Thursday, September 11, 2008

One Nation, Tolerant of God

Book Review: American Gospel: God, The Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham (Random House, 2006)

Two very different groups of people have lavished attention on the words of the Founding Fathers on the subject of religion, each attempting to justify a pre-determined conclusion about the role of religion in America. On one hand, conservative Christians have wanted to see the Founders as evangelical Christians who saw the founding of America as an explicitly Christian project. On the other hand, secularists have wanted to see the Founders as French philosophes determined to banish all religion from the public square. The truth, according to Jon Meacham, is to be found somewhere in the middle.

Meacham's book is helpful because he really has no axe to grind. Instead, he offers a survey of what he calls America's "public religion" as this can be seen in the policies and rhetoric of American presidents from Washington to Reagan as these have been deployed against the various crises and events of American history. By public religion, Meacham means a general set of convictions about America which are "religious" in nature. Public religion refers not to any discrete religious tradition such as Christianity or Islam but to the conviction that human beings are endowed with an inalienable value and thus have the right to participatory democracy in a society in which the person, property and conscience of each is respected, a society in which each is responsible for the good of all. If this sounds like a vaguely Christian political philosophy, it is. While many Christians may find this philosophy to be shallow (and Meacham acknowledges that many will), it has been the foundation of a unique society, one in which the government is secular (without any religious commitment) but the culture is richly religious. In short, the American public religion has served as a unifying force in America without necessarily requiring particular, religion-specific doctrines. In other words, "God" in the phrases "One Nation Under God" and "In God We Trust" means whatever anyone wants it to mean--it can even mean nothing: "The nation's public religion, then, holds that there is a God, the one Jefferson called the 'Creator' and 'Nature's God' in the Declaration of Independence. The God of public religion made all human beings in his image and endowed them, as Jefferson wrote, with sacred rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...Properly understood the God of public religion is not the God of Abraham or God the Father of the Holy Trinity...Public religion is not a substitute for private religion, nor is it a Trojan horse filled with evangelicals threatening the walls of secular America. It is, rather, a habit of mind and of heart that enables Americans to be at once tolerant and reverent" (pp. 22-23). (Meacham tells us that during his presidency Theodore Roosevelt attempted--unsuccessfully--to have "In God We Trust" removed from the nation's currency because he thought it cheapened the deity.)
If Meacham is correct, it would be wrong to see this public religion as simply empty and cynical. As he shows, Lincoln viewed the ending of the Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt viewed the reform of American society, Franklin Roosevelt viewed the Second World War and Lyndon Johnson viewed civil rights legislation as essentially religious causes and spoke about them as such.
One of the most famous phrases used in the discussion of the relationship between religion and society is Thomas Jefferson's phrase "wall of separation between Church and State" (used first in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut). What does the phrase mean? We understand this phrase today largely in a negative way, taking it to mean that the government should be secular. This is certainly part of what Jefferson himself meant. But, as Meacham shows, it means more. It also means that religion is free to permeate society without government interference. In other words, the Founding Fathers saw separation of church and state as protecting government from religious control and as protecting religion from the corruption of political power. (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had ample opportunity to see plenty of both in Louis XIV's France.) Jefferson's religious freedom statute, passed by the Virginia Legislature in 1786 was not an effort to create a secular society but an effort to remove the establishment of the Anglican Church so as to allow all churches, all religions and no religion to flourish if they could: "For the Founders, religious freedom was not equivalent to a public life free of religion" (p. 80).
The religious direction of the nation could be seen when the new federal Constitution was ratified in 1789. It explicitly barred any religious test for the holding of a federal office. The Bill of Rights, of course, went further limiting the power of Congress; Congress could not establish any religion nor could it restrict the exercise of religion. This was not understood as an effort to keep religion out of the public square but as an effort to create a government which was religiously neutral. The Founding Fathers recognized, that religion played an important role in shaping the character of people, taming selfishness and instilling virtue, and that such shaping was essential to the life of democratic nation.
The Founders were, thus, not intent on creating either a Christian commonwealth nor a purely secular republic but something different: "The great good news about America--the American gospel, if you will, is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. Belief in God is central to the country's experience, yet for the broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the Founding is that the sensible center holds. It does so because the Founders believed themselves at work in the service of both God and man, not just one or the other. Driven by a sense of providence and an acute appreciation of the fallibility of humankind, the created a nation in which religion should not be singled out for special help or particular harm" (p. 5).
In all this I think that Meacham is essentially correct. The main problem that Christians have had in thinking about America is that we have tended to confuse nation with Church, investing the former with the mission and attributes of the latter. America is not a thoroughly Christian enterprise and we should not think that it can be turned into one. We have to guard against the view that God's purpose is to turn the world into a version of America. While our citizenship in this country matters much and while we are obligated to contribute to the common good, America is not the Church and our most important citizenship is not in an earthly kingdom.

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