Friday, June 29, 2007

Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual: Jon Meacham, author of "American Gospel:God, The Founding Fathers, And The Making Of A Nation", Part I

Last Friday, while the rest of my family dined out on Mexican cuisine, I consumed not a frozen dinner, but a can of ravioli and then began Jon Meacham's "American Gospel." I read the first hundred pages covering Colonial America and the Revolution. Meacham seeks to set before readers the role Christianity played in the foundation and development of the United States.

Meacam provides a quote from Benjamin Rush concerning the origins of the Constitution and the founding of the nation. To me, it is the best summary of the facts coming from an avowedly orthodox Christian: "I don't believe that the Constitution was the offspring of inspiration, but I am perfectly satisfied that the union of the states, in its form and adoption, is as much the work of divine providence as any of the miracles recorded in the old and new testaments were the effects of divine power. 'Tis done! We have become a nation." While I strongly believe that this nation was created by God for a special purpose, and has been used by God for the spreading of His Word, I do not hold the position that this nation was or is a Christian nation. Jesus stated in Matthew 7:13 that very few enter the narrow gate. This verse is a strong indication to me that there is no such thing as a Christian nation. Maybe for you that is too simplistic. Perhaps it is. Maybe I am considering the subject from the wrong vantage point. While not all our Founding Fathers were orthodox Christians, much of their philosophy that guided the founding is rooted in a Christian world view. Even parts of John Locke's work, which influenced Jefferson, was a secularized version of Puritan Samuel Rutherford's "Lex Rex" (Law Is King). This is amply demonstrated by Francis Schaeffer in his book "How Shall We Now Live." I doubt Meacham is aware of that fact. Yet he does point out that the Founders' Enlightenment thinking was greatly leavened by Christianity.

Meacham attempts to steer a middle course between Christian and secularist views while laying before the reader the Founders' great achievement in regards to the place religious freedom has occupied in America. In Jefferson and Madison's fight for Virginia to adopt the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, religion was taken away from the realm of legislative grace, or government toleration, which could be extended or withdrawn. Religious freedom was made an inalienable right for all men and women. And this freedom of conscience was given to all religions, not just Christianity. This eventually became the thinking of the nation as a whole. The negative historical experience of state-run churches, or church-run states led the Fathers to create a climate of religious liberty.

Because Meacham did not have the space for an exhaustive historical study, he had to engage in a good deal of generalization. The inevitable result being that Meacham makes broad statements when the truth is a little more nuanced. This is clearly seen in his portrayal of individual Founding Fathers. Washington is likened to an Enlightenment thinker along the lines of Jefferson. The credible evidence that Washington was indeed an orthodox Christian is dismissed as myth. Meaham also mistakenly claims that John Adams was a Unitarian his whole adult life when the truth is he was an orthodox Christian until he changed late in life. Franklin and Jefferson are portrayed accurately. Yet in the case of Jefferson, there is need to be more nuanced when describing him. Jefferson certainly was not an orthodox Christian. He rejected the Trinity and rewrote the New Testament to suit himself. Yet he was no avowed enemy of Christianity. Indeed, he saw the contribution Christianity has made in culture and in daily life. When Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, he created a school for religious studies. He believed that a state run institution could promote religion in general so long as no specific creed was forced upon unwilling consciences. Yet he knew that Christianity would be the dominant position taught. So much for the modern interpretation of the wall between church and state. And consider this. Meacham mentions the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This act of the Continental Congress laid out the steps by which territories may become states. The act stated that no one would be legally persecuted for their own religious beliefs and practices. Meacham gives a quotes from the act, yet I am not sure he realizes the implications of the quote in the debate concerning the separation of church and state: "Religion, morality,and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Schools should teach religion, morality, and good government. By religion, most if not all involved in passing the legislation meant the Christian religion. In other words, the promotion of religion (Christianity) was mandated by the Federal Government!

In his chapter on the Colonial era, Meacham is right to point out that while the Pilgrims and Puritans came to North America to worship God in their own way, they denied that privilege to others, even executing those who did not conform. To make his valid point that the Founding Fathers looked on the example of Colonial America as a model not to follow, Meacham necessarily focuses on the negative. And there was a dark side to pre-revolutionary history, including slavery. Yet the overall portrait he paints is overly one-sided. He is too much influenced by negative stereotypes regarding our colonial forebears. It is interesting that Meacham singles out an incident during the Pilgrims' crossing as a condemnation of them as religious zealots. The source is William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation." The passengers fell ill and were thought to be dying. (Meacham describes their ailment as just sea-sickness.) One young sailor taunted the sick who thought their demise was imminent. Using foul language, he told them that he would throw their bodies overboard and take all their possessions. (Meacham merely describes this sailor as a difficult young man.) The irony was that the only one who died was the young sailor, whose own body was tossed overboard. Meacham describes Bradford's reaction as a gleeful expression of revenge couched in religious terms. This is not so. I first read this account in high school an it made a great impression on me that the God I was ignoring was not one to trifle with. God is being extolled as a holy God who punishes sin. He does not always reveal Himself in reassuring ways. It is interesting to note that Meacham makes the statement that to believe God punishes disobedience is a danger for democracy. He writes "If a community (or a nation) is dominated by the idea that God specifically punishes sinners and the milieu in which they live, then it is all too easy for that community (or a nation) to demand absolute adherence to certain moral codes on the grounds that the well being of all is dependent on the personal conduct of the individual." It appears that Mr. Meacham views God as one who does not mean what he says about sin. A real knowledge of our own history demonstrates that not even the most unorthodox of our Founding Fathers subscribed to such a view. Even Jefferson believed that God punishes wickedness. Before his death, he wrote concerning slavery that he trembled when he remembered that God is just.

Here is how Meacham expresses the value of religion in American life: "So is religion in America a necessary evil, or can it be a positive force for good? Taken in all, I think history teaches that the benefits of faith in God have outweighed the costs." So Meacham thinks religion is good for America. Good. But elsewhere he writes that it might not be the best thing to fight for Christian values in the public square or to be too aggressive in trying to convert those who hold different beliefs. He writes: "While a biblical case can be made for aggressive evangelization in public and private life, scripture also teaches that believers are to practice charity toward all." My question to the author is this: Is there a contradiction between evangelization and charity? In his footnote on pages 288-289 (in the paperback edition), the fight to prevent the removal of Christianity from the public square is labeled as an effort by extremists who do not understand that God wants us to love everyone.

Meacham is right in stating that not all the Founding Fathers were orthodox believers of the Christian faith. For instance, when God was referred to in the Declaration of Independence, it was not the Trinitarian God Jefferson was thinking about. Yet it is most likely that when ordinary Americans read or heard the Declaration, it was the God of the Bible they were thinking about. When one explores the role Christianity played in the founding of the United States, one cannot just look at the religious beliefs of the Founders alone. Ordinary citizens were also actors in this drama. It was to them as well as the entire world that the Founders addressed themselves. If private citizens were not convinced that Divine Providence was behind the foundation of this new nation, then this nation would not exist in its present form today. And while Americans have allowed religious pluralism to flourish, it was not the "Public Religion" as extolled by Meacham that sustained them through the crises the United States has undergone over more than two centuries.

Part two of my consideration of "The American Gospel" will cover the next one hundred pages which deals with the Civil War and slavery.

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