|Originally Aired: June 30, 2006
Author Meacham Writes About Faith and Government
|Author Jon Meacham discusses his book "American Gospel" and the role of religion in American government from the founding fathers to today.
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 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
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
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 a
very young man objected to the idea that there was religious tolerance in the
country, because tolerance presupposes that someone, a majority, is granting a minority
the right to believe something and that that right could then be revoked if
He insisted in the Virginia State Convention on the idea of
religious liberty, the liberty to believe or not believe, to worship or not
worship, liberty of conscience. And it was that idea, I think, which is the central
American 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 time
again is "public religion," Benjamin Franklin's phrase, that is
parsed that goes to much of what you're saying. What did he mean by it? Why was
it so important to you?
JON MEACHAM: Franklin used it
in 1749 when he was laying out a syllabus for what became the University of Pennsylvania. His line was
that public religion had been shown by history to be essential to the
maintenance 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, who
weighed 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 mind
when phrases like "In God we trust," or "God bless America,"
"One nation under God." When that sort of language is used, that's
the God that they were thinking of.
It's not God the father or the holy trinity; it's not the
God of Abraham. But it was this more deistic figure who could, in a way, rise
above the sectarian strife of the day. And really endowed, in many ways, was the
force that endowed us with the fundamental human rights that set us apart, because
that's the God of nature's God and the creator from the Declaration of
JEFFREY BROWN: But it also did not mean, from what you
write, that this is a Christian nation?
JON MEACHAM: By no means. By no means. A Christian nation
is, first, a theological impossibility. Jesus said to Pilate, "My kingdom
is not of this world. If it were of this world, then would my servants
fight." In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author says, "We have no
lasting 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 21st
century talk about, "Well, we are a Christian nation, and if only we could
get back to those origins then all would be well," I think they're making
both a theological and a historical mistake.
Here's one of the reasons it's a historical mistake. In
1790, President Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew congregation at Newport in which he said
that 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 under
his 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 notion
of a public religion does not mean a Christian nation, it also does not mean to
you that there can be a strict separation or wall between church and state?
JON MEACHAM: I think that history tells us that, if there is
a wall between church and state, it is a mighty short one, and it's one that we
can jump back over as we wish. And we always have.
Even the most ferociously separationist presidents, Thomas
Jefferson, the man who brought that phrase back into American public life in
1802, saying there that there's a wall of separation between church and state in
the letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, he went to services in the House
of Representatives. He carried a well-worn prayer book around.
At the end of his life, he said, "Lord, now lettest
thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word."
Remember, the founders were men before they were monuments. These
were human beings working through incredibly complicated, difficult, tangled
times, revolutionary times, literally, as the world seemed to be taking a
different shape than it had before.
Religion's future in government
JEFFREY BROWN: Why then today does it feel so often that the
debate is polarized between, on the one hand, a conservative Christianity, a
so-called conservative Christianity, and a so-called secularism?
JON MEACHAM: Because I think both sides fail to understand
the complications and the complexities of the history we're talking about.
I honestly believe that conservative Christians who believe
we are a Christian nation and that all would be well if we could get back to
those pure origins don't understand the founding and all its complication and nuance.
I also think that secularists, who believe that the
separation of church and state is an absolute value, is something that is
sometimes mistaken to be in the Constitution, don't understand that we're
sitting in a church where George Washington, a complicated religious figure,
came to worship.
So I think that the complications on both sides are such
that they're not particularly comfortable for either side to engage with.
One other possible explanation for the current sense of
crisis and conflict culturally: It's been 40 years since the left had a kind of
golden hour. It's been 40 years since Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act.
It's been 40 years since the high watermark of the Great
Society, and the two presidents the Democratic Party has managed to elect,
President Carter and President Clinton, have not been great liberal hopes, have
not fulfilled great liberal hopes. So, in a way, the left feels it's losing
Interestingly, the right also feels that they're losing. They
feel beleaguered and surrounded. So we have two sides that both think they're
losing, which makes, I think, both sides more agitated, more trigger-happy,
The right went into politics in a serious way after the Roe
decision in 1973 with two central demands: a pro-life amendment to the
Constitution; and a school prayer amendment to the Constitution. Neither has
ever 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 elected
a lot of presidents. We've elected Reagan. We've elected two George Bushes. But
what do we have to show for it?"
JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you look at the sweep of history
from the founding to today, do you feel hope or worry about the continuing
debate over the role of religion?
JON MEACHAM: Both. I'm an Anglican, so both, as always. I do
think that hope will come with an appreciation of history and of the realities
of what our forbearers fought for and fought through.
And I think the key thing about the American experiment has
always 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 "American
Gospel." Jon Meacham, thank you very much.
JON MEACHAM: Thanks, Jeff.