Conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, insist that the founders of the republic were all pious Christians. In fact, few of the men who led the revolution or drafted the constitution could be described as pious or even orthodox. Washington was an ordinary Anglican, which even in the 18th century meant very little, while John Adams was a Unitarian, Jefferson a mildly anti-Christian deist, and Ben Franklin a sceptical freemason as well as a rake. America —alas, it is all too true — has been swept periodically by revivals and cult crazes. Many of the cultists went west and ended up in California, the last stop of the rootless and disaffected before falling into the Pacific.

I have lived 60 years in the United States, the first 25 of them as an atheist, the last 35 as an increasingly reactionary Christian. I have never witnessed the great piety and deep spirituality which I have heard described in 4 July addresses and in semi-scholarly tomes on American religion. We are a practical people, above all else, and, as I have heard repeatedly from business and political leaders, religion makes good sense: the man who goes to church also goes to work, takes care of his family, pays his taxes. This is religiosity, not Christianity.

For American Christians, what they say they believe does not always translate into concrete actions or even into support for Christian moral positions. They complain, occasionally, about the prohibition of prayer in school and resent media attacks on religion, but they seem unaffected by the pervasive blasphemy of television commercials and by the barbaric post-Christian morality of everyday life in these United States.

The United States was never a ‘Christian country’ in a confessional sense, though it was once a nation of mostly Christians. Today, it is a nation with a weak-kneed Christian majority that elects, year after year, an actively anti-Christian political class that encourages divorce, protects abortion and pornography, and banishes prayer and Christian symbols from public places. Republican leaders, it is true, pander to their Christian constituents, but they have never and will never lift a finger to advance the cause of Christian morality, much less Christian faith.

Most Americans say they ‘believe in God’, and Americans do attend religious services more frequently than Europeans, or at least they tell pollsters they do, though when the numbers of an ABC poll are broken down, weekly churchgoers tend to be women, Southern, Republican, and old. In western Europe, far fewer people go to church or profess any religious faith, but, from what I have seen, observant Catholics in Italy and France are a good deal more serious than their counterparts here in the land of ‘In God We Trust’.

To compare apples with apples, the most prominent conservative Catholics in the United States are the so-called neoconservatives. They are indifferent or hostile to the traditional liturgy, defend the discovery of democratic capitalism as an event of ‘incarnational significance’ (Michael Novak), and have routinely defended US foreign policy against explicit statements of John Paul II. Catholic neoconservatives represent the triumph of ‘Americanism’ in the Church. They are more Republican than Catholic, more loyal to George Bush than to any Pope. In secular, anti-Catholic France, a Catholic has to be resolute, even courageous; in America, he just goes with the flow. ~Thomas Fleming, The Spectator (registration required)

Dr. Fleming should be congratulated on this incisive and unflinching demystification of the idea of the “Christian country” that continues to blind Christians in America to the errors to which they acquiesce on account of their priorities as Americans. In fact, the sooner Christians learn to discern and keep distinct the different kinds of participation and loyalty that they owe to the Church on the one hand and their country on the other the better it will be for the quality of their religious life and perhaps for the quality of our civic life. Recognising that the Enlightenment and Christianity do not really happily coexist side-by-side in this country, pace First Things, Christians might learn to throw overboard a host of liberal notions that they have embraced since childhood to the general confusion of their religious understanding.

The sooner they can acknowledge the admirable qualities of, say, the Framers in terms of their constitutionalism and political theory, while recognising that such a political compromise has little connection to the creeds those men confessed (or did not confess), and that any state and its principles, even in medieval times, did not embody Christian truth, though it might have endorsed Christianity in an official capacity, the more clearly will they see that any genuine establishment of Christian doctrines and norms in this country will not occur through anything that takes place in government but will be realised in the church and in the home, and only then, if at all, gradually moving outwards to affect the wider society.

I suspect that this particular imaginaire of the “Christian country” put forward by many Christians is a sort of belated defense mechanism, a half-hearted attempt to claim that Christians such as they can belong to the nation in the wake of concerted efforts to exclude expressions of Christianity. Never having been intense or perhaps all that profound in many instances, these expressions perhaps meant more to Christians after they had been denied. If immigrant Catholics adopted Americanism for the purposes of integrating into American society and eliding the differences between themselves and their Protestant fellow citizens, evangelicals have created their Christianised Americanism to reconcile their continued enthusiasm for an increasingly abstracted, non-historical sense of American identity with their putative religious enthusiasm.