"American Gospel: God, The Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation" Essay
The US is traditionally characterized as a country with a highly developed democracy where democratic traditions define the life of society, individuals, and all social institutions as well as private organizations. At the same time, the arguments concerning the realization of some democratic principles that are declared by the Founding Fathers of the US democracy and the US state often undermine the belief in the objectivity and sincerity of the Founding Fathers and American Democracy. In this respect, the arguments concerning the separation of church from state are probably the most widely spread. At any rate, this argument is the major problem that Jon Meacham discusses in his book “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation”. In actuality, the book represents quite an original view on the separation of church from state in the US and the role of the Founding Fathers in this process. Nevertheless, it is necessary to underline that the author simply attempt to represent his view on this problem that makes his book rather thought provoking than scandalous or offensive in relation to the Founding Fathers. In fact, this book is really important as a source of information concerning the development of American democracy in the context of the separation of religion from state affairs and the extent to which this process was difficult. It is really important to analyze the book since the numerous references to the Founding Fathers, their sayings, thoughts, and ideas can help better understand the atmosphere of that epoch and the real attitude of people to democracy at large and the problem of the separation of church and state in particular.
Basically, it should be said that the problem raised by the author is not totally new. In contrast, the problem of the relationship between state and religion or, to put it more precisely, between state and a particular church were always important to the US as well as any other country. It is obvious that since the day of the Declaration of Independence, the US had chosen the democratic way of development but Americans were mainly religious people and, consequently, the religious question was quite significant to them. At the same time, it is necessary to remember that historically church and state always interacted and were closely interlinked. In fact, it is not a secret that state often based its power on the ideology which was religious by nature. In other words, religion often became the ideological basis which united countries and was the major tool that helped state control its people or regulate their behavior by means of moral and ethic norms as well as legal acts which were supported by strong religious beliefs.
On the other hand, Meacham perfectly understands that the US independence brought not only dramatic socio-economic and political changes but it also brought a serious ideological shift from traditional and conservative views based on religious beliefs and ideas to more progressive democratic ideals. In such a situation, the fact that the Founding Fathers of the US as a state and the US democracy attempted to guarantee American citizens possibly larger freedom could not fail to affect the relationship of church and state. As a result, the necessity of the separation of church from state became the burning problem of the US democracy and the Founding Fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others perfectly realized that this problem should be solved in such a way that the will of American people to demonstrate the superiority of civil freedom and rights over any prejudices, including religious ones, was realized. In such a situation, the development of the concept of religious tolerance was of a paramount importance. In this respect, the separation of church from state should become the backbone of the religious tolerance in the US.
At the same time, it is necessary to remember that the religious tolerance was simply essential to the US at the early stage of the development of the country because American citizens represented not only different ethnic groups that arrived to the New World from different countries but they also represented different religious concessions that was a potential threat to the social stability within the country. It was obvious that the spread of religious conflicts between Americans was a real threat to the unity and national security of the country. Naturally, in such a situation the American state ha no moral nor political right to support any religious movement that existed in the US at that epoch.
Basically, Meacham agrees that the Founding Fathers perfectly realized the real state of things in the US and understood the potential threats hidden in the religious question and the separation of church from state. At the same time, he argues that religion still played an important role in the life of American people who were religious while atheists were really few. Nevertheless, the author underlines that the latter also played a significant role in the life of the country. For instance, he often calls Jefferson, who was one of the Founding Fathers, ‘Jefferson the atheist’. The author argues that the Founding Fathers, namely Jefferson, realized the existing contradictions within American society concerning religious views and the view on the problem of separation of church and state. In this respect, it is possible to remind that Meacham argues that “Jefferson surveyed and staked out an American middle ground between the ferocity of evangelizing Christians on one side and the contempt for religion of secular philosophers on the other. The right would like Jefferson to be a soldier of faith, the left an American Voltaire. He was depending on the moment, both or neither; he was, in other words, a lot like many of us” (4).
In such a way, the author underlines that the Founding Fathers faced a serious dilemma what solution of the problem of relationships of church and state to choose: whether support those who were frantic about religion and demanded state support of a church or, alternatively, stick to the camp of atheist, or ‘philosophers’, who were more skeptical about religion and emphasized the dominance of human rights and freedom as prior to any religious norms and beliefs that implied the necessity to totally separate church from state. In such a situation, according to Meacham, the Founding Fathers find the alternative to both of these possible solutions.
In other words, the Founding Fathers attempted to find a compromise between the religious beliefs of American people and basic principles of democracy and progressive ideas of liberal part of American society. The author states that “belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet for the broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the founding is that the sensible center holds” (5). Consequently, according to Meacham the Founding Fathers held the centrist position avoiding both extremes ranging from state support of church to total denial of church in the US on the official level of state.
At the same time, it is worthy of mention that the author compares the time of the Founding Fathers to the modern epoch. He argues that similarly to the present days, that time was full of “diverse arguments about God and politics” and the Founding Fathers “found the way to honor religion’s place in the life of the nation while people the freedom to believe as they wish” (7). Obviously, this was a compromise but, at the same time, it was a wise decision though it rather indicates to the logic and perfect understanding of the current situation by the Founding Father than to their supernatural intellectual abilities and genius. In fact, the Founding Fathers objectively assessed the existing situation in the US and found the plausible solution which satisfied practically all.
