Both claim to represent what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they founded the country. The libertarians focus on how we shook off the chains of tyranny, set down a strong Bill of Rights, and enjoyed a weak federal government. The social conservatives grudgingly accept this, but are quick to point out that the phrase "separation of church and state" doesn't appear in the constitution, and that even the Founding Fathers sometimes passed laws that were blatantly pro-Christianity.
Both have their facts right, but what did America look like, really, during those early years? Was it really a staunchly "Christian nation" as the social conservatives like to think? Or was it a society of nominal Christians and deists who were really only concerned with liberty?
There's a lot more out there that I need to read before I can take a strong position on this issue, but Tocqueville's widely respected work, Democracy in America, seems to point to a middle ground. He says that America was a nation of Christian morality, and in some sense, Christianity itself:
There are countless sects in the United States. Each reveres the Creator in a different fashion, but all agree about man's duties to his fellow man. Each worships God in its own way, but all preach the same morality in God's name. [....] All sects in the United States are encompassed within the overarching unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is the same everywhere.
But can it be possible that each person in a liberal society devotes himself to the same religion? Few are the examples of free societies consisting of an entire citizenry passionate about serving God in a unified way. Without political or cultural coercion, disinterest and disagreement is inevitable, but with coercion of some type, unity, or the appearance of unity, can be maintained:
Some Anglo-Americans profess Christian dogmas because they believe them, others because they are afraid lest they seem not to believe them. Christianity therefore reigns without impediment, by universal consent.
Since that time, obviously, things have changed. Charles Darwin made it respectable for smart people to question the existence of God, and other religions have expanded sufficiently to make pluralism the new status quo. Christian morality is no longer widely accepted on many issues, including divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Only some of the general parts of Christian morality remain, such as prohibitions of theft and contract-breaking, and positive virtues such as personal responsibility and caring for the poor. Even these, however, exist not because people are concerned about obeying God but primarily to grease social interaction.
Mores, as Tocqueville calls "the moral and intellectual state of a people," have changed, and that's not insignificant, because:
Laws are always shaky unless they are supported by mores. Mores are the only robust and durable power in any nation.
Indeed, Tocqueville fears that a weakening of religion makes political liberty impossible:
When a people's religion is destroyed, doubt takes hold the highest regions of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others. [...] When no authority exists in matters of religion, any more than in political matters, men soon become frightened in the face of unlimited independence. With everything in a perpetual state of agitation, they become anxious and fatigued. With the world of the intellect in universal flux, they want everything in the material realm, at least, to be firm and stable, and, unable to resume their former beliefs, they subject themselves to a master.
Hold on to your seats:
I doubt that man can ever tolerate both complete religious independence and total political liberty, and I am inclined to think that if he has no faith, he must serve, and if he is free, he must believe.
"Man" here refers to "mankind," so while Tocqueville is defending the utilitarian value of religion in a people, he isn't saying that atheists can't handle political liberty. His point is relevant—today, people are bombarded by pluralistic messages, making doubt toward religion almost inevitable. And indeed, as Christianity has lost acceptance, the people's demands for government-provided security have grown louder. That may be mere correlation and not causation, but I'm putting my money with Tocqueville on this one.
But even if the decline of Christianity is at least partially responsible for growing government, the Church hasn't effectively responded. Seeing its decline both in numbers and cultural significance, it has ignored Tocqueville's wise advice:
Religions should remain discreetly within their proper limits and not seek to venture beyond them, for if they try to extend their power beyond religious matters, they run the risk of not being believed about anything.
Instead, religious leaders have thoroughly involved themselves in politics, some of them spending more time denouncing political positions than teaching the Christian morality with which they allegedly conflict. Now, loud-mouths like Jesse Jackson, Jerry Falwell, Jeremy Wright, and Pat Robertson are the faces of the church—not a pretty sight. And while they do have small spheres of influence, they are intensely polarizing, and largely disrespected by the population at large. Indeed, whenever they open their mouths, they "run the risk of not being believed about anything."
The church no longer understands "that its empire is more secure when it reigns through its own intrinsic strength and dominates the hearts of men without assistance"; instead, it attempts to reign by stepping into the public sphere. It ought to return to its role of being the "safeguard of mores" (a task at which it has failed miserably of late), and stop attempting to join forces with the State (as seen in Bush's faith-based social programs initiative). Joining forces with the government is a road that ends in disaster:
Whenever a religion joins forces with political powers of any kind, the alliance is bound to be onerous for religion. It has no need of their help to live, and in serving them it may die.
The Church hasn't learned this yet, but civil libertarians have known for a long time that government shouldn't be your first pick for a teammate. Social conservatives, and especially the Religious Right, need to reconsider their tactics, and here's a hint—positively impacting individuals is more effective than trying to get the government to treat you "fairly."
It will take a long time before Americans again confound Christianity and liberty, but ultimately, that's what the Religious Right ought to have as their goal.