The Enlightened Republic
God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation
By Jon Meacham
Random House. 399 pp. $23.95
No change introduced by the American Revolution was more surprising at the time -- or has caused more continuing controversy -- than its redefinition of the complex relationship of churches, religious faith and the civil state. In his brief but thoughtful new book, Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, explores the founding generation's "original understanding" of that issue and its longtime impact on American public life. The subject, he says, repays close study because the Founders lived in a time like ours, full of "divisive arguments about God and politics," and they still "found a way to honor religion's place in the life of the nation while giving people the freedom to believe as they wish."
American Gospel is hard to classify. Although it consists of chapters on successive periods in America's religious past, from the first colonies through the Reagan presidency, and includes some 112 pages of notes and bibliography, the book is not, as Meacham himself notes, a work of historical scholarship. In fact, it is too short to tell the story of religion in American public life in anything but a highly selective way. American Gospel is probably best described as an extended historical essay that celebrates "the wisdom of the Founders."
That wisdom, for Meacham, began with a decision to end official state churches and the practice of "toleration," a privilege that exempted some -- but not all -- religious dissenters from the obligation to support an established church and various legal disadvantages imposed on nonconformists. Instead, the American Revolution introduced a more radical form of religious freedom, based on the existence of a natural right to freedom of thought that could be denied to nobody.
In dividing church from state, Meacham claims, the Founders did not take religion out of politics. Rather, they respected religion's usefulness as a support for moral behavior and inaugurated a form of "public religion" (the phrase came from Benjamin Franklin) that can be seen in political documents and rhetoric that express a generic, nonsectarian form of faith. The basic text of that "public religion," Meacham argues, is the Declaration of Independence, with its references (supplied by Jefferson) to "Nature's God" and a "Creator" who endowed all men with "certain unalienable Rights." Because " 'Nature's God' resides at the center of the Founding," Meacham endorses Dwight D. Eisenhower's contention that "our form of government is founded on religion." Whether that was what Jefferson intended almost doesn't matter. Meacham has no difficulty establishing the frequency with which American leaders over the centuries have cited God. The adoption of "In God We Trust" as a national motto and the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance are, to him, simply "signs of a vital public religion."
But Jefferson's references were not to Christ, and Meacham argues that claims that the United States is a "Christian nation" are based on "wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument." He cites Washington's famous 1790 letter to the Jewish community in Newport, R.I., which said that America "gives . . . bigotry no sanction," as well as a far less well known provision in a 1797 treaty with Muslim Tripoli that declared, "The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion." Efforts to introduce references to Christ and Christianity into the Constitution have always failed -- a tribute, Meacham writes, to the Constitution's "checks on extremism" and another example of "the wisdom of the Founders."
But who exactly were these wise and prescient Founders who paved a middle road between religious extremism and total secularism? Meacham focuses on the "political leadership of the new nation" and mentions several of the usual suspects -- including Franklin, John Jay, John and Samuel Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and Washington -- as if their views on religion and the role of the state were virtually identical.
The book begins and ends with Jefferson, who, along with Madison, led the fight to separate church and state in Virginia, where the new, radical form of religious freedom was first written into law. But Virginia was not the United States. Six states still had state-supported churches in 1789, and four others excluded non-Christians or non-Protestants from public office. Pennsylvania's 1776 constitution, for example, protected the civil rights of everyone "who acknowledges the being of a God" (i.e., no atheists need apply), then required legislators to swear that both testaments of the Bible were the revealed word of God (which, in effect, excluded non-Christians). North Carolina was much the same. Massachusetts required its governor to swear he was Christian.
Inevitably, state practices affected national politics. The First Amendment provision that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" was designed at least in part to protect state religious establishments from congressional interference. Far from the capacious provision that Meacham describes, this clause was weaker than the amendments Madison proposed on June 8, 1789, which would have limited not only Congress but also the states from violating "the equal rights of conscience."
The point is that "the Founding" was a complex event, and melting "the Founders" into a single, quasi-religious repository of wisdom ignores conflicts present from the beginning. On the other hand, over time state religious establishments collapsed, laws that imposed religious disabilities disappeared, and the Virginia precedent triumphed. That state's landmark Statute of Religious Freedom (1786), which Jefferson wrote, provides substantial support for Meacham's novel argument about "public religion." Starting with its stirring first phrase, "Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free," it condemns all efforts by the state to interfere with religious convictions as "a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion." Madison's companion "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" to the Virginia General Assembly makes a powerful case for the total separation of church and state -- then ends with a prayer!
Strangely, Meacham never discusses the major difference between "divisive arguments about God and politics" in the late 18th century and today. Then, unlike now, evangelical Christians such as the Baptist leader Isaac Backus were strong supporters of separating church and state. They had experienced the oppressive hand of the state and accepted the Virginia Statute's argument that God's truth would "prevail if left to herself." Perhaps it's their wisdom we need most to recall. Without state support, religion thrived in the United States, which is today the most religious nation in the Western world. The vitality of Americans' religious faith explains the persistence of a "public religion" that continues to trouble unbelievers and secular thinkers. From a believer's perspective, however, it's hard to understand why anyone would alter a system that has served so well the cause of religion by honoring humanity's God-given freedom of thought.
And that, in the end, is Meacham's point. ·
Pauline Maier is a professor of American history at MIT and the author of "American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence."