Wednesday, July 11, 2007

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

Last Friday at four o'clock in the afternoon, I sat on my parents' front porch and finished the last fifty pages of "American Gospel." Then I went in for a supper consisting of turkey and gravy, cream corn and whole wheat bread. You might think from my previous entries that when I am home my family dines out every Friday. Well, this Friday we did not. We dined out on Thursday. I ate Malaysian.

The end of the book recounts the struggle for Civil Rights, focusing on Martin Luther King, and the rise of the religious right. It made enjoyable reading; I read through it pretty fast. Part III of this review will contain arguments contained in the first two parts, yet I feel it is important to revisit them one last time.

Meacham is right. In creating our government, our Founding Fathers created a secular state. The Founders created a nation where all may worship God according to their own conscience. At the same time, as Meacham points out, it was not the Founders' intent that religion should be excluded as a means of influence in public affairs. Because Meacham does such a good job in pointing this out is probably the reason his book has received praise from Evangelical Christians. Yet there are statements made by the author that should cause Evangelical Christians to question what Meacham refers to as "The Public Religion."

The book quotes King speaking at the Washington National Cathedral four days before his death. "America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor...One day we will have to stand before the God of history..." Then Meacham comments:"At the heart of his sermon was the religious idea of ultimate judgement-that we are not only moral agents on earth who should be kind and generous for the sake of being kind and generous but if we are not, we will face a reckoning beyond time." These sentiments echo those of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address: "If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come...but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?" (Quote from "American Gospel.") Meacham endorses such sentiments; so do I. Yet when discussing Colonial America, Meacham claims that it is dangerous for democracies to believe that God punishes a whole society for the sin of individuals. According to Meacham, the danger lies in that this belief encourages societies to enforce modes of behavior "...on the grounds that the well-being of all is dependent on the personal conduct of the individual." Mr. Meacham cannot have it both ways; he believes God punishes injustice (which He does), but does not chastise nations for personal sins, such as sexual sins and abortion. Meacham is picking and choosing when it is appropriate for religious considerations to be brought to bear on public policy: Civil Rights, ok; concerns of "Conservative Evangelicals", dangerous to democracy.

This is not the only weakness Meacham displays in his thinking. In dealing with whether asserting themselves into the political process is appropriate for Christians, Meacham quotes the following: 1. John Paul II, 2. Mario Cuomo and 3. American Catholic Bishops. The quotes are as follows:
1. "...a true Christian ought to be more interested in making the life of the world gentle for others...The Church...has no weapons at her disposal apart from those of the spirit, of the word and of love..."
2. "The weapons of the word and of love are already available to us; we need no statute to provide them."
3. "We recognize that the Church's teaching authority does not carry the same force when it deals with technical solutions involving particular means as it does when it speaks of principles and ends...People may agree in abhorring an injustice, for instance, yet sincerely disagree as to what practical approach will achieve justice. Religious groups are as entitled as others to their opinion in such cases, but should not claim that their opinions are the only ones that people of good faith may hold."
Is speaking out the only role Christians have in this pluralistic society? Are they precluded from taking action that would end evils that plague the nation? This standard would certainly do away with the efforts of Evangelicals in the area of abortion and free speech. This standard would also preclude the African American Church from organizing voter registration drives, sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and marching in the streets. Meacham's standard would have allowed the abolitionists to hold rallies protesting slavery, but would prevent them from organizing the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to freedom. And what about Martin Luther King? Where was he when he was gunned down? He was in Memphis lending support to striking sanitation workers. Would Meacham disapprove King employing specific means to achieve an end? If he would approve, he would expose the inconsistency in his thinking regarding Christian participation in the political process.

Meacham refers to the present state of affairs concerning religion and public life as just what the Founders intended. He refers to this state of affairs as "The Public Religion" which he believes to be highly practical. "Can religion be a force for unity, not division, in the nation and the world? The Founders thought so, and so must we. As a force in the affairs of nations it must be managed and marshaled for good, for faith will be with us, as the scriptures say to the end of the age." Elsewhere Meacham states that it is our task to draw the best out of faith while avoiding the worst. Just who is to manage faith for the good? And who determines what is the good? Meacham does not answer. Perhaps he means that those who are of like mind with him who thinks the political activity of Evangelical Christians is divisive. Maybe he thinks the government and media should regulate religious activity in the public realm. Providing sanctuary for illegals, good; faith based initiatives in schooling, bad. The activities of liberal Christians being positive, those of the Christian Right divisive and indicating a desire to subjugate those who who hold different beliefs. (These are stereotypes Meacham encourages in his book.)

As a chronicle of the Founder's attempt to create a secular government that guarantees religious toleration to all, Meacham's work is fine. As a portrait of how individual Founders dealt with God, this book is pretty much accurate. Another positive element of "American Gospel" is its bibliography which enables readers to explore further our nation's history on these and other subjects. As a guide to the Church as how it should conduct itself in our secular society, you are better off seeking a guide elsewhere.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Monday Morning Devotions.

