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.