The Foreign Policy Research Institute rolls out this piece by Walter McDougall every year on the nation’s “High Holy Day” and it is worthy of repeated consideration. Here is the introduction:
The spiritual qualities of public rhetoric in American politics, courtrooms, churches, schools, and patriotic fetes used to be so pervasive, familiar, and unobjectionable that we citizens just took it for granted (until the advent of litigious atheists). Our national motto is “In God We Trust.” Our Pledge says we’re a nation “under God.” Our Congress and Supreme Court pray at the start of sessions. Presidents of all parties and persuasions have made ritual supplications that the United States might be blessed with divine protection. The last stanza of “America” begins “Our father’s God to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing” and ends by naming “great God,” not George III, “our King.” The last stanza of the “Star Spangled Banner” asks our “heaven rescued land” to “praise the Power that has made and preserved us a Nation.” “America the Beautiful” asks that “God shed His grace on thee.”
Most Americans, even today, would likely agree with Boston Puritans John Winthrop, John Adams, and Jonathan Mayhew, Princeton Presbyterian Jonathan Witherspoon and his disciple James Madison, Virginian Anglican (and Freemason) George Washington, and Deists Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin that Americans are “called unto liberty” (a phrase from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians)—that we are a new chosen people and ours a new promised land, and that our mission is to bestow liberty on all mankind, by example if not exertion. To be sure, the majority of Americans always found it easy to identify the God who watches over America with the God of their Protestant theology. But thanks to the free exercise of religion—the “lustre of our country” ensured by the First Amendment—religious minorities have been free to embrace the American Creed with equal or greater fervor.
Thus did Bishop John Carroll, founder of the American Catholic Church, “sing canticles of praise to the Lord” for granting his flock “country now become our own and taking us into her protection.” Thus did Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin liken Americans to the Children of Israel being led through the Sinai: “God Bless America, land that I love, stand beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above.” When Americans of all sects or no sect gather in civil ceremonies to praise their freedom, honor its Author, and rededicate themselves to their nation’s deals, they do not merely prove themselves a religious people, they prove the United States of America is itself a sort of religion, a civil religion, or as G. K. Chesterton put it in 1922, “a nation with the soul of a church.”