It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the founding of the United States without using religious metaphors and discussing the faith of our founders. I do it. I’m an American, and I was reared on the myths that so intertwine faith and politics that trying to pry them apart is like attempting to separate gum. I grew up in Tulsa, which has declared itself the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” On any given day here, you’re liable to find a religious tract on your door or to be approached in public by a stranger who wants to know if you’ve been saved. You cannot overestimate the importance of camp meetings (now held in massive, air-conditioned auditoriums) and revivals here. (This of course begs the question: Why do we need so many revivals here?) I went to school, learned to drive, and got my first kiss (literally) under the shadow of Oral Roberts — an evangelical faith-healer who built a multi-million dollar ministry traveling the country holding tent meetings (the old, un-air-conditioned kind). He preached the gospel…and anti-communism. That’s how it is in America: the separation between church and state is a sieve.
On the one hand, we want to pledge ourselves to the ideal (more often as a means of preserving the church from the clutches of the state than as a way to promote tolerance), but, then again, we believe that our country was founded by the guidance of Providence. We believe that we have a divine mission — and being a great and righteous super-power is it. Thus, our founding legends are more than histories — they truly have a sacred purpose. It is through these that you come to understand yourself as an American and accept your inherited mantle of righteous obligation. It’s a birthright. You are one of God’s chosen people. I am not being facetious in the least here. This is our truth.
This, again, explains why we are taught that the Pilgrims are our ancestors — and not the Cherokee. The City on a Hill now spreads from sea to shining sea. It is also why we’re taught to revere the Declaration of Independence, which justifies our rebellion and incorporation as a duty to protect the rights that God gave us and set us on our holy path. Religious leaders speak from the pulpit about how God ordained our purpose in the beginning — this is our Genesis — and guided our Founding Fathers. They were creating a nation with a calling and divine purpose; this is what you hear. Secular scholars and atheists sometimes attempt to discredit that interpretation by insisting that our founders were not religious. At best, they were deists who did not believe in a living God personally involved in the events of men. If we as a people did not so dearly treasure the role of religion in our country, that debate wouldn’t be so heated.
The conversation might also be different if we could understand our faith historically. Modern Christianity is different from the religion as practiced two hundred and fifty years ago. Even evangelicalism looks different. Religions — like other human activities — evolve over time and are shaped by persons and temporal events. Our democracy is different; so is our faith. There appear to be some consistencies — we seem to have always loved easy salvation — but there are differences too. Ironically, our historiography contributes to this. The mantle you receive today is necessarily different than that of our first settlers, who were not indoctrinated to believe in a divine plan. They could not see our country as a benevolent super-power; they were just tilling new ground. They were not fighting international wars to make the way safe for democracy.
As such, they didn’t need to write history that — well, there wasn’t history to write at that point. It is us, those who come later, that have added the meaning and interpreted historical events as the unfolding of a divine plan (spreading righteousness, freedom, and democracy around the world). Because we see ourselves as religious people — largely Protestant Christians — with a calling, we write histories describing the unfolding of our sacred destiny and forging a common link through religion with our forefathers. It serves our purpose. If we didn’t believe this about ourselves, we’d write different stories. Of course, if you take out the religion, it really would be un-American.