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The debate over the separation of church and state is all too often driven by extremists on both sides and distorted by overheated, sometimes vicious rhetoric. Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek magazine and author of the bestselling book American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, talked with American History about how the Founders envisioned the role of religion in the nation and how Americans continue to interpret that vision.


You say that the Founding Fathers believed in a “public religion.” What does that mean?

“Public religion” is a phrase of Benjamin Franklin’s that goes back to 1749. His argument was that public religion was a necessary support for morality and the basic maintenance of a society. My sense is that for the Founders, public religion was a belief that there was a creator god who works in the world through providence, who cares for the United States, who weighs prayers and who will reward people in a future life for their conduct in this one.

And by “religion,” are you referring specifically to Christianity?

No. I think one of the great things about America is that we’ve been very careful, in our best moments, to avoid sectarian imagery and allusions. That’s true of President Washington. One of the great documents in American history is his letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, in which he said the government of the United States shall give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and that every man shall sit in peace under his vine and fig tree, which is an image from the book of Micah.

I was surprised about how tolerant the Founding Fathers were. It’s easy to think that they were just creating a nation for white Protestant Christians with some Catholics in Maryland. There’s a lot of talk in their papers about Jews, Mohamedans—as they called Muslims then—and Hindus. Jefferson says that his act for religious freedom in Virginia was meant to “comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.” That act was written in 1777.

In the debate today, the left is seen as being hostile to religion, and the right is seen as being intractable. You wrote in American Gospel: “The right would like Jefferson to be a soldier of faith, the left an American Voltaire….He was both and neither.” How do the right and the left use their perceptions of the Founders to promote their views?

I think both sides of the ideological divide in America seek historical benediction for the arguments they advance. What’s interesting about the Founders is, rather like the Bible, you can find a quotation to support nearly anything, sometimes within paragraphs of each other. So the reason I think we have to be careful about the utility of the Founders in contemporary arguments is that they were just as confused and just as complex and just as contradictory as we are. I think we have to be responsible stewards of history. We have to put ourselves in their shoes as much as we possibly can, accept the world as they saw it, and then we are able to judge what they did and its relevance to us.

In that sense, I think both extremes on the right and the left have it wrong. I don’t think the Founders were entirely secularists, nor do I think they were all a bunch of evangelical Christians running around hoping to create a Christian nation. I think that it was much more complex, much more nuanced than that. Their dedication to religious liberty, to freedom of conscience, is arguably their great contribution to our time. For the first time in Western history, religion was taken out of a calculus for citizenship and one’s civil rights.

Are we more polarized now on the issue of religion?

Yes, we are more divided because of the insertion of the abortion question into our national political life. When you have people who feel passionately about the definition of life, you raise the stakes and you raise the volume of that debate. I also think that for the left, you have a sense of frustration. It’s been 40 years since the highwater mark of the Great Society, and the left feels it’s losing ground. The right feels it’s losing ground, and when you have two sides that feel they’re losing, that tends to exacerbate tensions. That’s my nickel theory.

Can the moderate center continue to hold against the extremes?

Yes, it can. I think that in the end what Madison was talking about in Federalist 10 will triumph, which is that we have a public square in which different forces can contend one against the other and where we have checked, if not the appearance of faction, we have checked its most extreme manifestations. That’s lost sometimes. The level of argument in the country today is quite ferocious. But the reality of political combat is not quite commensurate with the passion of the verbal argument.

Even when the president talks publicly about being in the midst of a Third Great Awakening?

I think that’s an observation. I think that President Bush is no more overtly religious than many presidents in the past. I think he’s fully within the mainstream of presidential public religion. Any reasonable person looking at the data could argue that this is a moment akin to the two Great Awakenings. I’m not sure we’re in one, I hasten to add, but I don’t think it’s a divisive or a dopey thing to argue. When he talks in those terms, Bush is no odder and no more outside the mainstream than George Washington was in his farewell address in 1797, when he said that religion was an essential support for morality.

The current debate seems rooted in the post–World War II era, when several Supreme Court decisions put more distance between church and state. During the same time, many Americans were looking to religion for comfort in a time of “godless communism,” the nuclear threat and the upheaval engendered by the civil rights movement. What role do fear and social uncertainty play in this debate?

