I think one of the underlying themes that drives Christian revisionist history (the attempt by Christian conservatism to assert that the Founding Fathers were all Christians and founded America exclusively on explicitly Christian principles) is the belief that religion and morality are inseparable — that one’s religion determines one’s morality. The understanding, of course, is that Christianity is the only route to a valid ethical foundation, and that atheism or neutrality in religion necessarily entails a lack of any moral basis at best (and at worst requires inverting “Christian” morality so that evil is lauded and good condemned).
If America was founded on basic principles of morality and human decency, they argue, it must have had a Christian basis (whether the Founding Fathers intended it to or not). And if it loses that Christian foundation, they argue further, it will lose any hope of retaining its ethical and moral high ground.
This entire viewpoint, however, is categorically and ridiculously false. While it is true that many religions (including Christianity) set moral standards by the laws explicitly or implicitly present in their religious texts, many more religions leave most ethical questions to each person’s conscience, preferring to deal instead with matters that concern gods and spirituality rather than humanity and everyday life.
Furthermore, atheists, agnostics, humanists, and people of other non-religious ethical persuasions do not use or need a religion on which to base their moral code, and yet have still somehow managed to keep from killing each other and sacrificing their firstborn children to Satan (or whatever it is Christians think all unbelievers do).
Then, of course, there’s the fact that no government, no country, no business, no book or movie or any other inanimate object or conglomerate can ever be “Christian” in the same sense as a human being can be “Christian” (a follower of the teachings of Christ, someone whose salvation is assured by their belief or baptism, etc). A book can be written by Christians. A movie can promote a Christian ideology. A business can be founded on principles that agree with the teachings of Christianity. But none of these things make them distinctively “Christian” — a Christian can write a book that does not deal with overtly religious themes; an atheist can direct a movie that carries many striking parallels to Christian teachings; a business with no religious connection or background can choose to deal with its customers and employees in a manner Jesus himself would applaud.
And a government can be founded in the Western world, during a time of nearly universal Christian influence, which nonetheless explicitly and intentionally separates the realm of church and state — a separation that was nearly unheard-of to that point, a separation born in response to a great concern for state-sponsored religion and church-backed government, a separation not only written into the government’s popularly ratified Constitution (a new development in the history of government), not only written into the Constitutionally-appended Bill of Rights (a revolution in limiting government power1 ), but also explicitly stated in a treaty with countries of high Islamic influence and referred to numerous times in external writings by most of the Founding Fathers.
America is not and never was a Christian nation in any sense other than having a high population of professing Christians. This country was not founded on the Christian religion or any other religion. Did aspects of the Christian culture prevalent during its founding influence some of the decisions made by the Founding Fathers? It’s not impossible. But ethics and morality are in no sense inseparable from religion. Look no further than the oppressive Anglican church in England at that time — the founders of this country would have wanted, if anything, to distance themselves as FAR as possible from THAT brand of religious “morality” in founding a country based on liberty, justice, and individual rights. And, no, the answer was not “choose a more ethical flavor of Christianity” — the answer was “choose a code of ethics unbridled by religious requirements”.
1. Some parts of America’s Bill of Rights were based on the English Bill of Rights passed just over a century prior. However, one key difference lies in the fact that England’s Bill of Rights mainly curtails the reigning monarch’s power, expanding the rights of Parliament (the representative voice of the people), while the US Bill of Rights focuses on the rights of the people themselves to escape undue interference from ALL levels of government.