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Religion and Politics in the Public Square

Do you ever feel like a battlefield casualty of the culture wars? In American Gospel, a highly readable bestseller, author Jon Meacham suggests another understanding of America’s past that, he hopes, will lower the level of hostility and presumably leave fewer victims.

Meacham’s focus is the emotionally charged issue of church-state relations. He approaches the subject not from a legal or constitutional perspective, but from a historical, cultural, and intellectual angle that attempts to steer a middle course between secularists, who supposedly want to strip all vestiges of religion from public life, and those who perceive the United States as a “Christian nation.”

In keeping with the book’s subtitle, God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Meacham’s central characters are such American icons as Thomas Jefferson, John and Sam Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. Rather than viewing them as allies of either side in the battle over church and state, Meacham suggests that we see them as potential intermediaries. Thomas Jefferson, meet Jerry Falwell and Michael Newdow.

At the outset, Meacham makes a distinction between private religion, the “specific beliefs, practices, and positions of any faith” (20), and “public religion,” or shared understandings of the deity that permeate American culture and thought. In his view, private religion is embodied in churches (and presumably synagogues, mosques, and temples), which the First Amendment protects from government interference. However, the Founders did not intend to shield politics from religion—either public or private. In reality, they “wanted God in American public life” (22). In the tradition of Robert Bellah’s by-now immortal explication of Civil Religion, Meacham depicts them giving sanction to a tradition of public religion that has found expression in religious or quasi-religious rhetoric and mottos, public prayers, congressional chaplaincies, calls for public prayers and fasts, and thanksgiving proclamations, to name some prominent examples.1

According to Meacham, the deity of this public religion is “not the God of Abraham or God the Father of the Holy Trinity” (22), but one that reflects certain core American values.

The nation’s public religion . . . holds that there is a God . . . [who] made all human beings in his image and endowed them . . . with sacred rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What the God of public religion has given, no king, no president, no government can abridge—hence the sanctity of human rights in America. The God of public religion is interested in the affairs of the world. The God of public religion may be seen as capable of rewarding or punishing individuals or the nation either here and now or later, beyond time. And the God of public religion is sometimes spoken of as a God bound to the American nation, in Jefferson’s words, “as Israel of old.” (22)

So why did public religion come into existence? Meacham depicts it as a product of political traditions reaching back to colonial times, the Enlightenment, Deism, and appreciation of the destructive power that formal religious establishments have historically wielded. Now as then, public religion supposedly permits Americans—most of whom are Christian—to unify behind deep-seated spiritual values in the political arena without jeopardizing freedom of religion. “The great good news about America—the American gospel, if you will—is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it” (5), writes Meacham. According to him, the Founders discovered “a way to honor religion’s place in the life of the nation while giving people freedom to believe as they wish” (6).

The editor of Newsweek, Meacham has won accolades for this book. His bibliography is truly impressive and many of his reviews effusive. Vivid vignettes taken from the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King, and Ronald Reagan make a persuasive case that politics and religion—at times, morphed into overt Christian themes—have, in fact, often marched hand-in-glove in America. However, I’m not quite ready to swallow all of the author’s argument, for two main reasons.

First, I don’t find his depiction of the Founding compelling. Meacham bases his analysis on selected passages from a handful of relatively homogeneous luminaries whose views of church-state relations—often expressed privately—appear from the book to have changed little over the course of their lifetimes. In reality, the debate over the relationship between religion and politics in Revolutionary America was more complex and encompassed a wider field of participants—lay and clerical, orthodox, sectarian, and freethinking—who enshrined their collective decisions in actions and institutions that changed markedly over the last half of the eighteenth century.

Three well-known documents are especially illuminating: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution.2 The first openly acknowledges God and makes him an active participant in government. Under the second, Congress solicited public prayers, installed chaplains, declared days of thanksgiving, granted favors and funding for sectarian causes, and wove religious symbolism into the political fabric. However, the tone changed sharply with the U.S. Constitution. Nowhere does it mention God, nor does it call forth religious symbolism. Furthermore, it opens the door for officeholding regardless of religious perspective and goes out of its way not to create impediments of a religious nature to political participation. Thanks largely to pressure from Antifederalists, its First Amendment forbids Congress from restricting freedom of conscience and creating a national establishment of religion of the kind that many Americans at that time experienced on the state level.

So what accounts for the abrupt appearance of a document widely understood to be secular in nature? One suggestion is that Americans were simply learning that politics need not be intertwined with religion to function satisfactorily—a reasonable insight given struggles over the relationship between church and state being waged on the state level. But other forces were also at work. When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the newly created nation was weak and impoverished, threatened by foreign enemies east and west, wracked by insurrection, and splintered by divisions over religion. Prominent in the minds of delegates was the urgency of creating a stronger, unified central government, a priority that religious discord threatened to derail. According to this reading, the authors of the Constitution took religion off the table in the interest of national unity, just as they did with the volatile issue of slavery.

This analysis suggests widespread sensitivity about the divisiveness of religion that has eluded the author. It also suggests that the Founders may not be able to offer legitimacy to the mixture of politics and religion that Meacham sees in America’s past.

My second main concern is more personal. According to Meacham, public religion has worked as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has lent motivation to such noble causes as the antislavery movement, the defeat of totalitarianism during the 1940s, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. However, it has also been used to support slavery, Manifest Destiny, neocolonialism, the genocide of Native Americans, and denial of women’s suffrage. What keeps it in check, claims Meacham, is the “sensible center” of supposedly enlightened citizens (5).

All of which raises problems for me as a follower of Christ: To what extent can I, in good conscience, identify with a popularly defined system known at times to give force to a form of religion that I find antagonistic to the Gospels? Life in the shadow of a skilled practitioner of public religion has intensified my problem, confronting me with a war linked to Christian rhetoric and imagery, yet characterized by falsehood, secrecy, manipulation, torture, and massive death. Should I be expected to support an expression of “Christianity” that bears little resemblance to the message of Christ and “evangelizes” through the barrel of a gun?

I shouldn’t be put in such a bind, as wise Americans from the past seem to have understood. Not only should churches be protected from government interference, as Meacham rightly asserts in accordance with Thomas Jefferson’s oft-cited “Wall of Separation,” government should also be shielded from religious forces that seek to reshape civil authority for their own purposes. “God has appointed two kinds of government in the world which are distinct in their nature and ought never to be confounded together,” wrote noted Baptist pastor Isaac Backus on the eve of the American Revolution. “[O]ne . . . is called civil and the other ecclesiastical government.”3

Despite its sparkling style and breadth of research, American Gospel misses historical subtleties that undermine Meacham’s argument. Furthermore, it underplays the downside of mingling religion and politics in the public square. Rather than bringing unity and nurturing religious freedom, all too often it has bred disagreement and paved the way for impingements on freedom. Meacham’s work is impressive but it doesn’t always appreciate past complexities or the implications of the issues it raises.

Notes and References

1. “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96, no. 1 (winter 1967):1-21.

2. My argument in this paragraph and the next is indebted to Derek H. Davis. Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); and Leonard Levy, “The First Amendment: The Establishment Clause,” in Origins of the Bill of Rights (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999).

3. An Appeal to the Public (Boston, 1773), reprinted in William G. McLoughlin, ed., Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism: Pamphlets, 1754-1789 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), 312.

Leigh Johnsen, the associate editor of Spectrum magazine, holds a doctorate in early American religious history and has edited The Papers of Isaac Backus, 1630-1806 (Ann Arbor: Proquest, 2003).

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