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

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  2,029 ratings  ·  274 reviews
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 di
Hardcover, 399 pages
Published April 4th 2006 by Random House (NY)
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Caroline I just read The Quartet by Joseph Ellis, it gave a fascinating account of the events leading up to the creation of the Constitution and how the prime…moreI just read The Quartet by Joseph Ellis, it gave a fascinating account of the events leading up to the creation of the Constitution and how the prime movers in that process managed to make it happen against a lot of opposition.(less)

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Dec 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook
"In God We Trust", the official motto of the United States of America, emblazoned on places as important as the Supreme Court and as basic as an off-colour Lincoln penny. That simple, but powerful, sentiment fuels Meacham's exploration of the basis of religion in America, offset by the Founding Fathers' constitutionally entrenched separation of Church and State. By no means was this division as longstanding as the presence of people in the original colonies, for the early residents had fled Engl ...more
Skylar Burris
Feb 14, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, christianity
Jon Meacham appears to take a genuinely moderate approach to his examination of the role of religion in American history. He argues that America was not founded as a Christian nation, but he also declines to classify it as a purely secular nation where religion must be expunged from the public sphere. In clear, concise language, he relates the role religion played in America from the founding of Jamestown to Ronald Reagan, although he is rather sporadic in his approach, often flying through grea ...more
Bernard A.
Feb 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
In my years as a minister, I came to believe that The United States of America was founded as a Christian nation and, somehow, fell away from the true faith. As most Fundamentalists, I believed that America is the New Israel, chosen by God to be a haven of holiness and a light to the world, the Shining City on a Hill.

It took me years to break out of that mindset. In "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation," Jon Meacham puts order to what I had put together on my
Jan 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
When I hear the claim that America needs to get back to being a "Christian nation," it makes me uncomfortable, and the reason is that the "gospel" of American public religion and the gospel of true Christianity are two different things. American public religion is based on the "God of Nature" of many of the Founding Fathers; even the Christian ones signed on to a view of the public God of America who is similar to the God of Christianity but does not, at least as far as I can tell, require and m ...more
Josh Tatum
Aug 23, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Readers who like Newsweek and are uninformed but curious about Church and State in U.S. history.
Shelves: churchandstate
Don't get me wrong, this book covers all the basic points of American religious history. Meacham does a decent job of telling the important - not just the popular - stories of the American religious experience; however, it is written like a Newsweek feature piece. It uses broad sweeps and makes broad generalizations, supported by the evidence that suits the author. Meacham's thesis is stereotypically Episcopalian: when confronted with a choice, Americans chose the middle. While it is true that a ...more
Kevin Press
Sep 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
It probably won't come as a surprise that I found Meacham a bit dismissive of aetheism, but this book is very worthwhile just the same. It explains the misperceptions many of us have about the notion of a separation of church and state in the U.S. Meacham argues convincingly that it is practically impossible to separate the two. The Founding Fathers' notion of God-given, or natural rights are fundamental to our understanding of the U.S.

But it is just as incorrect to describe the U.S. as a Christ
Brian Eshleman
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fcl
Rational, wise, balanced, gracious, these are not words that often surround or explode from the subject. They are, however, fitting descriptors for the author's tone in this book. This is fitting, somehow, since he seems to take the same approach to his biographical subjects.
Scott Rhee
Nov 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
“The atmosphere of our country is unquestionably charged with a threatening cloud of fanaticism, lighter in some parts, denser in others, but too heavy in all.” ---Thomas Jefferson, 1822

“Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. The first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights and no more; every religion has the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sens
Jim Cooper
Jan 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
"The safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgement of this truth is ... an indispensable duty which the people owe Him." - John Adams

"The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion." - also John Adams

How could one president, in the course of one year, have both of those opinions? That's the question at the heart of this book. Adams honest
Brandon Escalona
Oct 16, 2017 rated it it was ok
Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation gives a very extensive account of the role of religion throughout the history of the United States of America. This covers all the way from when the English Puritans were aboard the Mayflower in 1620, making their journey over to what will later become America, to the founding of America, all the way to the mid 20th century. Within the chapters, different topics are split into subsections, which range from a fe ...more
"The preponderance of historical evidence, however, suggests that the nation was not "Christian" but rather a place of people whose experience with religious violence and the burdens of established churches led them to view religious liberty as one of humankind's natural rights--a right as natural and as significant as those of thought and expression."

