One thing that frustrates me about the argument that America is a Christian nation is how badly the argument gets made. You could actually make a much better case than people like David Barton, Glenn Beck and the rest actually make.
You could start out by looking at the demographics and point out that American’s were overwhelmingly Protestant Christian. Granted, most of these were not church-goers, but they still considered themselves Protestants.
You could look at the State constitutions. Half of the states had established churches, and most of the states had some provision to limit the rights of non-Christians and Catholics. Perhaps that’s part of the problem; the reality doesn’t fit the “Judeo-Christian tradition” understanding that became popular in the 20th century.
You could look at the court cases, such as the blasphemy trials in New York, which made explicit that Christianity was the law of the land. But there again, blasphemy trials are not what we want to remember about our founding.
Instead, Christian Nation types spend most of their time quoting from our small pantheon of Founding Fathers. Barton wastes a great deal of time on Thomas Jefferson, the “Virginia Voltaire,” someone who was regarded as an infidel by large numbers of Americans. Barton tries to rehabilitate Jefferson’s Christian image, but Jefferson was in France when the Constitution was being drafted, making his faith a side issue.
My guess is that Barton and the rest are still stuck in America’s civic cult, AKA American exceptionalism. Since the founding, there has been the idea that God has a special plan for America, we are the New Jerusalem, the “City on a Hill,” and so on.
This is a top-down affair, with God or God’s providence moving history forward and setting leaders in place who guide the people to the promised land. It’s not a bottom-up piecemeal process, with a largely Protestant population voting in mostly Christian representatives who put in place loosely Christian constitutions in some – but not all – of the states.
The reality is just too untidy for Divine providence to be at work. The Christian nation crowd needs heroic Christian figures to inspire the masses like the Patriarchs of old. Instead they get squabbling old men who were theologically unreliable. They want a good story with nice clean lines and an unarguable moral ending. Instead they get the mess that we call reality.