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Time to re-meet our makers

God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation Jon Meacham Random House: 402 pp., $23.95

April 05, 2006|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

American Gospel

God, the Founding Fathers,

and the Making of a Nation

Jon Meacham

Random House: 402 pp., $23.95


IN Colorado last month, in a town not far from Denver, a public school teacher was forced out of her job for showing her students an introduction-to-opera video of sock puppets performing an excerpt from Charles Gounod's "Faust." Some of her students' parents objected because they believe the 19th century adaptation of Goethe's classic play "glorified Satan."

Political consultants call those parents, who nowadays are likely to be politically active, "values voters." The pros study the polls and correctly point out that, in America today, the most likely predictor of a voter's behavior is whether they regularly attend church services. If they do, they're more likely to vote Republican than people who go to church or synagogue irregularly or not at all. In fact, Kevin Phillips -- architect of Richard M. Nixon's Southern strategy -- recently has argued that the contemporary GOP has become something new to American politics: a religious party.

This is the backdrop against which Newsweek's managing editor Jon Meacham offers this sensibly balanced and engaging narrative account of religion's role in our nation's history, "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation."

Meacham is the author of a terrific account of the vital friendship between the Allies' wartime leaders -- "Franklin and Winston" -- and is at work on a history of the Jackson administration. He is, in other words, a worthy practitioner of the sort of popular narrative history perfected by David McCullough. It's a nicely fact-based genre, equally unafraid of accessibility and the warming sentiment. Meacham coolly -- even courageously -- deploys its conventions on hotly contested ground. As a member of the vestry in two Episcopal parishes, he brings a secure believers' calm to the question, along with a taste for serious history.

Meacham's initial purpose is to examine the religious right's claims that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" and that failure to act accordingly explains everything they find wrong with America today. They are invincibly ignorant of the fact confirmed by every serious historian that all but a handful of the Founders were deists and men of the Enlightenment. Their religion was mostly a matter of tradition and ceremony.

Meacham does a nicely readable job of summing up this serious history in a lucid narrative fashion. He has the newsweekly professional's magpie appetite for anecdote and a lovely eye for the apt but overlooked quotation. Thus, this from one of Jefferson's last letters, written just 10 days before his death in 1826: "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."

Science and reason were synonymous in Jefferson's 18th century mind, and that congruence gave rise to a confidence in universal human rights and liberty that ultimately undermined the West's faith in the divine right of aristocratic authority -- though it would take the terrible leveling slaughter of World War I to finish the job. The peculiar optimism that is so much a part of our national character derives from the notion of American exceptionalism, the continuing belief that Jefferson's "light" burned with a particular brightness in the New World.

It's a notion Meacham forthrightly accepts. "What separates us from the Old World," he writes, "was the idea that books, education and the liberty to think and worship as we wished would create virtuous citizens who cherished and defended reason, faith and freedom."

It is a warm and comforting thought, and a commonplace expression of our civic piety. It leaves unanswered, however, the question of what has gone so stunningly wrong among a substantial and assertive minority of Americans nearly 200 years removed from the Sage of Monticello's calm epiphany.

How is it that the expression "Faustian bargain" never made its way to the plains of eastern Colorado?

How is it that what is doubtless a community of "values voters" there never learned -- or cared to learn -- that Gounod's "Faust" ends with a frustrated Mephistopheles looking on as Marguerite's soul ascends to heaven and Faust kneels in prayerful repentance?

Why do so many Americans want their children taught a 2,500-year-old poetic allegory of human origins instead of the science of evolutionary biology?

Why is it no longer permissible to point out that biblical literalism isn't even a respectable theological position, let alone a guide to public policy?

Why are the rest of us being forced to accept some Americans' personal decisions as an "interest" like any other that must be given its say and taken into account?

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