I think it’s enormous. As we were saying, you have two sides, both of whom feel that they’re losing. The right clearly believes that the courts and others have “thrown God out of the schools” or “drummed God out of the public square.” And you have liberals, or even moderates, who think that George Bush is driving the Trojan horse up outside the gates and all these evangelicals are going to come in and force a Gideon Bible on everyone. Both sides have this exaggerated view of the other that borders on the irrational. The first thing we all have to do is remove that caricature. Then you begin to see shades of gray where once you only saw black or white.

One interesting episode in the book was Franklin Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer. That sense of humility seems to be missing from the debate today.

Absolutely. I think we have to be humble because, as St. Paul said, “For now we see through a glass darkly.” Whether you are a ferocious secularist or a ferocious religious believer, the idea that you know the whole truth in all its detail and mystery, I think, is foolhardy. The atheist side is equally wrong by saying nothing exists. Well, you don’t know that, with due respect. As Hamlet said, “There are more things, Horatio, in this world than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So both sides could stand with saying we don’t have all the answers.

We have been happiest and most prosperous and most peaceful when we have respected one another’s right to believe as one chooses, or not to believe, and we go about our business. And together we defend values on which we agree—liberty, the rule of law and fair play. Those are values rooted in both ancient pagan philosophy and in Judeo-Christian thinking. There is a secular basis and a biblical one. One would be foolhardy to deny the biblical side of things, but that doesn’t mean that the Bible is somehow equal in our lives with the Constitution. It’s not. But the idea of the individual worth of every human being is a very biblical idea, and it seems to me only intellectually honest to say the Greeks were on to this and they weren’t Christians. The Israelites were on to this, and they certainly weren’t Christians. But the Christians were on to it, too. Then, as the centuries fell away, people who continued in a more or less pagan, or secular, tradition helped to develop that thought. Lord knows—so to speak—that many of the French and Scottish thinkers on whom our Founders drew were by no means orthodox Christian or Christian at all.

We’re supposed to argue in good faith and good will. We’re not going to get an answer on this side of paradise. I think it’s important to debate these things, but to do so in a way that puts the religious element of any political or public controversy in perspective. It’s one of many factors in our public lives that must, and arguably should, be dealt with. You’re not going to get rid of it. It’s one of my frustrations with these very smart and interesting writers who write about atheism these days—Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and others. They’re writing wonderful books, but they’re not going to change anybody’s mind. When you start off saying anyone who believes is an idiot, you’re being just as dogmatic in your way as Jerry Falwell who says if you don’t believe you’re going to hell. Why would you want to listen to the second sentence of anyone who said either one of those things? Then you end up with folks like me in the middle, sort of preaching the Rodney King gospel—can’t we all get along—which isn’t as compelling, but I think it’s closer to the reality of things.

It should be pointed out that the Founders were living in a time when religious persecution was very real. Are Americans exempt from the sectarianism that has been so divisive and dangerous in other parts of the world?

I think we are a mighty long way, mercifully, from sectarian violence. An old teacher of mine asked this question: If you asked a majority of people living in America what they were, what would be the first word they said? When would have been the first time they said American, as opposed to Virginian or New Yorker or Christian or whatever? I think most people now, without hesitation, would say first that they’re American. Then they would probably refer to their job and then, and only then, I think, would their religiosity come into it. I think their state affiliation would come way down. I’m just not as gloomy about this as some people. I don’t want to be naive, but I think religion is like economics. It’s about what people value. It shapes behavior in imperceptible but definitive ways. As a Christian, which I am, my argument is that we—“we” being Americans and people of any faith or no faith—have to respect the theological argument that coerced faith is no faith at all. That’s tyranny. And if God himself did not compel obedience, that is, if he created us with free will, then no man should try. Anyone who attempts to coerce belief, or even encourage conformity, is, in theological terms, committing a sin. That’s my personal view.

I think there’s a disconnect between the reality of what many Christians—given that Christians are 80 percent of the country—feel and believe and what people think they feel and believe. One of the great tragedies of our time is that people like Falwell and Pat Robertson have such large microphones and their voices carry much farther than they should. It’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. It’s one of the reasons that, though I don’t agree with him on everything, I applaud former Senator John Danforth, a priest of the church, who says to knock off religious extremism. Let’s not have our politics be tinged, inextricably colored by religion. That’s the great American insight: that religion is a part of our lives but should not dominate them. That was something the Founders got right, and we don’t always appreciate how revolutionary that truly was in an era of established churches.