This is far from the first book to explore the history and mythology behind the relationship of Christianity to American culture and government. To apply a meteorological metaphor: the topic acts like a stationary front hovering just off our coast, but occasionally coming ashore visiting political gusts, cultural storms, and rare incidents of violent behavior upon our land. So much has been written that one hardly knows where to begin.
Leafing through the phenomenal bibliography on the subject, one prominent landmark extruding above much of the literary horizon remains The Search for Christian America, by evangelical historians Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden, (Westchester, IL, USA: Crossway Books, 1983), which challenged the rose-tinted-lens notion of a pristine American “golden age” in which the Founding Fathers established an explicitly Christian nation that guaranteed freedom of religion without ever intending to separate religion from government. On the opposite side of the fence stand people like David Barton, and his WallBuilders organization—a name derived from the book of Nehemiah, but ironic in light of his opposition to the “the wall of separation between church and state” concept.
Meacham gives us a fresh popular survey in American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, (New York, NY, USA: Random House, 2006). It features an impressive bibliography and an innovative (I assume) endnote system based on page numbers that I have found much easier to use than the standard (and dreaded) endnote system.
Interestingly, Meacham does not choose the Pilgrims as his starting point, as one might expect, but Thomas Jefferson. I assume that by this choice he is telegraphing where he intends to take us, especially given what he tells us about Jefferson in his opening pages. Starting points frequently determine ending points, and it is at this point that I will begin with my next post on this book.