The role of religion in American government is complicated, controversial and absolutely essential, Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, said in the 18th annual Ferdinand Phinizy Lecture.
“As far back as you go, you can’t really separate the two,” said Meacham, who wrote American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation. His speech, entitled “God in Politics: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” traced the impact of Christianity on politics throughout the nation’s history, from the Constitution to Roe v. Wade to The Passion of the Christ.
“Religion makes people nervous, and understandably so, think of all the sins committed in the name of God,” he said. “There’s no doubt the Christian church has a lot to answer for, and we should answer for it.”
The Bible has been used to justify slavery, the removal of Native Americans and the oppression of women. But it also provided inspiration for the creation of democratic government, exemplifying religion’s role as a double-edged sword.
“Jefferson saw that if one’s rights were grounded in the divine, they are not in the hands of a king or a sovereign who could take them away,” Meacham said. “But he also favored the liberty of people to choose which religion they would follow.”
The American view of religion, he said, advocates worship of a god or supreme being in vague terms. America’s “public religion,” he said, is inclusive and marked by one’s treatment of others.