American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation

American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation

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by Jon Meacham

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The American Gospel–literally, the good news about America–is that religion shapes our public life without controlling it. In this vivid book, New York Times bestselling author Jon Meacham tells the human story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.

At a


The American Gospel–literally, the good news about America–is that religion shapes our public life without controlling it. In this vivid book, New York Times bestselling author Jon Meacham tells the human story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they ultimately created a nation in which belief in God is a matter of choice.

At a time when our country seems divided by extremism, American Gospel draws on the past to offer a new perspective. Meacham re-creates the fascinating history of a nation grappling with religion and politics–from John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence; from the Revolution to the Civil War; from a proposed nineteenth-century Christian Amendment to the Constitution to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for civil rights; from George Washington to Ronald Reagan.

Debates about religion and politics are often more divisive than illuminating. Secularists point to a “wall of separation between church and state,” while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches. As Meacham shows in this brisk narrative, neither extreme has it right. At the heart of the American experiment lies the God of what Benjamin Franklin called “public religion,” a God who invests all human beings with inalienable rights while protecting private religion from government interference. It is a great American balancing act, and it has served us well.

Meacham has written and spoken extensively about religion and politics, and he brings historical authority and a sense of hope to the issue. American Gospel makes it compellingly clear that the nation’s best chance of summoning what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” lies in recovering the spirit and sense of the Founding. In looking back, we may find the light to lead us forward.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Newsweek managing editor Meacham here holds that, despite the strong religious differences of the Founding Fathers, religion became a force for unity, not division; it shaped the Constitution and the nation without strangling it. This is quite an argument to make given the history chronicled. Quakers were at odds with Anglicans, and New Englanders engaged in witch trials while building a "City of God." Others massacred Indians. The Virginia charter provided for Christian mission but also for taking land and searching for gold. To boot, early settlers of that state purchased slaves. Meanwhile, deists Jefferson and Franklin looked at Jesus as the great moral teacher. The religious spirit was "more sectarian than ecumenical," the author maintains, yet it was recognized that a moral and religious force that God provided could and would serve as a uniting factor. Meacham provides a balanced account of this "American Gospel" as to how it was formed and how it is shaping our history down to such present-day challenges as holiday displays, prayer in schools, abortion, euthanasia, and gay rights. Highly recommended for all libraries.-George Westerlund, formerly with Providence P.L., Palmyra, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
Advance Praise for American Gospel

“In his American Gospel, Jon Meacham provides a refreshingly clear, balanced, and wise historical portrait of religion and American politics at exactly the moment when such fairness and understanding are much needed. Anyone who doubts the relevance of history to our own time has only to read this exceptional book.”–David McCullough, author of 1776

“Jon Meacham has given us an insightful and eloquent account of the spiritual foundation of the early days of the American republic. It is especially instructive reading at a time when the nation is at once engaged in and deeply divided on the question of religion and its place in public life.”–Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation

“An absorbing narrative full of vivid characters and fresh thinking, American Gospel tells how the Founding Fathers–and their successors–struggled with their own religious and political convictions to work out the basic structure for freedom of religion. For me this book was nonstop reading.”–Elaine Pagels, professor of religion, Princeton University, author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

“Jon Meacham is one of our country’s most brilliant thinkers about religion’s impact on American society. In this scintillating and provocative book, Meacham reveals the often-hidden influence of religious belief on the Founding Fathers and on later generations of American citizens and leaders up to our own. Today, as we argue more strenuously than ever about the proper place of religion in our politics and the rest of American life, Meacham’s important book should serve as the touchstone of the debate.”
–Michael Beschloss, author of The Conquerors

“At a time when faith and freedom seem increasingly polarized, American Gospel recovers our vital center–the middle ground where, historically, religion and public life strike a delicate balance. Well researched, well written, inspiring, and persuasive, this is a welcome addition to the literature.”–Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University, author of American Judaism: A History

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Read an Excerpt

American Gospel

By Jon Meacham

Random House

Jon Meacham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0739326678

Chapter One

"The great fact about America-the American gospel-is that belief in God is central to the country's experience, but faith is a matter of choice, not coercion. Religion is central to American life (from the Mayflower, to Jamestown, to the Declaration of Independence, to today), and consequently we must handle it very carefully."-from American Gospel

From the Compact Disc edition.

Excerpted from American Gospel by Jon Meacham Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jon Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek. The author of the New York Times bestseller Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, he lives in New York City with his wife and two children. For more information, visit

From the Hardcover edition.

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American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down. The discussion of America's private and public religion and religious style is topical and the author goes back to the colonial period to analyze several significant steps in the development of our American religious outlook. My husband recommended it to me and I have recommended it to everyone I know who enjoys American history, religious history, or wants to know more about how private and public religion interact in today's America. It is a balanced look, including both Christian, Jewish and other perspectives, and uses historical research to put each facet of the journey into perspective. The book does not choose one religion over another and the author is careful to delineate between public representations of religion and the course of private religion in this country. I feel it is a must-read in the changing religious and political climate of early 21st century America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jon Meacham's American Gospel is one volume every American household should have on the bookshelf. He rises to protect the center--the strength--of American polity rather than support (or bash) one side or the other in the continuing debate over whether The United States is a Christian country founded on Christian principles -- or not. And that's where he takes a stand: in the center ableit, not a safe place to be. There are no Golden Cows in the text. Meacham's analysis, synthesis and evaluation of the historical record, from John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, is almost perfect, but not quite: There could have been more attention given to Hugo Black's 'Everson' decision which, in effect, resurrected the 'Wall', a Jeffersonian idea which to this day remains a most nebulous and confusing concept. Many Americans don't understand the context of Black's opion relevant to Jefferson's involvement, i.e., his letter to the Danbury Baptist Assn. Black points to Jefferson, in his 1947 Everson opinion, as being the absolute authority on the First Amendment yet Jefferson was no where near the Constitutional Convention, much less near the process of coming up with a Bill of Rights, of which, '...Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .' became 'The Clause' celeb, so to speak. Although Jefferson wrote many letters stating his opinion on the process of the Convention to his friend and protege James Madison on a regular basis, Jefferson was more occupied with the process of pursuing one Maria Cosway somewhere between Paris and Versailles during his mission in France. It may seem trivial, but it's no small matter: the 'Wall' still sparks mindless arguements that solve nothing -- the very theme that embodies Meacham's message. And it's a good mesaage! Other than that, the book is well structured, fluid, eminently informative, and readable. I enjoyed it. Couldn't put it down! I learned a thing or two.
Freebirdcsmi More than 1 year ago
American Gospel is an excellent book that is a quick and interesting read. The author's research is thorough and well documented. My favorite aspect of the book is that the author did not take sides in what can be a hotly contested debate. Instead of giving one side more credence than the other, Mr. Meacham remained firmly in the middle and presented the evidence in an even manner. Having come from a very religious home, I've always been told that America was founded as a Christian nation. After reading Mr. Meacham's book--which uses primary documents and the words of the Founders themselves, not just regurgitated commentary--I know that was not the case. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Meacham made that case. But I also like the fact that he stressed the importance of religion--Public Religion, as he calls it--in our nation and society. If you are at all interested in the principles and ideas that founded this great nation, this book is a must-read. I highly recommend it to anyone.
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I read this book on my Nook. It seems that the last third of the book did not fit the nook profile. I'll have to visit Barnes & Noble for an explanation.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I always enjoy reading books that make me think about the way I feel about life in the United States today. This book is a good read for anyone with an open mind.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's always interesting to read that our founding fathers, who thought up separation of church and state, were very religious men indeed.