Recently I happened to hear the journalist and historian Jon Meacham being interviewed by David Axelrod. Over the past decade, Meacham has established himself as a preeminent observer of civic life and can most often be counted on for a historical perspective on the events of the day. Meacham invariably puts the latest news in the context of the frame of reference of American history. Meacham was selected by the Bush family to be the authorized biographer for George H. W. Bush, culminating in his book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. He gave eulogies at the funerals of both President Bush and Barbara Bush. This summer his biography of congressman John Lewis, His Truth is Marching On, was published.
Here in St. Louis, Meacham chairs the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University.
Jon Meacham is a lifelong Episcopalian. David Axelrod asked him about his faith. Axelrod began by acknowledging how unique it is. He said, “Among elites there is a kind of disdain for faith... Talk to me about faith in your life and faith as you see it as part of a larger journey of a country and a society.”
Meacham replied, “Well, I think it’s vital... I am a Christian, I am a sacramental Christian, I am an Episcopalian, there are six of us left. I say my prayers. I would be disappointed if my children were not to continue in the faith. I do believe that faith and reason are the two wings that we need to take flight, to torture that metaphor a little bit.”
Axelrod followed up: “Well, let me just stop and ask you for a second, for you personally, what does faith provide, what role does it play in your life?”
Meacham said, “I believe in the faith of my fathers and to me it invests the earthly journey with divine origins and significance that there is an order beyond time and space that has found manifestation within time and space in acts of love and worship of a greater good which is God.”
He followed by saying, “And it takes human experience and is the single best tool I know against the besetting sin of narcissism. That is my Christianity is that we live in a world that has fallen and sinful and frail and fallible. And that a series of events in time and space showed us a way to move as close to a greater and empowering good as we can in a fallen world.”
He continued, “But I also believe that faith requires action and that reaching out as a fundamental commandment; the commandment found in Leviticus and repeated by Jesus is ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Who the hell wants to do that? You're my friend, I wish you well, but do I love you as much as myself? No. But that's why it's so radical, that's why it's so revolutionary. And I've argued in the John Lewis book in particular that the religious tradition, which I was raised in, offers us, I think, a marvelous road forward to a more inclusive and just and fairer country. Because I think if we would spend a little more time focusing on the sermon on the mount rather than the Supreme Court we would begin to reorient and see our public policy choices differently.”
Jon Meacham has shown us how a twenty-first century Episcopalian accounts for his faith. Meacham relishes Christianity because in his faith he has found the intersection of his life and his times and something larger, something transcendent. He mentions Jesus. He relishes the Christian faith because it has given him perspective on himself. He knows that the faith carries the responsibility to share that faith with others; and the responsibility to work to make the world in which he has found himself in more closely resemble the Kingdom of God.
And he can express this faith in no more than a couple of paragraphs.
The stories of the ancient saints and martyrs almost always include them succinctly giving an account of what they believe yet so often Episcopalians are flummoxed when asked to speak about the faith that sustains them. I think Meacham’s example is worth emulating:
State what it is that you believe. Mention Jesus.
State what that belief requires from you.
State the difference that faith can make.
I believe that being Christian is not to be vague, boring and conventional and middle-class with a SUV — being Christian is an adventure. It’s up to us to share that adventure with a world that is literally dying from lies, anger, bigotry, and greed. The world needs to hear from us. We need to be able to clearly state our faith, we need to state what its cost is, and we need to state the difference this adventure makes. And we need to include Jesus when we do.
Jon Meacham, in a very Episcopalian way, has shown us the way.