A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, book editor and journalist, Jon Meacham has spent much of his distinguished career thinking and writing about the risky intersection of religion and politics in American life.
He is baffled when he is sometimes asked why he is so interested in the subject. His reply, “Why aren’t you?’’
“Politics and religion are the two most enduring formative forces in human life,’’ Meacham said in delivering the keynote lecture at the Second Annual Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life on September 30.
The country, he said, has long grappled with the “proper role of religion in our politics, and the debate has been fierce.
“The right, broadly put, longs to engineer a return to what it believes was a Christian America of yore,’’ he said. “The left, broadly put, tends to believe that if only we could recapture the secular nature of the Founding Fathers, then we could destroy the vestiges of what Thomas Jefferson once called ‘monkish superstition.’ Yet, neither of these dire views is quite right.’’
Instead, Meacham said, “The great good news about America, the American gospel if you will, is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. Belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet faith is a matter of choice and not coercion.’’
The wall between church and state that Thomas Jefferson referred to was not meant to run between religion and politics, Meacham said. No wall would be high enough.
"Politics and religion are not synonymous with church and state,'' he added. "Politics and religion are both about people. We cannot legislate a wall between the two. You can just as rationally try and with as much success build a wall between economics and politics or geography and politics.''
The Niebuhr Forum marks the centennial of the graduation from Elmhurst College of theologians Reinhold Niebuhr (1910) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1912). Meacham said he is an admirer and reader of both men.
Meacham is executive editor at Random House, Inc., the former editor of Newsweek and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. His appearance at Elmhurst was also part of the Democracy Forum, a yearlong series of conversations on democracy and civic engagement.
Love of liberty and fair play
His lecture at Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, “The Content of Our Character: Race, Politics, Religion and Culture, and How Traditions Unite and Divide Us,” was attended by more than 600 people on a mild Friday night.
Meacham said despite America’s tragic and not-so-distant history of gender inequality and apartheid-style racism, the true content of our character as a nation is the love of liberty, fair play and equal opportunity for all.
“America is best when we open our arms and our hearts, when we make room for the stranger, when we care for the sick and the poor and the widow and the orphan. How that is doney public or private means often is contentious, especially in times of stress and strain, like the times in which we live now.’’
It is during such hard, uncertain periods, he said, when “radical figures on the left and the right have attempted, sometimes successfully, to hijack our essential character.’’ Yet, what has always saved the country has been “the reassertion of our fundamental tradition of fair play, a tradition that stood the test of time.’’
“That tradition of fair play,’’ he said, speaking in a voice tinged with his native Tennessee, “is of a piece with our tradition of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, liberties, that I think, are the bedrock of our character and the singular American contribution to democracy in the world.’’
Meacham didn’t gloss over the dark side of the nation’s character. Seven years ago, he wrote a cover story for Newsweek blasting Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ that he found to be anti-Semitic.
After the cover story ran, a fellow Southerner and self-described Christian wrote Meacham an email: “Dear Mr. Meacham, I’m praying for you, but I hope you go to hell.’’
That is when Meacham became “fully aware of the extremism that divides the country in a really corrosive and tactile way.’’
Before his lecture, Meacham met with several Elmhurst students and faculty members, telling them that America’s journey has been bloody and tragic and yet incredibly inspiring. “The day before yesterday we were in apartheid,’’ he said. And today, the President of the United States is a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.
“I think history is ultimately a cause of hope,’’ he said. “Otherwise, I would just go into the garage and shut the door and turn on the car.’’
His advice to the students was to “read, read, read,’’ and oddly enough, not to miss what he considers “the best reality television’