DATE April 3, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
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been omitted from this transcript
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Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan on Jon Meacham's "American
Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Jon Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek and the author of the
best-selling biography "Franklin and Winston." His latest book, "American
Gospel," explores the history of a subject that both obsesses and polarizes
Americans, namely religion.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: On July 4th, 1776, the Founding Fathers fell to their
knees, asked God's benediction on the Christian nation they were bringing into
being and signed the Declaration of Independence while humming "Onward
Christian Soldiers. Such is the origin myth of the United States that
fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Tim Lahaye, author of the popular "Left
Behind" novels, promulgate. Staunch secularists assembling on the other side
of this particular divide in America's ongoing culture wars offer their own
version of the country's beginnings, one that sees Jefferson, Franklin and the
rest of that exalted company as enlightened rationalists who just paid lip
service to the pieties of their day.
The truth, Jon Meacham says, lies not quite in the middle, but in an area both
messier and more mysterious in the sense of being resistant to simplification
than other side would have it. In his new book, "American Gospel," Meacham
explores America's official relationship to God, a relationship he
characterizes as scrupulously cordial and respectful of boundaries.
Meacham's last book, "Franklin and Winston," traced the friendship between FDR
and Churchill and was terrific fun to read because of the titanic
personalities involved and the marvelous quotes and tall tales they generated.
"American Gospel" doesn't have that kind of built-in personality-driven
storyline. It covers a much wider chronological terrain, and the special
friendship with the Divine this book chronicles is played out not in
late-night strategy sessions over brandy and cigars but rather in official
documents and presidential speeches.
As you might expect, the revelations contained in "American Gospel"--and there
are many--are of a rather more sacred than profane nature. Meacham says that
he set out to write a timely narrative essay that would touch on key moments
in the religious history of the United States. He wants to illustrate how the
Founding Fathers left us with a tradition in which we could talk and think
about God and politics without descending into discord and division.
Meacham's own approach in this book, informed but accessible, deftly handles a
subject that has become so polarizing that few writers bother to try to preach
to those outside of their particular choir.
"American Gospel" roams from the founding of Jamestown, where religious
diversity wasn't exactly a community value, to Ronald Reagan's fascination
with end-time apocalyptic imagery. But the most absorbing sections of the
book are its earliest chapters, devoted to the Founding Fathers and their
careful crafting of their new country's diplomatic relations with the
Almighty. As Meacham demonstrates, the Founders themselves were a mixed bag
when it came to faith. Franklin and Jefferson believed in God but not in the
divinity of Christ nor in the Trinity. John Jay was a strict Episcopalian;
Sam Adams, a Puritan; George Washington, as with so many other aspects of his
character, an enigma.
Most, of course, were Christian, but as Meacham points out, they did not seize
the opportunity to use Christian imagery or language in the Declaration of
Independence or, most starkly, in the Constitution, which doesn't mention God
at all. Instead, the God the Founders called upon is the presiding deity in
what Benjamin Franklin famously dubbed the "public religion." This nature's
God or creator, as Jefferson referred to him, is invested in the affairs of
men but he doesn't dictate them. He endows humans with their rights, but he
doesn't favor one country or people or another. And perhaps most crucially,
he's a nonsectarian deity.
Here is how James Madison elegantly expressed the new country's ideals for
religious tolerance. "Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to
profess and observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we
cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the
evidence which has convinced us." Yet, and it's a crucial point, the Founders
also believed keeping the state out of the business of religion would allow
religion to flourish in civil society. Religious belief would ultimately
benefit from separation from the state.
Contrasted to what Meacham details in "American Gospel" as the Founders'
balanced reasonableness of mind when it came to matters of faith, the
extremist of more recent times sound, well, positively un-American.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is
the author of the memoir "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." She reviewed "American
Gospel" by Jon Meacham.
GROSS: I am Terry Gross.
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