by Michael Bowen & r & American Gospel by Jon Meacham & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & omewhere between private expressions of faith and public-square politicking lies "public religion." Somewhere, that is, between the practice of religion guaranteed by the Constitution and secular wrangling over policy lies an acceptable middle path between Christian fundamentalists and hair-trigger atheists. That's the thesis of Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation (now in paperback from Random House).

According to Meacham, Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" (a notion that wasn't popularized until a 1947 Supreme Court decision) "is designed to divide church from state, not religion from politics."

Worship privately without state interference, in other words, but don't expect politicians to ignore religious tenets altogether. The church doesn't need the state: As Meacham asks, "What kind of God was so weak he needed the authorities ... to prop him up?" But politics does need religion -- or at least executives, legislators and judges can make use of the kind of humility rooted in awareness of supernatural power.

Forging through chapters on five American eras -- colonies, early Republic, Civil War, world wars, civil rights -- Meacham offers a quick sketch of political leaders invoking public religion during times of crisis. His academic approach necessitates 83 pages of footnotes, but it also offers the advantage of reprinting historical documents that rebut the claims of the religious right. A 1798 treaty, for example -- not debated at the time -- explicitly stated that America was not a Christian nation. In the 1840s, separation of church and state was much ballyhooed by Protestants who didn't want public funding for the Catholic schools of Irish immigrants. Meacham is also prepared for secularists with his demonstration that at every pivotal point in American history, political leaders have invoked God's assistance: Faith is woven into the fabric of the Republic.

He quotes his sources so extensively, however, that sometimes it feels as if he's simply emptying his notebook. After 250 pages of text, readers deserve more when it comes to religion's place in the public square than mere appeals to common sense. Meacham is better at compiling other writers' ideas than he is at advancing his own.

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