When the Congress first met, Mr. Cushing made a Motion, that it should be opened with a Prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of N. York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, because we were so divided in religious Sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some anabaptists, some Presbyterian and some Congregationalists, so that We could not join in the same Act of Worship. Mr. S. Adams arose and said he was no Bigot, and could hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same Time a Friend to his Country.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, September 16, 1774; in The Founders on the Founders (2008), ed. by Kaminski.
This is an interesting snapshot of what was considered religious diversity in 18th-century America. We should note that there were also certainly Deists, Roman Catholics, and Jews who were considered to be patriots as well. They were probably not thinking too much about atheists, “Mahometans,” “Hindoos,” and so forth, because there was a presumption of a certain degree of cultural homogeneity.
This is what people mean when they say that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Despite the fracturing of Protestantism, religion was still closely tied to culture at various levels. The amorphous group we sometimes call the “Founding Fathers” repeatedly write about the necessity for “true religion” and virtue, as well as certain secular qualities such as patriotism and sound reasoning. Religion was not separate from the “rest of society,” but they assumed that a certain ecumenism and civic religion would prevail in public venues such as Congress.
From my study of the Founding Fathers, I cannot see them advocating what today is considered to be a wholly secular government. That was accomplished by Robespierre during the French Revolution, providing the model for every truly secular government since then, up through the USSR, China, Burma, and North Korea. They also weren’t planning on a Protestant theocracy along the lines of Cromwell’s protectorate. The Founding Fathers knew about the Roundheads and the Jacobins, and neither were considered as ideal models.
Rather, the Founding Fathers clearly intended for people to practice their culturally distinct religions locally and affirm a Deistic civic religion at the national level. This is actually the position of the US government even today, and I think it is quite functional as a political compromise.
However, there are problems in this arrangement for the large numbers of people who desperately need to latch onto some superstition or magical figure, while at the same time furiously rejecting anything that smells like Grandpa’s religion. So, they might pick neo-paganism or evolutionism, Deepak or Oprah, UFOs or furries, crystals or angels, Obama or Bush. It’s all idolatry to me. What specifically irritates me, though, are the Christians who ignore Jesus Christ and the Bible, and instead raise up the civic Deism of the federal government as their “true religion”; then they turn around and start judging other Christians for not being committed enough to their civic religion.