllabus for what became the University of Pennsylvania. His line wasthat public religion had been shown by history to be essential to themaintenance of morality of people and of governments.

His sense of public religion, the God of public religion,was that there was a creator God, a god who was attentive to history, whoweighed prayers, who would judge us in a later life for our conduct in this.

This was the God, I believe, that the founders had in mindwhen phrases like "In God we trust," or "God bless America,""One nation under God." When that sort of language is used, that'sthe God that they were thinking of.

It's not God the father or the holy trinity; it's not theGod of Abraham. But it was this more deistic figure who could, in a way, riseabove the sectarian strife of the day. And really endowed, in many ways, was theforce that endowed us with the fundamental human rights that set us apart, becausethat's the God of nature's God and the creator from the Declaration ofIndependence.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it also did not mean, from what youwrite, that this is a Christian nation?

JON MEACHAM: By no means. By no means. A Christian nationis, first, a theological impossibility. Jesus said to Pilate, "My kingdomis not of this world. If it were of this world, then would my servantsfight." In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author says, "We have nolasting city but seek the city which is to come." The psalm that says,"Put not thy trust in princes."

So when particularly evangelical Christians of the 21stcentury talk about, "Well, we are a Christian nation, and if only we couldget back to those origins then all would be well," I think they're makingboth a theological and a historical mistake.

Here's one of the reasons it's a historical mistake. In1790, President Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew congregation at Newport in which he saidthat tolerance -- we no longer spoke of tolerance in this land but of liberty,and that we are not founded on any sectarian faith. Every man should sit underhis own vine and fig tree, an image from Micah, and none shall make him afraid.

JEFFREY BROWN: So if, on the one hand, though, this notionof a public religion does not mean a Christian nation, it also does not mean toyou that there can be a strict separation or wall between church and state?

JON MEACHAM: I think that history tells us that, if there isa wall between church and state, it is a mighty short one, and it's one that wecan jump back over as we wish. And we always have.

Even the most ferociously separationist presidents, ThomasJefferson, the man who brought that phrase back into American public life in1802, saying there that there's a wall of separation between church and state inthe letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, he went to services in the Houseof Representatives. He carried a well-worn prayer book around.

At the end of his life, he said, "Lord, now lettestthou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word."

Remember, the founders were men before they were monuments. Thesewere human beings working through incredibly complicated, difficult, tangledtimes, revolutionary times, literally, as the world seemed to be taking adifferent shape than it had before.

Religion's future in government

JEFFREY BROWN: Why then today does it feel so often that thedebate is polarized between, on the one hand, a conservative Christianity, aso-called conservative Christianity, and a so-called secularism?

JON MEACHAM: Because I think both sides fail to understandthe complications and the complexities of the history we're talking about.

I honestly believe that conservative Christians who believewe are a Christian nation and that all would be well if we could get back tothose pure origins don't understand the founding and all its complication and nuance.

I also think that secularists, who believe that theseparation of church and state is an absolute value, is something that issometimes mistaken to be in the Constitution, don't understand that we'resitting in a church where George Washington, a complicated religious figure,came to worship.

So I think that the complications on both sides are suchthat they're not particularly comfortable for either side to engage with.

One other possible explanation for the current sense ofcrisis and conflict culturally: It's been 40 years since the left had a kind ofgolden hour. It's been 40 years since Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act.

It's been 40 years since the high watermark of the GreatSociety, and the two presidents the Democratic Party has managed to elect,President Carter and President Clinton, have not been great liberal hopes, havenot fulfilled great liberal hopes. So, in a way, the left feels it's losingground.

Interestingly, the right also feels that they're losing. Theyfeel beleaguered and surrounded. So we have two sides that both think they'relosing, which makes, I think, both sides more agitated, more trigger-happy,frankly.

The right went into politics in a serious way after the Roedecision in 1973 with two central demands: a pro-life amendment to theConstitution; and a school prayer amendment to the Constitution. Neither hasever remotely come close to passing.

And so they look around and they try to figure out,"Well, what have we gotten for this 35-year journey of ours? We've electeda lot of presidents. We've elected Reagan. We've elected two George Bushes. Butwhat do we have to show for it?"

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you look at the sweep of historyfrom the founding to today, do you feel hope or worry about the continuingdebate over the role of religion?

JON MEACHAM: Both. I'm an Anglican, so both, as always. I dothink that hope will come with an appreciation of history and of the realitiesof what our forbearers fought for and fought through.

And I think the key thing about the American experiment hasalways been that we are a work in progress, that everybody at the founding,virtually everybody, understood that this was going to require a great deal of maintenance,a great deal of pruning, and tweaking, and fixing.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "AmericanGospel." Jon Meacham, thank you very much.

JON MEACHAM: Thanks, Jeff.