“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”…
“in order to form a more perfect union“…
I draw upon that phrase from the United States Constitution to discuss Chapter Three of Peter Gomes’ book entitled The Good Book. I am a student of history, having an educational credential* in the subject, but I have never taught it. I have always been a person who has a great respect for the past. I am also not a person who has a naïve view of my country’s past, one prone to rewrite American history in order to make a certain group of people look better or worse. I believe history happens and then historians strive to put it down on the page. In that process, excellent professional historians go through a stringent methodology to capture the most accurate view they can of what actually happened.
Before I begin to comment on Gomes’ third chapter, I need to be transparent about my views. I see our country’s history riddled with example after example of human cruelty and injustice**. I don’t ascribe to the idea that our founding fathers were perfect men of God who were divinely inspired to create a nation under my Christian God. That is what is stated in The Constitution but in my opinion putting something down on paper and actually doing what you intend to do are two different things.
Has America achieved great things? The answer is yes.
Has America done horrible things to innocent people in the name of our quest for power, even in the name of God? The answer is yes.
Has America been a country that has invoked Scripture and God to justify its actions? Sadly, I have to admit that we have.
The Good Book was published in 1996, but as you read Chapter Three [“The Bible in America”] it is astonishing how the problems of that era linger on into today’s world. Gomes opens the chapter citing two towering figures of the past: Reverend Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan. Both men are still alive but some would argue that their influence over the culture wars of today has waned. Gomes uses these men as polar opposites, two men looking at the same book and seeing two different worlds.
Jesse Jackson is an African-American political activist, Baptist minister and politician. He ran for president in 1984 and 1988. Pat Buchanan is a Caucasian author, political commentator and politician, serving in the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Gomes writes “their visions for America could not be further apart, and yet both appeal to the vision of the Bible to sustain their own views, and both regard the Bible as the moral platform upon which the well-being of the republic ought to be reconstructed” . Jackson has always argued that America has never lived up to its lofty ideals about equality for all its citizens, while Buchanan feels that we have lost our biblical basis for a Christian society; we need to revive those lost ideals [those founding father goals]. How could two views be more different, with a single basis for those views being one Book [God’s word].
Where does Jackson see America going? If you study this man, his earthly inspiration comes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who began a civil rights movement, a moral movement dedicated to eradicating racial inequality from the American landscape. Dr. King took The Constitution literally, that the nation was created to be under God and the founding fathers intended to declare that all men could be free. Dr. King did not see that reality in American daily life of the past or in the present but his life goal was to try to get America working toward euality [trying to get America “to form a more perfect union”]. Jackson has always seen himself as carrying Dr. King’s work forward toward making America what it truly could be.
Where does Buchanan see America going? He is unhappy with the way things are today. Prayer is out of school, Roe V. Wade is overturned but there are still too many options available for women who want an abortion. Gun rights are under attack as more and more shootings are happening in American society. Gun control is definitely not the answer. America is adrift. We are too lenient on the LGBTQ+ community, too much entertainment that comes out of Hollywood is anti-family and the black community is suffering due to too many “hand-out” social programs [no incentive to work for a living]. America needs to return to the “good old days” when life was simpler, right and wrong were clearly defined, and people had a definite strong moral influence from their faith in God. Buchanan wants to turn the clock back to the days of the founding fathers, those idealists who envisioned a strong America centered on God. But is a return to the past the answer? Were those “good old days” really that good?
Both men declare that America needs “to get back to the Bible.” The problem is that it seems like they are not talking about the same Book. Americans have always thought of themselves as “people of The Book.” One can see it in our wars where our armies were destined to win because “God is on our side.” One can see it as we expanded from the east coast to the west coast; Manifest Destiny was a mandate from heaven. As previously stated, one can even see it in how some white Southerners turned to the Bible to justify heinous acts like human slavery [see “I Am Justified” St. John Studies, April 15, 2023].
Truly when Puritan settlers came to America, they had lofty goals. Gomes speaks of John Winthrop, leader of the Puritan colony that reached Boston Harbor. He delivered a sermon on the Christian basis for the new civilization that his people intended to found in the new land. He referred to it as a “New Modell for Christian Charity.” America was intended to be a beacon for the world, a shining light on the hill; he drew from Proverbs 4: 18 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” [Proverbs 4:18]. Today we still have a problem with people trying to come to the beacon. Some say we have too many people wanting to come to America from all over the world. They want to be Americans but they don’t want to enter the country legally. The process is lengthy, complex and expensive but suffering people from other countries are willing to risk their lives so they can have what Americans have.
What we take for granted.
Gomes entitled his Chapter Three “The Bible in America” but whether you believe in America moving forward “toward a more perfect union” or returning to the ideals of our Christian founding fathers, it is important to realize that all American people don’t agree. America today is not that far removed from America of 1996, when Gomes published The Good Book. The problems we had then still exist and some would say they are even greater.
This post has looked at two different men with two different outlooks. What both men have in common is a strong attachment to The Bible. The problems we have in this country cannot be encapsulated in such a simple discussion. We will revisit the topic again in my next post.
Does America even need to lay claim to the Bible?
Is the Bible a truly American book?
These ideas merit further discussion.
*Bachelor of Arts in History, Western Kentucky University, 1974.
**injustice to indigenous peoples, slavery, immigrant discrimination and cruelty, denial of voting rights to women, internment of Japanese-Americans etc. etc.