You needn't be a historian to appreciate the wisdom inherent in William Faulkner's observation that "the past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." All you have to do is watch how intensely various factions maneuver over claiming the mantle of America's Founding Fathers for their pet causes.
The argument bubbles to the surface most prominently when a vacancy arises on the Supreme Court, and both ends of the political spectrum clash over the real "original intent" of the founders. But it hums more continuously, and just as intensely, in the religious realm. Both Christian fundamentalists and their mili-tantly secular opposites tend to cite our founding intellects as the original wellsprings of their philosophies about the proper place for faith in the public arena.
This battle has been raging since the start, in fact even before the nation existed. Delegates to the first Continental Congress, in 1774, argued over the propriety of opening the session with a prayer.
Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham thinks he's found a middle road through these endless debates. In his new book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation, he exhumes our deepest national traditions and revisits the words and meanings of the founders in hopes of reclaiming the impressive balancing act they first struck between the secular and the spiritual.
"In our finest hours," he writes, "we have been neither wholly religious nor wholly secular, but have drawn on both traditions."
The founders consciously allowed, if not encouraged, what Ben Franklin called a "public religion" to flower, even as they were creating a republic in which private religious liberty would be codified into law and embraced by custom.
For Meacham, that careful balance has been ignored in recent decades by another of our cyclical awakenings of aggressive Christian fundamentalism. When preacher Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority wrote in a 1980 manifesto that "any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation," Meacham thinks he got it only half right.
By all appearances, the author is an energetic fellow. Not yet 40, this graduate of the University of the South has not only attained a top position at a major US media institution but has also become a regular talking head on cable-TV news programs.
And yet he somehow manages to periodically pound out well-researched and nicely written books (in 2003, he published a book about the friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill).
His latest is an admittedly broad general overview of a large topic, so the book races through its subject. But lest you imagine he may have skimped on research, Meacham provides more than 130 pages of appendices, source notes, and bibliography. It's considerably more than the general reader would ever need or want.
But all that research has uncovered some gems. During the Civil War, General Ulysses.S. Grant once ordered Jews expelled from an area, blithely labeling the entire faith "smugglers." (The decision was wisely revoked by President Lincoln.) And he notes that our first populist president, Andrew Jackson, wasn't so much concerned about faith's effect on politics, but rather worried that "the church risked corruption by contact with government ... believers should avoid the entanglements of a sinful world."
To his credit, the author doesn't bother trying to deny that since its founding America has been a nation drenched in religious fervor. No less penetrating an observer than G.K. Chesterton once said of America that it seems to think of itself as "a nation with the soul of a church." And some of our most successful presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, "loved playing the role of national pastor" of America's civic religion, he notes.
And yet Meacham always returns to the bedrock wisdom of the founders, especially Jefferson, who built an elaborate structure for cooling the passions, erecting a wisely centrist moderation on matters of faith from the outset. The main drafter of our Constitution, he points out, relied heavily upon John Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration." Public religion isn't a substitute for private religion, he writes, "but a habit of mind and heart that enables Americans to be at once tolerant and reverent" - the most exquisitely delicate balancing act of all.
• John Ettorre is a writer and editor in Cleveland.