I just came across this article by Bill Flax; Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I think it’s fairly accurate, but only up to a point. Flax observes that:
The most vocal proponents of Christian America and their counterparts advocating a completely secular state necessarily cherry-pick data to prove exaggerations while discarding inconvenient details.
Flax criticizes the Religious Right for “transforming our Forefathers [ the Founding Fathers] into faithful servants of Christ.” On the other hand, observes Flax, “[T]hose most ardently challenging America ’s Christian origins wrongly portray the Founders as rank secularists.”
While there is no question that there were many Christians among the Founders, I think the second idea is closest to the truth.
American culture is predominantly Christian. But America is not, never has been, and never was a Christian nation. The fact that many Christians were instrumental in creating America does not change that fact. America is an Enlightenment nation. Many Enlightened Christians helped create it. But it is not a Christian nation. Pre-Enlightenment, Christianity had centuries to create an American nation, but did not and could not. No Enlightenment, no America.
The Founders believed in reason; that reason is a valid guide to human action and man’s primary means of supporting his life; that reason belongs to the individual; that therefore individuals must be free to live by reason; and thus government must be erected to protect man’s inalienable rights to liberty. These are Enlightenment ideals. This liberty includes the freedom to live by one’s beliefs, whether religious or not. Hence, the First Amendment, and church-state separation. This view is compatible with enlightened Christianity: God created man and nature, but then leaves us to shape our own existence with our human faculties without His interference. But this view is not dependent on Christianity. The Enlightenment transformed Christianity. The Enlightenment led, Christianity followed. Man’s nature and the social requirements for his survival and flourishing are what they are, regardless of whether one thinks man has supernatural origins or not.
The Founders did inherit Christian morals. But the Founders were political, not moral, revolutionaries. Enlightened Christianity served as a ready-made philosophy for the Founders, even though much of it—particularly the altruist ethics—contradicted the Declaration’s principles, which sanctioned man’s right to pursue his own happiness. Like most enlightened Christians—and as Flax notes—the Founders cherry-picked what they thought to be the rational elements.
While Flax decries Big Government operating in Christ’s name, he seems to approve of “big government” when it suits Christianity: He condemns those who believe the First Amendment justifies evicting crosses from parks, purging prayer from schools and ousting “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Founders wouldn’t have supported officially-sponsored prayer in government schools. If they did, they would be completely contradicting their own Founding principles. It’s clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause for a government institution to impose religious practices. It’s simply wrong to impose prayer sessions on a captive audience of kids compelled by truancy laws to be in schools that their parents are compelled to finance. I doubt the Founders would even approve of our government-run schools. It clearly contradicts the principle of inalienable individual rights, and makes inevitable conflicts like the controversy over school prayer.
The same goes for the Pledge of Allegiance. People should be privately free to insert “under God”—or not. The legislature should stay out of it, giving no official stamp of approval for or against “under God.”
As to “evicting crosses from parks,” the issue is public parks vs. private ones. As long as “public”—tax supported—parks exist, any display carries the implicit sanction of government. Of course, Christians, being taxpayers, can rightly claim that as partial owners of the parks, they have a right to display religious symbols. But then the same can be said of secular groups. These kinds of conflicts are inevitable with any kind of “public” ownership.
But Flax is wrong that “Modern denizens of political correctness [secularists] reckon the Founders so irreligious that they had sought to diminish spiritual influence.” Did they really? Or did they seek to separate government influence from private influence—a crucial difference. Look around. Churches are as numerous as gas stations and Dunkin Doughnuts. No one ever proposed eliminating religious displays in front of private homes; or banning private religious practice in public, so long as there is no implied government sanction. The Founders sought to protect private “spiritual”—religious—influence on the basis of “To each, his—not government’s—own.”
America as a Christian nation would be a nation ruled by biblical edicts rather than objective laws. Under such a regime, non-Christians—and even minority Christian sects outside the Christian mainstream—would be, at best, second-class citizens and, at worst, subject to persecution and even imprisonment or death. America would be, in essence, a Christian Iran.
It should be remembered that secular government does not mean atheistic government. It means a government that is neutral in the field of ideas, neither promoting nor forbidding any belief system, but protecting freedom of conscience so long as one’s actions don’t violate the rights of others. This distinction is important. A secular state is neither anti-Christian nor pro-Atheist. It is what America was intended to be; a government of laws and not of men.
My Commentary on Church-State Separation