Sunday, August 21, 2011

Book Notes: American Gospel by Jon Meacham

Inter-generational movements, bodies or institutions inevitably face battles to define their identity, purpose and future direction. Frequently these involve the present protagonists seeking to define themselves as the rightful and true heirs of the tradition - even as they seek to lead it in their own given direction. This is a phenomenon observable from local community groups, religious bodies, companies, family firms, charities or even perhaps countries!

The debate about the role of religion in public and political life in the USA today, is framed in exactly these terms. Secularists seek to advance their cause by appealing to the First Amendment of the Constitution which forbids the government from establishing an official state religion. Known as the 'wall of separation', such a division overturned the proscriptive arrangements in one or two of the North American colonies where participation in Christian worship according to the doctrines and practices of a specific denomination was mandatory. This wall of separation is now invoked to prevent state endorsement of anything religious, hence the fierce battles over issues such as prayer in schools.

Religious people in the States, unsurprisingly, handle the history in completely different ways. For them, the Republic as founded was a deeply Christian institution, albeit one in which Anglicans wouldn't force Presbyterians to adopt Episcopal structures by legislative force, for example. They point out that even though Jefferson was not an orthodox Christian - he was hardly devising a system through which to drive religious thought, practice or people from the public square! The 'Christian right' has also therefore sited historical precedent for their re-Christianising agenda.

Aware of the contemporary potency of the issues at hand, Jon Meacham wades right into the centre of this historical debate in his book, "American Gospel". In his broad survey of the role of faith in politics, which begins with the Founding Fathers and concludes with George W. Bush, Meacham argues that a non-partisan reading of history fits neither the agenda of the 'christian right', nor of secular-humanism. Against the 'christian-right' he demonstrates that from Jefferson onwards, the American State sought to prevent any form of compulsion in matters spiritual. Likewise he shows the repeated ways in which moves to endorse specific elements of Christian faith in public life have been resisted. However, far from siding with the secular-humanist reading of history, Meacham also points out the way that religious faith has consistently formed the backdrop for public political discourse, and people of faith have (rather than being excluded from public life - or called to compromise or privatise their faith) been essential figures in defining the American experiment.

In his reading then, faith has never been institutionalised in America. However, because America has been a democracy with genuine pluralism, (initially between Christian denominations, but subsequently between all points of view), then religion has always been a part of American public life. He charts the ways in which leaders and Presidents have drawn on faith, referred to faith and been inspired by it throughout the short history of the USA. Highlights in his discussion following the framers of the Constitution include the way in which Franklin D. Roosevelt drew America lead America into war against the evils of European Nazism while presenting himself in explicitly Christian terms as what Meecham calls a 'national pastor'.

While seeking to promote the historical precedent for the comfortable middle, Meecham obviously wants to suggest to both extremes that there should be room in public life for people of all persuasions. This he does well for much of the book - but not without some problems arising as well. Specifically these involve the development of what he calls "American Public Religion" - that is the use of predominantly Christian clergy to perform public rites for the American state, bringing as much of their faith with them as is publicly permissible at that moment. This has sometimes led to the watering down of the Christian faith for political consumption; something which Meecham is quite keen to endorse in fact. For those of us who might find such a position problematic, the implications get worse however. The suggestion that the 'cross' might have been subsumed by 'the flag' in this context, is not something that bothers Meecham - as his prime concern is not the cross, but America. However, writing as a non-American Christian, I would long to see a more critical view of America from the American church.

Nevertheless despite these reservations, this is a fascinating study which puts some of the wilder claims made by both extremes into perspective. Of course, what is more fascinating is that I write from the UK, a country which has long had various forms of established religion, no wall of separation at all - yet one in which Christian participation in public life is widely seen as being systematically undermined.

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