One of the interesting bits of studying American religious history is the ongoing question of what unites America. The American Experiment has been an odd and interesting one, where diverse colonies found themselves united into one nation. Yet what holds us together into a United States?
Early on, it was Protestantism that united the colonies. The sense of not being under Catholicism or a monarchy was a powerful notion. Protestantism was something bold and liberating, and it gave an identity (even if it was an identity by negation, that we were not Catholic). This notion of being a Protestant nation continues today as Protestants dominate America with about 51% of the US population. There are also popular ideas about America being founded by Christians on the basis of Biblical principles, and this perspective shares in that Protestant mindset. America being a Protestant nation comes, in part, from England and the dominance of the Anglican church (which has mostly seen itself as Protestant). We also see America's Protestantism in the anti-Catholicism of the last two centuries, when Catholics were discriminated against for being un-American ("No Irish allowed" signs, for example).
Wedded to notions of American Protestant Christendom is the idea of republicanism, that we are a nation without a monarchy; instead, we are a government for and by the people. Catholicism is part of Europe with its kings, emperors, and bishops, while Protestantism is for democracy. This is why we debated the place of Catholics in America for a good two centuries. America is a place for people who value freedom. These ideas morph in the twentieth century into our opposition against communism and the Cold War. What united America then was a common faith in God and democracy, while the Russians were atheist and communist. In such a world, Protestants find themselves building bridges with Catholics and Jews in a common faith in God and America.
This common faith has deep roots. Benjamin Franklin wanted to promote a common civic morality and faith that revered God, ethical living, and the nation. For President Eisenhower, we had a need for a faith in faith, to believe in something as a common ground. We were a Judeo-Christian nation, made of up of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants who stood together against the forces of evil. We believed in ourselves and the power of being the last, best hope on earth, as Abraham Lincoln had said (and fought to keep true in the Civil War).
The many wars in American history show how it is war that brings us together. We were born in a Revolution, purified in ongoing wars of the 1800s and then the Civil War, and proved our global dominance in the twentieth century's World Wars. Wars have been a way to prove our devotion to our nation and its ideals of freedom, democracy, and its own special place in the world.
What makes American history so interesting is its many subtleties. We are dominantly Protestant, yet Catholics outnumber any single Protestant denomination. The Protestants that populated America were quite diverse; Quakerism and Anglicanism are nearly two different religions. Catholics and Jews have been here from the beginning (although in small numbers, at least in the early decades of the Union). We are now richly diverse ethnically and religiously, yet still see the dominance of Christianity in our beliefs, history, and way of life. We are secular by law but religious in outlook and practice. We have had almost no religious wars or persecutions on our soil (the Mormon War is one exception). We have been a tolerant nation, broadly speaking, yet slavery and racism are a constant dark theme to America. What unites the many peoples of America given our diversity, history, and divisions?
The search for a United America continues.