In truth, all the talk, from the eighteenth century on, of the United States as a religious nation was really just a make-nice way of saying it was a Christian nation—and even to call it a Christian nation was usually just a soft and ecumenical attempt to gloss over the obvious fact that the United States was, at its root, a Protestant nation. Catholics and Jews were tolerated, off and on, but “the destiny of America,” as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835, was “embodied in the first Puritan who landed on those shores, just as the whole human race was represented by the first man.”
Even America’s much vaunted religious liberty was essentially a Protestant idea. However deistical and enlightened some of the Founding Fathers may have been, Deism and the Enlightenment provided little of the religious liberty they put in the Bill of Rights. The real cause was the rivalry of the Protestant churches: No denomination achieved victory as the nation’s legally established church, mostly because the Baptists fought it where they feared it would be the Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians fought it where they feared it would be the Congregationalists. The oddity of American religion produced the oddity of American religious freedom.
The greatest oddity, however, may be the fact that the United States nonetheless ended up with something very similar to the establishment of religion in the public life of the nation. The effect often proved little more than an agreement about morals: The endlessly proliferating American churches, Tocqueville concluded, “all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.” The agreement was sometimes merely an establishment of manners: “The clergy of all the different sects hold the same language,” he added. “Their opinions are in agreement with the laws, and the human mind flows onward, so to speak, in one undivided current.”
Morals and manners, however, count for a great deal in the public square, and, beyond all their differences, the diverse Protestant churches merged to give a general form and a general tone to the culture. Protestantism helped define the nation, operating as simultaneously the happy enabler and the unhappy conscience of the American republic—a single source for both national comfort and national unease.