It turns out that I spent the beginning and the end of last week in the hospital, first for a moderately invasive medical procedure and then for a difficult to diagnose (but ultimately easy to resolve) complication. I am now better than ever. (Ed. That's not saying much!)
While I was gone, an interesting debate broke out in the comments section of a post on Larry Craig. The issue was whether the US was founded as a Christian nation and much of the discussion focused on the religious views of the founders.
There is a tradition of noting that some of the founders were Deists or Unitarians and implying an intention to create a thoroughly secular public order.
My sense is that the better scholarship (and perhaps the emerging - or at least the latest - consensus) supports a somewhat different view. It is hard to argue that the founders imagined the type of naked public square called for by groups like Americans United and the ACLU or the robust wall of separation that the Supreme Court has sometimes sought to maintain.
It is a bit anachronistic to extrapolate from views held in the context of a society in which religious differences were almost entirely between differing Christian sects. Unitarians then were not quite what we know to be Unitarians today - generally folks who like church but aren't all that enamored with the God thing.
In any event, the question before us is not so much the religious views of the founders but the regime they created. The state of Thomas Jefferson's soul may be interesting but, ultimately, it's just not that relevant. (Jefferson, incidentally, was not even at the Constitutional Convention.) Whatever he - or any of the others - "truly believed", it is hard to make an historical argument for, as one prominent law professor puts it, public life as a "religion-free zone."
On the other hand, I am uncertain what it is supposed to mean to say that the United States is a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. It is certainly descriptive to say that it has been, for it's entire history, a nation largely made up of Christians and Jews. One can also make an argument that its constitutional principles and national character have a Judeo-Christian pedigree.
But what does that mean? A person can endorse those principles without being a Christian or Jew, even if you think she is living on borrowed intellectual capital. It seems axiomatic that, even if you believe (as I do) that there is more room for religious expression in public forums than some of our jurisprudence would permit, there is a clear constitutional proscription against establishing a national religion and a rather unqualified guarantee of religious freedom.
I am with the late Chief Justice Rehnquist that trying to describe this as a "wall" is a useless metaphor based on bad history. I agree with Justice Reed that there is a certain folly in basing a rule of law on a figure of speech. But I also can't see much help in calling the U.S. a Christian nation. That is, in many ways, an accurate description, but it's not a rule of decision or a legal status.