Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, makes a notable contribution to the crucial national conversation about the roles of religion in American public and political discourse in his new book, American Gospel. Many religious Americans have come to believe that religion has been virtually banned from the public square. Some have turned to the Founding Fathers to find justification for overt reliance upon sectarian religious politics, often quoting them out of context and thereby diminishing the force of their arguments. Conversely, some secularists have asserted that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state, also understood out of context, is to be interpreted so broadly that any political religious expression must be interpreted as sectarian. Meacham tries to restore the proper context for this debate. His extended essay, not a scholarly book but an argument meant to outline and justify an educated opinion, focuses on defining this public gospel as a fusion of faith and freedom.
Meacham argues that freedom and faith have been linked since the earliest colonists arrived on these shores. From the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence, the majority of early Americans were convinced that liberty was a gift of Providence and therefore protected and ratified by the same source. At the same time, Americans were convinced that a state church based on European models was to be avoided. They were convinced that such churches fostered tyranny and were too closely connected to claims for absolute rule that had been made by monarchs like Louis XIV and, to a lesser extent, Charles I. Therefore, they sought to protect expressions of faith and prohibit the government from giving special treatment to any particular sect, Christian or Jewish.