James 1:25- "But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the word, this one will be blessed in what he does."

"...blessed in what he does." Does this mean that your profession will make you a millionaire? Will you experience a pain-free life? No sickness, no disease, no heartache? Is it guaranteed that that special one will agree to marry you? Are all these guaranteed if we "do the word"? Of course not. Those things which we dream about, that may be good in themselves, are not guaranteed by our obedience. Yet we have this promise that if we are doers of the word and not hearers only, we will be blessed in what we do. This is a guarantee from the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In what way is this promise guaranteed to us?

Jesus once told us to ask, to seek, to knock. What are we to seek after? Jesus asks whether Fathers, when asked by their sons for bread, fish, or an egg, will give them stones, serpents, or scorpions? The answer is obviously no. Then Jesus declares "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?" (Luke 11: 9-13) When we are saved, when we are not hearers only but doers of the word, the Father and the Son working through the Holy Spirit within us changes our hearts so we have new motivations driving us. We seek for the things of God, not those things we formerly desired. Like Paul, we will want to know Him more. That is what we seek when we are doers of the word. We want to know Him more and be like him. And as we do the word, the Holy Spirit blesses us with more Christ likeness, even to the point of being able to control our tongues. (James 1:26) As we are changed so that we want to be more in the image of the Son, the Holy Spirit blesses us in answering this prayer as we obey Him. And one day the Son will present us to the Father holy and undefiled! (Scripture quotations from the NKJV)

Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual:Jon Meacham,author of "American Gospel:God,The Founding Fathers,and the Making of the Nation", Part II

On the Friday of my last blog entry, as soon as I posted it, I joined my parents at a nearby restaurant that serves Middle Eastern cuisine. I had a Philly-cheese steak sandwich. After that, I returned home and began reading the next hundred pages of Meacham's "American Gospel." This section covered the time from the Civil War to the fight for Civil Rights in the 1960's.

Meacham's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln and his struggle to understand God's role in the Civil War makes inspiring reading. He quotes from a private memo written by Lincoln but not found until after his death. "The will of God prevails...In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time...By his mere quiet power on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun, He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds." (Some of the Lincoln's words were underlined, however I could not find out how to do this function.) It appears from this quote that Lincoln very much believed in God's sovereignty, but I think we can glean from his writings , and from Meacham's text, that Lincoln believed God was exercising His sovereignty for a purpose. And that it must be a good purpose. It appears from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Message that he had been given more light upon the subject of God's purpose for the war. Meacham again quotes Lincoln: "If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, ...but which , having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?" In this speech Lincoln identifies slavery as the chief cause of the war. At other times he cited the principles of the Declaration of Independence as a justification of waging the war and freeing the slaves. Here are Lincoln's words quoted by Meacham as to Lincoln's belief that the Declaration recognized the dignity of all: "This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to his creatures...Yes, gentleman, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows..."

I can without reservation endorse Meacham's portrayal of Lincoln and his search for God's purpose for the war. But I must point out a huge contradiction in Meacham's thought. As I quoted from him in the previous post, Meacham asserted that "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 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." Meacham labels such a view "dangerous in democratic societies." Yet he lauds Lincoln for not only identifying slavery as the root cause of the war, but he also praises Lincoln for declaring that the North and South both were being punished for the sin of slavery. Meacham cannot have it both ways. Either God punishes a nation for sin, or He doesn't. God will not only punish a nation for slavery, He will also punish nations for repeated violations of His moral law, be it sexual sin, unfair dealings among men, abortion, among others. A careful reading of the Old Testament reveals that when Israel forgot God's law regarding personal sins, Israel then fell into national sins such as injustice to the vulnerable (widows, orphans, slaves among others). It is not biblical for Meacham, who holds leadership positions in Christian organizations and attends an Episcopal Church (see ), to praise those who fight injustice while at the same time condemn those who declare God's judgement for personal sin as religious zealots. Even the Founding Fathers knew better. I majored in History in college, focusing mainly on American History. I was saved after I graduated. In my studies I constantly came across quotes by Founders such as John Adams who blamed the immorality of France for first the injustices of French society and then for the French Revolution. Men such as Adams feared that immorality among Americans would bring about dictatorship and injustice in this country.

Meacham later focuses upon the actions of Presidents and Civil Rights workers and highlights the religious motives for the actions they took. I have always considered Franklin Roosevelt to be totally irreligious, but the book reveals a religious side of him I never knew existed before. In shaping his messages to the world regarding war aims, motives springing from Christianity were highlighted. Civil Rights workers in the 1960's claimed that it was religion that made them able to risk death to bring about equal treatment for African Americans.

I have striven to be fair to the merits of "American Gospel" while examining what I feel are glaring contradictions in Meacham's analysis. Do you agree? If not, let me know where I am wrong in the comments section. Part three of this review will cover the last fifty pages which focus on the contemporary situation regarding Church and State.