You can count on John Meacham. Around Easter or Christmas the managing editor of Newsweek writes a cover story. Maybe it is about the Resurrection, or Mary, the Mother of God. With his slight drawl and thoughtful cadence (Chatanooga by way of New York City), he appears on Hardball to talk about the latest in religious controversy, or on Meet the Press with Father John Neuhaus. His language is leavened with the most favored metaphors of America’s religious people. In his view some discussions bring “more heat than light,” (a favorite expression at some Mega-Churches). Other times he seems positively Catholic. Mary is “the Virgin” with a capital V. His television demeanor is calm, moderate and sensible.
Recently he has been promoting his book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation. Meacham knows his audience, America, is a nation that seems more divided by religion than united by it. Secularists, agnostics and freethinkers murmur about a coming theocracy in America. The “Religious right” feels under siege by an elite culture that despises their religion, seduces their children with permissive sexual mores, and threatens to blot out the least expression of religious sentiment from public life.
Each side seeks the imprimatur of the Founding Fathers and Meacham’s book renders judgment. The Founding Fathers occupied the “sensible center” of American life and promoted a non-sectarian public religiosity. There would be no coercion in American religious life but religion would influence public policy because it influences the men and women in this nation. From the Founding itself to Lincoln’s civil war to the Civil Rights movement, Meacham contends that the center holds. The thesis is as calm, moderate and ‘sensible’ as Meacham himself. Too bad then that this book is so insipid, dishonest and ugly it could make the easygoing agnostic long for the clerical bloodshed of the guillotine and your local Unitarian nostalgic for the rack and thumbscrews.
“The great good news about America — The American gospel, if you will – is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. 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 center holds.” Brave words considering the recent spate of elected officials compelling their citizens to recite the Nicene Creed at gunpoint. Meacham’s tut-tutting of coercion and broadly defined “extremism” becomes tiresome after twenty five pages or so. Can anyone recall a major American figure after the founding of the nation who encouraged elected officials to coerce belief? How could this even be accomplished? Meacham’s book, like his Newsweek articles on religion, offers almost nothing in the way of substance. But if you like a lot of cheapened metaphors about darkness and light and approving (but not too approving) references to “transcendence” then run right out and buy this book.
Meacham tips his hand early. While he can acknowledge the impossibility of wiping out faith in politics, “the trickier part comes when private religious values involving emotional issues enter the public square – abortion rights, for example, or fetal stem cell research.” Religious values related to abortion receive the pre-fix “private,” because they cannot be part of America’s public religion. Abortion is an “emotional” issue, unlike slavery or civil rights which are matters of “justice” to those of faith and those of no faith. It is amazing that Meacham can spend so much time covering America’s people of faith and not see that pro-life activists have done everything possible to imitate the civil rights movement he promotes as an example of how faith and politics ought to intertwine. Pro-lifers do not as a rule refer to Christian injunctions against abortion, but instead adopt the philosophy and rhetoric of American liberalism: a philosophy of personal rights.
The American history that Meacham presents is almost comically like the caricature conservative critics make of American history classes in public high school. It goes like this: The Founding fell short of its ideals because of slavery. Then slavery, slavery slavery. Then Lincoln was our greatest President and then Wilson was a great idealist, then the evil isolationists were defeated by F.D.R – then Martin Luther King happened – and don’t say a bad thing about any of them. In Meacham’s story they are all perfect exemplars of the American Gospel. Meacham passes on the story that the Emancipation Proclamation was the product of a promise Lincoln made to God. If God would grant victory at Antietam, Lincoln would issue it. “In Lincoln’s understanding, God required, first, a guilessness and purity of purpose, and in exchange would relieve the country of fear and sustain her through the fires of war, and the penance he was exacting. Then, and only then, might light come from darkness.” And that, children, is how Lincoln freed the slaves in the territories he didn’t actually control.
Meacham’s book even evinces ignorance of the thought of people he quotes approvingly. Near the conclusion of this work he quotes from G.K. Chesterton’s book “Orthodoxy” to the effect that we must “permit the twilight.” Does Meacham know what Chesterton thought of Buddhism or other false religions? He would scarcely have to read more than a few dozen pages past the quotation he cites. When Chesterton’s thoughts on Islam are roughly expressed by Franklin (son of Billy) Graham Meacham is brought onto MSNBC to pronounce them “unfortunate.”
Meacham’s integrity is on the line here as well. If he wanted to just write a book for a popular audience expressing his shallow philosophy of religion in public life, then why does he include over 100 pages of source notes, bibliography and appendices? If he’s done that much research how can he gloss over every challenge to his thesis? Was Massachusetts a tyranny into the middle of the 19th century while it had an established Church? Do pro-lifers have a case that the Supreme Court has usurped the Constitutional authority of the states and Congress?
No answers. Just more light, no heat. And injunctions like these. “…for each generation of faces the danger of extremism that Madison spoke of–and each generation must defeat it anew.” After reading it, I can almost guarantee you’ll think more kindly of Europe’s religious wars.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire