Book Review: American Gospel by Jon Meacham

Pulitzer Prize winning author Jon Meacham’s book American Gospel is more relevant now than when it was published 13 years ago.   First released in 2006, this non-fiction’s subtitle is, “God, The Founding Fathers, And The Making Of A Nation”.   As evangelicals are becoming more of a political force, especially in terms of the last presidential election, the fallacy that America is a Christian nation founded on Christian values needs to be explored and explained to those who believe it was and is.

This book is about America’s relationship with religion from the first colonies to the Reagan administration.  Mr. Meacham examines why Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and other Founders wanted religious freedom for their new country, and why it is important to protect that freedom.  Events such as the Continental Congress, the Civil War, both World Wars, and the emergence of evangelical fervor in the 1970s are studied with the lens of how religion shaped those moments in American history and how America responded.

A majority of the book focuses on the Founding Fathers’ debate around religious freedom.  Each of the Founding Fathers, however, agreed that America should be a country that wasn’t being run by a specific religion.  They also didn’t like the idea that Americans could be persecuted for their beliefs, or want any inhabitants of America to be forced to practice a religion with which they didn’t agree.  In essence, Thomas Jefferson wanted the First Amendment to guarantee you can believe what you want to believe, or not believe in anything at all – and you would still be an American.  President Jefferson went to great lengths during his time in office to study and understand Holy Bible – even to the point of physically removing some of the miracles of Jesus in the New Testament of his Bible that he believed did not happen.  He simply couldn’t rationalize what he was reading, so he removed it!

Mr. Meacham, who is a well-respected award-winning presidential biographer, also takes a look at the religion of each president up to George W. Bush.   We get a glimpse of how each president viewed religion in their personal life, as well as how they applied their morals and values in running our country.   Interestingly, the debate over some of the early president’s religions is ongoing.  While most all early presidents reference God at some point in speeches and writing, some were Unitarian (there is one God but no trinity – they do not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ), some were agnostic (maybe there is a God, but science and rational thought can’t prove it), and in the case of President Lincoln, we don’t really know what he thought or practiced.

At the end of the book, I feel much smarter.  No really.  This book is well written and full of interesting information that even smarty-pants like me didn’t know.

Anyone interested in history of America or religion in politics will enjoy this book.

I will leave you with these words from Mr. Meacham:  Respect religion, hear it out, learn from it, then let the work of the country unfold as the parties to the republican contract – the Constitution – will have it.

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