Naturally, it is possible to argue that such a solution of the problem could not fully satisfy each of the opposing camps since neither religious adepts were satisfied as they had not got the state support nor the left philosophers were satisfied as religion still remained an important part of the American lifestyle and American ideology. Nevertheless, it is necessary to underline that such a choice of the Founding Fathers was based on their efforts to lead the country to the stable development with minimal risks of religious conflicts.
At this point it is necessary to underline that Meacham probably exaggerates the role of the Founding Fathers and their intellectual power as he refers to such a decision as a great wisdom while, as it has been just explained above, it was just a logical solution, probably the most plausible among those few that could be found in the existing situation. At the same time, it is necessary to agree with the author that the decision of the Founding Fathers to end official churches marked the start of the practice of toleration which is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of American democracy. Also, it is necessary to underline that even though it did not fully satisfy all the opposing parties but it was a plausible solution for all Americans regardless their religious and philosophical views.
On the other hand, the author underlines that such a decision created the “wall of separation between church and state” but this wall “is designed to divide church from state, not religion from politics” (75). This is an extremely important remark since it constitutes one of the key ideas of the entire book. In actuality, it means that the author perfectly realizes that religion cannot be fully eliminated from politics. It seems to be obvious that in one way or another religion will inevitably affect the politics. This is the historical trend which could be observed throughout different epochs since willingly or not politicians have to deal with religious questions as they take decisions that affect the life of the entire country. Naturally, such decisions cannot fail to affect religious beliefs of some part of American population.
Furthermore, it should be said that the author attempts to evaluate the decision of the Founding Fathers to separate church from state from different positions. In this respect, it is worthy of mention that the author attempts to carefully analyze the criticism of the separation of church from state and the new policy which were defined by Jefferson as public religion. In fact, the opponents of such a policy argued that the Founding Fathers, on declaring the separation of church form state, actually maintained the religion on the official level. For instance, it is possible to refer to such words as ‘In God We Trust’ that were adopted as a national motto, or the addition of the words ‘under God’ to the Pledge of the Allegiance are “signs of a vital public religion” (102). The author actually rejects allegations that there was an official support of some particular religion by state. For instance, he argues that Jefferson’s references were not to Christ and Meacham underlines that claims that the United States is a “Christian nation” are based on “wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument” (137). To prove his position, Meacham cites Washington’s famous 1790 letter to the Jewish community in Newport, R.I., which said that America “gives… bigotry no sanctions” (159), or else a less well known provision in a 1797 treaty with Muslim Tripoli that declared “the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” (160). In such a way, the author attempts to prove that the Founding Fathers were really tolerant to religion and state relationship and promoted religious tolerance within the country using the policy of the public religion. In such a way, it seems as if the Founding Fathers attempted to remain religious people and at the same time avoid being offensive in relation to any particular religion, or to put it more precisely, support any religion on the official level.
In this respect, it should be said that the Founding Fathers actually acted in accordance with the interests, views and beliefs of Americans. Obviously, they did not emphasize the fact that they are supporting some religion and they actually did not do it since it would offense the supporters of the total separation of church and state and total elimination of religion from political life of the country. On the other hand, they could never openly demonstrate that they are atheist since it would hurt the religious feelings of adepts of different churches since such a policy of the Founding Fathers would be viewed as an open support of atheism that was totally unacceptable to the substantial part of American population. This is why the Founding Fathers had to use all their diplomatic skills to meet the interests and expectations of all Americans avoiding any sort of extremism in their sayings and actions.
However, it is necessary to underline that the author refers to facts of the different official policy on the state level. To put it more precisely, he argues that some states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania actually supported churches on the state level that actually did not meet the national policy of the federal Government and the Founding Fathers. Naturally, it is hardly possible to argue with the author that such a policy on the sate level could not fail to affect the national policy at large. In such a situation, he views the 1st Amendment as an attempt to prevent such negative impact of state policies on the national policy since, according to this Amendment, the separation of church and state was declared on the Constitutional level.
In this respect, it should be said that it is really possible to view the 1st Amendment in such a context, but, still it is necessary to remember that the question of religion was extremely important to Americans. This is why it would be quite logical to emphasize the separation of church and state on the highest legislative level, i.e. in the US Constitution that naturally defined the policy on the national and state level.
Finally, the author emphasizes that religious tolerance is really important in American society which is viewed as a really democratic society. Eventually, he concludes that “a true Christian ought to be more in making the life of the world more gentle for others than he could be in asserting the dominance of his own faith” (243). In actuality, this was exactly what, according to the author, the Founding Fathers, even though some of them were atheist, attempted to do as they focused their efforts on the development of religious tolerance and putting all religions in equal position in the US. At the same time, it is possible to conclude that the author probably exaggerates the role of the Founding Fathers and their wisdom. In fact, they really made a significant contribution in the development of democracy and religious tolerance but their actions were, to a significant extent determined by the necessity to find a compromise that would satisfy all opposing parties in the US and this is exactly what an attentive reader can learn from the book.
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