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 http://www.jonmeacham.com/ ), 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.