A significant debate exists among historians and popularizing pundits about the religious origins of America and the religious views of her founding fathers. Some assert that America was a "Christian nation" from the beginning. Others point to the broad deism of prominent founders such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison to suggest that the philosophical views of the Enlightenment provided the primary basis for the Founders’ convictions. I have always felt the truth was not at the extremes. America was deeply influenced by Christians but the founders clearly never intended to create a Christian nation. Read the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Christ is not mentioned, nor the church of Christ. Most of the states favored one church over another but this was not the real issue either, at least not at that time. The founders were clearly thinking as far forward as possible. I doubt that they had any idea of the various religious competitors with the Christian faith that would arise centuries later; e.g. Muslims, Hindus, Taoists, etc.
For this reason I have always found references to our “Judeo-Christian” roots as disingenuous. Jews were not a part of our founding and only much later were they welcomed and accepted, especially because of impact of Reform Judaism. In some ways the Jews had to prove that they were good Americans before they were widely accepted. Even Catholics were denied basic rights at the founding of most states. Massachusetts gave them the franchise in 1833! They too had to prove their loyalty to the nation in much the same way that we are now asking Muslims to do.
Cherie Harder, president of the evangelical Trinity Forum, adds: “Whatever the current ideological and historical divides between evangelicals and skeptics, one of the most interesting aspects of the founding was the unusual alliance between them – which ultimately ushered in the religious liberty we now expect as an intrinsic human right.” She is spot on in her observation.
Most of the original colonies had established a state church (generally Anglican or Presbyterian, though Maryland came along a little later to be a Catholic state) which, in some cases, eagerly prosecuted - and sometimes persecuted – denominations such as the Baptists and the Quakers. (The Quakers found a home in Pennsylvania and the Baptists in Rhode Island.) These minority Christian groups harbored no hopes for dominance in the new land. They did advocate for the freedom to worship as they believed. By this means they made strange bedfellows in their common cause for religious freedom with the deists and Unitarians of their time. All of them opposed the civil authority of established churches (the Christian "power centers" in the culture) to secure the full freedom of religious expression. They saw, in the Bill of Rights, that this freedom should be unhindered by the privileging of one denomination over another. They interpreted Jefferson’s famous statement about “a wall of separation” in a way that favored the view that the state had no interest in supporting and favoring the church, any church or religion, in particular or in general.
The evangelicals wanted disestablishment so they could freely preach the gospel; the rationalists and deists wanted disestablishment because they felt an enlightened government should not punish people for their religious views. The combination of the two agendas would transform America, helping make it both intensely religious and religiously free.
Trinity Forum Founder, and evangelical author, Os Guinness has written eloquently about the dangers of both a sacred public square, where religion is established by the state, and “a naked public square,” where faith is hindered or marginalized to private and pietistic expression only. Cherrie Harder is quite right when she says that: “It is worth noting that one of the greatest achievements of the founding – the securing of religious freedom and disestablishment of religion – came about precisely because it was in the best interest of both the faithful and the skeptical to ensure that the public square neither privileged nor penalized the practice of faith, but secured the freedom to think, speak, and worship publicly, as well as privately.”
What we had in America’s origins was a strong and unusual alliance between people of deep Christian faith as well as doubters and Deists. This is why Jefferson and Franklin had close association, in this regard, with groups like the Baptists. Today we still have both sides present in our constant cultural battles between those who would marginalize or banish faith from the public square and those who assert the cultural predominance of a "Christian America." The truth, in this instance, is not at the extremes of this debate. It is in the middle where it was in the Founders. These men worked to give us an incredible blessing. Can we keep it and use it well? Their gift was a nation where the most devout Christians, the most faithful Muslims and the most obnoxious atheists may live with the same freedom to propagate their beliefs without interference by the state.
The so-called Christian Right, and the older and more liberal Christian Left, both seem to miss the real genius of our system and how it works for our overall good. This is a free land where religion can and should play a role in public life without the interference and support of the state in the process. And it is a land where a plurality of faiths is not only tolerated but encouraged so far as the state is concerned. If you are a Christian you should thank God for this amazing gift. Personally, I think it is America’s greatest gift to her people and, for that matter, to the whole world. I think this gift is continually threatened by people of many faiths who seek to use the state for their religious goals, good or bad. This is why religious zeal, on every side, disturbs me when it directly enters the realm of the state.