Just finished Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House, 2006). It is an extended essay on how American presidents from Washington to Reagan have practiced and supported public religion. The author takes on the task of defending the middle ground against two extremes. From the right are those who portray America as a Christian nation, which misrepresents public religion as a form of sectarian religion. From the left are those who, relying on Jefferson's metaphor of The Wall (separating Church and State), would like to banish any hint of religious discourse from the public sphere, making no distinction between public religion and sectarian religion. Meacham supports his reasonable middle position with a pleasantly readable sampling of American political history and a wide variety of presidential quotes.
Here's his critique of the modern take on The Wall: "The wall Jefferson referred to is designed to divide church and state, not religion from politics." Public religion as Meacham uses the term represents religion, not church. The term "public religion" is borrowed from Benjamin Franklin, who lauded its "usefulness to the public; the advantages of a religious character among private persons; the mischiefs of superstitions, etc., and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others ancient or modern." Despite the mention of "the Christian religion," Franklin's notion of public religion was grounded in "Nature's God" of the Declaration of Independence, not in particular Christian creeds or denominations. The "unalienable rights" promised in the Declaration derived from Nature's God: men were "endowed by their Creator" with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Here is Washington from his Farewell Address: "[L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." By "national morality" he was referring to republican virtue, the character of the people necessary to make popular government — still a rather tentative affair during the Washington presidency — a success. The supposition that Washington viewed with caution (the notion that civic morality can persist in the absence of religion) has since come to define large chunks of society. There is heated disagreement, of course, on whether Washington — and the broad tradition he represents in holding that opinion — was right to fear the consequences of embracing that notion or not.
Given the subtitle of the book, which suggests a focus on the Founding Fathers, I was surprised that it covered presidents clear through the 19th and the 20th centuries. Meacham goes on to show how Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan all slipped comfortably into the discourse of public religion when addressing the nation on issues of great pith and moment. In the final chapter, he discusses Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well. And public religion, while it generally adopts Christian rhetoric, is not really Christian; it is simply religious. Meacham gives several examples of presidents going out of their way to bring Muslim and Jewish groups within the American religious polity. [Even those stubbornly sectarian Mormons finally got a state (in 1896) and senators.]
These comments don't really do the book justice, but they'll give you something patriotic to think about while you stand in line at you local polling place today. If you read it, you'll come away from the book feeling better about your presidents (of any party). Even John Tyler sounds noble in Meacham's narrative.