WASHINGTON -- The controversy surrounding Christine O'Donnell's constitutional views -- does she deny the existence of the establishment clause? dispute its location in the First Amendment? reject that it mandates the "separation of church and state"? -- is mainly the result of the candidate's own imprecision. On the evidence of her recent debate, O'Donnell's real problem is that this "constitutional conservative" seems unmotivated by any strong, developed views of the Constitution.
But her views of the First Amendment seem to represent a broader tea party belief. One intriguing finding of the recent American Values Survey is that 55 percent of tea party supporters believe that "America has always been and is currently a Christian nation." The figure among Christian conservatives is 49 percent. According to the survey, the tea party movement is less religious than the traditional Christian right. Yet a higher percentage of tea party supporters believe in a Christian America.
This was particularly evident in the patriotic piety of Glenn Beck's "return to God" rally on the National Mall. It was civil religion revivalism. There was little evidence of racism or a longing for white privilege. But there was plenty of nostalgia for an idealized past in which government was smaller, social ties were stronger and America was a Christian country.
This view is comforting -- as comforting as a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. It is consistent with populist movements before it. But it is flawed nonetheless. America is not a Christian country, and has never been, for historical, theological and philosophic reasons.
First, the Constitution was designed for religious diversity because the founders were religiously diverse. The 18th century was a time not of quiet piety but of religious controversy. It was a high tide of American Unitarianism, a direct challenge to Christian orthodoxy. Thomas Jefferson's Deism flirted with atheism -- a God so distant that he didn't even require his own existence. As Jon Meacham points out, the Founders were less orthodox than the generation that preceded them, as well as the one that followed them. Their commitment to disestablishment, in some cases, accommodated their own heterodoxy.