Author Examines Founding Fathers' Views on Religion

In American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Jon Meacham asks what America's founding fathers thought about religion in public life. Meacham says those on the left and the right often quote the founding fathers to serve their purposes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The last four American presidents said something in common.

President RONALD REAGAN: America was founded by people who believed that God was their rock of safety. He is ours.

President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: God bless you, and God bless our beloved country. Thank you very, very...

President BILL CLINTON: Thank you, and God bless America.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: May God bless all who wear the uniform and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

INSKEEP: Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush all invoked God in speeches. That has not ended the debate over religion and politics, and that's the focus of today's conversation on the shifting history behind our political debates.

In this series, we've heard evolving explanations for a war. We found that ancient Roman history looks different after 9/11. And on this Thanksgiving Day, we have some history that seems to change depending on who's telling it.

In his book American Gospel, journalist Jon Meacham asks what our country's founding fathers thought about religion and public life.

Mr. JON MEACHAM (Author, American Gospel): There are two camps, I think, about the vision that the founding fathers had for religion in America. The first camp, more associated with the secular left, is that these were fierce separationist men who wrote the First Amendment to prevent the establishment of religion, who were comfortable with the image that Thomas Jefferson used in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in 1802, in which he said that there's a wall of separation between church and state.

Then, more on the right of the political spectrum, there are people who firmly believe that the founding fathers were relatively cheerful Christian soldiers.

INSKEEP: You mentioned a letter that people who believe in the separation of church and state can quote. I guess there's also quotes that you can go to to find that the founding fathers were deeply religious.

Mr. MEACHAM: Absolutely. The founding fathers are a little like scripture. You can use that to whatever end you wish. You know, Shakespeare wrote that the devil can quote scripture to his purpose. I think a lot of quotations that are used on both sides of this argument are often used out of context.

INSKEEP: What are some quotations that are used out of context?

Mr. MEACHAM: Well, the wall of separation between church and state is an interesting one, because Jefferson clearly wanted there not to be an established religion. But he was a more complicated religious figure. You know, he created the Jefferson Bible, in which he took a razor blade to the gospels and edited out the parts he thought were improbable.

But what Jefferson was doing when he wrote the letter that brought the phrase wall of separation, he was talking about church and state, not religion and politics. Because he very well understood that while church and state can be separate, by and large, religion and politics are inextricably intertwined because politics is about people and religion is one of the factors among many that drives people.

INSKEEP: Was George Washington a churchgoer?

Mr. MEACHAM: He was a churchgoer. He was a vestryman of his parish in Virginia. He did not kneel to pray, interestingly. Washington certainly didn't sit around in a men's prayer group and tell his testimony, as we would say. But he was a man who I believe fit into the broad deist category.

INSKEEP: Deist. That means you believe that there is some great god out there, but...

Mr. MEACHAM: For Washington, for a lot of the men of his generation, the language they used to talk about God was the supreme ruler of the universe, the great being, the great author of the universe.

INSKEEP: Are these people then, who believed in a broad, generic god, but as you point out from your example of Jefferson clipping up the Bible, didn't necessarily believe all the stories in the Bible, didn't believe all the miracles in the Bible, and things like that?

Mr. MEACHAM: Precisely. There's a wonderful story about Benjamin Franklin, who very late in his life received the letter from the president of Yale asking him for his religious views and his view of Jesus. And Franklin wrote back saying, I believe in a god who is a creator, I believe in doing good to my fellow man. As to the divinity of Jesus, about what you asked me, I have not dogmatized upon it much nor given it much thought and think it irrelevant to do so now since I soon expect an opportunity of finding out the truth with less trouble. And he died a couple of months later, so presumably he found out.

I am - I should - I reveal this when I talk about these things - I am a Christian. I'm not a very good one. Robert Louis Stevenson once said the duty of a Christian is not to succeed, but to fail cheerfully.

My sense is because of what the founders created, if I wake up tomorrow morning and decide it was all hogwash, nothing happens to my civil liberties, nothing happens to my right to vote, nothing happens to my children.

INSKEEP: You also say though that the founders believed in some role for religion in public life. Where do you draw the line when people want to advocate a specific policy based on their religious beliefs?

Mr. MEACHAM: Do you remember what Potter Stewart said about pornography? A Supreme Court justice, he was trying to define obscenities. He said I can't tell you exactly what it is, but I know it when I see it.

I really believe that the answer to the very relevant question you asked is a case-by-case question. Madison in particular struggled with this a great deal. What I think - and I draw this out of Madisonian thought - is religious people must be honest about what proportion of an argument they are advancing is based solely on their religious beliefs. And people who are more skeptical of having religious arguments need to be aware and tolerant of the idea that religion is going to be one thread in the tapestry of argument. It should not be the whole tapestry.

But as long as we know, for instance, if you and I were arguing about the environment and you were pro-environmental preservation because of your religious belief that this is God's creation and we must preserve it, and let's say I'm arguing for environmental conservation and I'm an atheist, but I think it's sensible because this is the place nature has given us to live, the fact that you're making a religious argument and I'm making an entirely secular argument isn't really entirely determinative in that conversation.

If we find common ground on what to do, I think it requires candor, honesty, integrity, on all sides. So that when we are listening to these debates about whatever issue it is, we at least know where everyone is coming from, and we can decide in the Madisonian tradition how much weight to assign a religious argument or a non-religious argument, and then come to a decision through the workings of the republican - lower case R - contract.

INSKEEP: Jon Meacham is the author of "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation." Thanks very much.

Mr. MEACHAM: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: And our conversations continue tomorrow with American history as told by political parties.

COKIE ROBERTS: History is very useful to politicians, and they try to use it to tell people what they're doing come from the mainstream of American folklore and American Idealism.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cokie Roberts is our guide tomorrow.

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