Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The American Gospel by Jon Meacham

I read The American Gospel by Jon Meacham, who is the chief editor of Newsweek, because of his media blitz. I saw him on everything from Tim Russert to the Colbert Report. The premise of the book is America has always had its own gospel, a religious center that allowed public religion (ie. invoking God), but favored no religion. Meacham proclaims that America is not a Christian nation, and that freedom and liberty ruled the founders not Christianity. The book reports to prove this theory. Sadly it fails on many fronts. It fails so bad in fact, I have to say it was an absolutely awful book. My major critics of this book fall into several major categories.

Stylistic: This book is written in a halting style. He has a new topic or a new time period or person to deal with every four paragraphs or so and he chooses sub-chapter divisions to show this change. It also leads to very little connection between this sub-chapters. So much so in fact that the thesis of the book is sometimes lost, and one has to look back in the book to see what the point this disconnected stories are supposed to be proving. Perhaps this is the best way to deal with such a vast time period, but I did not enjoy it. I will admit this may simply be a preference of mine to enjoy connected paragraphs, but it is still my preference.

Scholarship: It is one thing to pile up examples that you think prove your point, but anyone can do it. The question is can you deal with the examples that do not fit your model. Of course Meacham loves to quote Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin. He has some quotes from Madison and Adams, and as history progresses he gets more ammo. He does a good job of making Jerry Fawell look like an idiot, but not once does he deal with contrary evidence. One can easily find quotes from Deists who think America is not a Christian nation, but what about those who thought it was a Christian nation. Thomas Jefferson may support his argument, but what about Patrick Henry or Samuel Adams? How do they fit in? It is fine to quote Jefferson’s Religious Freedom Statute in Virginia or a Treaty with Tripoli, but what Holy Trinity Church v United States or public days of prayer and thanksgiving or chaplains in Congress, or state churches that existed long after the First Amendment. Meachem does not deal with these things at all. Not once does he take on what one might call evidence for the Christian heritage of the nation. That is poor scholarship in my opinion.

Theological: It is often a bad sign when non-Christians start writing about Christianity. If they do not understand it, can you trust their conclusions? I do not know the religious standing of Mr. Meacham, but he did make a few off hand comments about the ‘myth’ of sin and redemption that leads one to think he does not highly esteem Christianity. He makes a fundamental mistake, in my opinion, when evaluating our nations history. He does not understand the difference between a country founded on Christian principles and a Theocracy. He thinks Christian nation is a synonym for Established Church. That is not the case. Meacham wastes countless pages juxtaposing religious liberty and a Christian nation never stopping to consider that maybe a Christian nation is the foundation for religious liberty. I would argue that is what the Declaration of Independence is claiming when it invokes God and says ‘liberty’ is an inalienable right. Meacham comes away thinking the phrase liberty is there to protect us from Christianity. Meacham quotes Alexander Hamilton who states, “morality must fall without religion”, but fails to connect the dots. Meacham thinks all religions are acceptable standards of morality, and the founders wanted it that way. Yet, the morality of the Christian religion conflicts in many areas with the morality of Islam. Islam sees many times when it is okay to kill innocent people, but there is not a state in the Union that allows that morality. I have no doubt the founders wanted Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live together in a new nation, but that does not mean they were indifferent about the moral system used to set up our country, or that at some point ‘smiting infidels on the neck’ would be deemed acceptable behavior because any moral system will do. The vast majority of Meacham’s arguments and proofs are proof that the founders did not want Congress to establish a state church, and have very little to do with modern debates about the morality of homosexuality, abortion, and prayer in schools.

Political: I am not a big fan of modern conservatives, but in the later chapters of the book Meacham comes across as a man with an ax to grind. He praises Billy Graham’s inclusive move in his later years, and vilifies Jerry Fawell. I mean he does not waste an opportunity to jump on Jerry or Pat Robertson. I do not care for them that much either, but those two men do little to advance the cause of his book. Besides he has a hard time wiggling out of the conflict that he creates after praising Martin Luther King Jr., and criticizing Fawell.

In the end, I disagree with Meacham’s conclusions. I feel he did not interact with any evidence that might make his case look bad, and I think it was a slow read without much bang for the buck. It saddens me to think that he is being considered a scholar and speaking authoritatively on the subject on talk shows.


andreapowell said...

Great review! Thanks, Lee.

Ben Craven said...

you're an idiot... obviously you are religious, and did not like Meacham putting your religion down. However, America WAS NOT founded as a Christian Nation in fact most of the Founding Fathers were more of Deists than they were Christians. a reference to "Nature's God" or "the God of public religion" doesn't mean the Christian God specifically. Also, for someone who is criticizing the writing style of Meacham, your writing style seems comparable to that of the "members" of the Westboro Baptist Church. But obviously you seem to think that you know more than someone that needed to do research to write a book (whereas you are just making claims of personal belief). Entitlement must be nice...