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Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (New York: Random House, 2018), 416pp.Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (New York: Random House, 2018), 416pp.

A review by Brad Keister, former Deputy Division Director of the Physics Division for the National Science Foundation. In 2018, Brad retired from the more formal demands of research and teaching, and lives in northern Virginia.

Jon Meacham is on that short list of important public intellectuals who self-identifies as a Christian. He has published a dozen books, and won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling biography of Andrew Jackson called American Lion. Today he holds the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Endowed Chair in American Presidency at Vanderbilt University.   

In our present polarized society, Meacham revisits other times in our nation’s history that were also polarized, if not much more dangerous, and shows how courageous individuals stepped forward to heal the divisions or to fight for reform.  He explores national issues like racism, women’s suffrage, poverty, as well as movements such as the KKK and communism. He argues that there have been demagogues and violent protests throughout American history, but ultimately the “better angels” of our society have prevailed, and our country has moved forward. Those better angels have included both presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln, and private citizens, such as Rosa Parks. That said, Meacham is also quick to point out that progress forward can be followed by regression, and that issues such as racism need to be met head-on, and repeatedly.

Such lessons from history can never be guarantees for the future, and in a sense American democracy can still be seen as a fragile experiment. But Meacham’s book offers hope: we have been here before, with even harder problems, and have emerged a stronger and better nation.

Dan Clendenin:

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