This one was a complex reading experience for me. The authors says from the get go that this is not an in-depth history, it is an essay on religi
Steven Peterson
Dec 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting reflection on the role of religion in public life and government in the United States. Meacham's basic thesis is that the Founding Fathers "got it right." With respect to Jefferson (sometimes referred to as "Jefferson the atheist" in his own time) (page 4): "Jefferson surveyed and staked out an American middle ground between the ferocity of evangelizing Christians on one side and the contempt for religion of secular philosophes on the other. The right would like Jefferson ...more
Andrew Georgiadis
A deeply researched work with profoundly un-intellectual conclusions

Religious moderation is the preachment in these pages. To disavow religion in public life would be contrary to the delicate balancing act performed by the Founders, who were occasionally agnostics but more likely Christians or Deists, and skeptics all. Our greatest minds were motivated to varying degrees by religious faith – and now we have a work where Meacham boldly supports it as a core of the American experience (i.e. nothin
Colleen Browne
Mar 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Although by no means an exhaustive review of the subject, Meacham's book does a great job of explaining the difference between what he calls the public God and the private God. The public God is the god of nature referred to by Jefferson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, and most of the leaders in our history. It refers to kind of a generic god that is not specific. It can be Christian or non-Christian, or even atheist. He also discusses the Evangelicals of the last 40 years or so who have attempted to push th ...more
Sep 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I don't give too many 5 star ratings, but American Gospel was most deserving. This scholarly and thoughtful book about religion in American is a good refresher course in the American history and includes many facts not commonly taught. Starting with the colonists at Jamestown and ending with September 11, Meacham discusses how faith and religion played a part in the founding and development of our country. The last chapter is one of the best essays on the place of religion in America that I have ...more
Bryson Leake
Oct 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Jon Meacham's “American Gospel” is a book which shows us different aspects of religion and religious views during various time periods through the lense of the founding fathers. The book starts during the colonial time speaking of Historical figures including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. It progresses into later time periods speaking of other important American figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. Meacham uses these figure ...more
Damian Leverett
Aug 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Meacham point is an important one and he makes it well. With concise and gripping historical depictions of important American figures from Jefferson to FDR to MLK to Reagan, Meachem is able to clearly define the American civil religion and its essential role in our nation's founding and development. So many of the struggles and debates in politics today are based around virtues deeply rooted in the American story. Faith is not the enemy and never has been. Rather, respecting the role of civil re ...more
Nov 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
From George Washington to H.W.R. Bush, Meacham follows the history of religion among our nation's presidents and civic leaders. No matter their personal beliefs, most president's concurred with the founding father's insistence that the government at all levels be separate from religion, whether Catholic, protestant, synagogue, mosque or temple. Yet nearly all professed a "public religion" which informed the morals, values, and dreams of the whole nation. More importantly, the American people hav ...more
Joseph Sciuto
Jun 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Jon Meacham's "American Gospel" is a detailed and comprehensive look at America and the influence religion has had throughout our country's existence from the time that the Mayflower landed at Plymouth to the present (2007). The "Separation of Church and State" (Also referred to as the Wall) is a theme discussed heavily throughout the book and if one comes away with anything, it is the importance in keeping the two separate that is one of the main reasons America has remained a democracy, not a ...more
May 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, history
I really enjoyed this brief but sweeping journey through American history. Jon Meacham writes in an easy and readable style. His book helped dispel several myths from my childhood. This is really the first time I have explored this particular subject, so I’m hesitant to come down firmly on all aspects of this book. But I will say Meacham‘s middle ground argument sounds logical to me and seems to reflect The historical data. 4.5 stars

Seth Karp
Oct 16, 2017 rated it did not like it
American Gospel Review
Jon Meacham takes a moderate stance in regard to his discussion of the impact on religion in the development of the nation. Spanning nearly the whole of US history, his book begins with the Founding Fathers, returning to them frequently, and ends by discussing the Reagan period, and the eras in between. Meacham does not argue that religion must be completely kept private, but he also believes that the Founders did not envision America as a Christian nation. He contends that
Dee Arr
Dec 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, politics
In the Notes and Acknowledgments, the author states that he wanted " give readers a sense of the scope and nature of a debate that is even older than the Republic. After a thorough reading of "American Gospel," I have to say that he succeeded. Jon Meacham has taken a difficult topic, and despite a slip or two where he seemed to slide toward personal opinion, the overwhelming majority of the book is a balanced view of religion in America. The book encompasses events from the Founding of Amer ...more
Allison Hechmer
Oct 12, 2017 rated it liked it
One of the most basic foundations of American government and society is the notion that the Church should be separate from the State. Everyone is supposed to be able to worship as they choose and the government is not supposed to promote religion within our daily lives. While this separation of church and state was made law at the very beginning of our country, in reality, we have always been a religious country and the balancing of religion and politics has always been a struggle for Americans ...more
J.S. Green
Mar 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
"Every party cries out for Liberty & toleration till they get to be uppermost, and then will allow none." ~ Lord Bishop of Salisbury

There has always been differences of opinion when it comes to religion, but America was different from other nations because its founding included the idea that freedom of religion was a basic right – to worship where and how one chooses... or not. Nonetheless, we sometimes hear appeals to restore our country to the Christian principles and ideals it was founded
Jun 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Cathy C
Author Jon Meacham attempts to “put the storms of the present in perspective—that we, in our time, could draw lessons from recalling how the Founding Fathers and more than two centuries of American presidents understood the delicate, sometimes corrosive, sometimes corrective connection between faith and politics.”

Meacham explores how beliefs in God shaped framing of our Constitution. “The American gospel is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it.”

What I take away from
Oct 16, 2017 rated it it was ok
American Gospel is a novel written by Jon Meacham. It is based upon how religion and the belief of God was a matter of choice for Americans. The Founders instituted church and state together and Meacham believed that since it worked back then, it will work today. For the majority of the book he used examples from the presidents’ views. From the building blocks of this nation the founding fathers believed that the belief in God was a personal choice. In an effort to prove that religion was very i ...more
Apr 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
I have owned this book for about two years and it kept finding its way to the middle of the stack of books waiting to be read. Then it was the selection for a book discussion group, so I pulled it out. Excellent book. Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, takes an historical look at religion in the United States, especially the religious beliefs of many of the Founding Fathers to try to discover what place they believed religion should legitimately play in the Revolutionary period and in ...more
Kian Sadat
Oct 16, 2017 rated it liked it
“American Gospel”, by Jon Meacham, is a book that shows the reader different perspectives on how religion has affected the history of the United States. In this book, Jon Meacham addresses the role religion has had on the United States. Jon Meacham argues in the introduction of his book, that having religion in the past has proven to be more beneficial than not having religion. Meacham covers the influence religion has had in the United States from early colonial history, to influential people s ...more
Summer bingo - backlist from an author you read for another square (The Soul of America). Wow! Meacham is now one of my favorite non-fiction authors. Incredibly readable, well-researched, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

It's also remarkably relevant for right now (it was written in 2006 - before Obama. before Trump.) and, I think, hopeful. I highlighted so many passages, it's hard to choose one. But this, from page 232, is a favorite:
A grasp of history is essential for Americans of the center
Bob Price
Dec 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
Talking about religion can get you trouble. Talking about Politics can also get you in trouble. Talking about both of them at the same time can get you killed.

Tackling a difficult subject like the place of religion in the United States is problematic at best and dangerous at worse. And yet, Jon Meacham is able to approach the subject with a critical, yet humble method. American Gospel represents Meacham's attempt to document almost 250 years of American religious history and is a laudable attemp
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  • Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787
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Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek, a Pulitzer Prize winning bestselling author and a commentator on politics, history, and religious faith in America.
“Madison struck in 1785, writing a “Memorial and Remonstrance” on the subject of state support for churches. When religious and civil power were intertwined, Madison said, “What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” 0 likes
“I hate polemical politics and polemical divinity,” said John Adams. “My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as the necessity of [enduring] with patience the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation of which I am but an infinitesimal part.” There” 0 likes
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