Joe Carter has a good post over at the First Things blog that well understands America's civil religion, how it is not "Christianity," and how Christians can tolerate it as long as they understand to take it with a grain of salt.
Carter notes one reason why Christians shouldn't embrace America's civil religion (i.e., "under God" in the Pledge, "In God We Trust" on our currency, and generic Providential invocations of God made by the Declaration of Independence and America's key Founders) is the idea derives from Jean Jacques Rousseau of all people.
Now, I've meticulously researched the record and have found little that suggests the "key Founders," despite Jefferson's flirtation with his ideas, consciously followed Rousseau. Rather Rousseau's powerful ideas were absorbed through osmosis.
So because the Founders had better "intentions" than Rousseau, Carter, after Jon Meacham suggests we understand America's version of the "civil religion" as Ben Franklin's "public religion," something Christians can feel a little better about, but still shouldn't confuse with real, genuine orthodox Christianity.
Here is a taste from Carter's piece:
I think most of the Christians at both First Things and Front Porch Republic would agree that there is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between a deistic civil religion and orthodox Christianity. But the civil religion that our fellow citizens embrace is not the type Rousseau had in mind. It is very much a view that is rooted in the concept that America is a Christian nation (or at least a Judeo-Christian nation). For them, the “In God We Trust” on our coins might as well say “In Jesus We Trust.” The State is not only subordinate to the one true Sovereign (and don’t let the capitalized noun fool you—we’re still talking about Jesus here) but is expected to conform to his standards. Although this view can lead people to use Christianity to promote Americanism, more often it simply leads to criticism of the nation’s flaws. The fact that the country continually falls short of God’s standards is a constant annoyance for those who believe that the founding documents were wholly derived—at least in principle—from the Holy Scriptures. (Think I’m exaggerating? Talk to some of these folks and see if you don’t get the impression that they think the Constitution was inspired more by the Gospel of John than by John Locke.)
Those of us who champion a role for religion in the public square, however, cannot fully embrace this Christianized concept of civil religion. If we claim, as our friends and neighbors believe, that “under God” refers only to the Christian conception of God then we are either being unduly intolerant or, more likely, simply kidding ourselves. Do we truly think that our fellow Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist patriots are claiming to be under the same deity as we are?
And here is perhaps the most powerful and contentious part of Carter's post:
We can’t claim, as the Apostle Paul did on Mars Hill, that the “unknown god” they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Pledge is, after all, a secular document and the “under god” is referring to the Divinity of our country’s civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.
While we should be as tolerant of civil religion as we are of other beliefs, we can’t justify submitting to it ourselves. That is not to say that we can’t say the Pledge and think of the one true God. But the god of America’s civil religion is not the God who died on the Cross.
This brings to mind both Freemasonry and the concept of "natural religion," both powerful influences on America's Founders. I've seen a simple reduction made by secular leftists that Freemasonry and natural religion equate with non-Christian deism. And that's not quite right. "Natural religion" means that which man can understand about God and His attributes from reason unassisted by the Bible. It holds that all good men of all religions (including non-Abrahamic traditions) worship the true monotheistic God. Not surprisingly this concept had its deistic and unitarian defenders. What might surprise some folks is, it had its orthodox Christian defenders as well. Their take was yes, all good men of all religions worship a monotheistic God. And, obviously, God is monotheistic. But non-Christians distort or otherwise err on God's attributes. Still, natural religion can be shown to parallel and reinforce the teachings of revealed religion.
I blogged about this here and I noted, Samuel Landgon, former President of Harvard University, probably the most prominent orthodox Christian expositor of "natural religion" of the Founding era. Samuel Langdon's lecture on natural v. revealed religion typifies the orthodox Christian pro-natural religion position of the Founding era.
Likewise Freemasonry was predicated the concept of "natural religion." Freemasonry was a system where anyone who believed in God -- Deists, Unitarians, Trinitarians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. -- could belong. Freemasonry and orthodox Christianity are not necessarily mutually exclusive (indeed there were lots of orthodox Trinitarian Freemasons of the Founding era). Rather, orthodox Christians need to ASK whether, at its least harmful level, Freemasonry is in tension with orthodoxy. Arguably it is as orthodox Christian Freemasons, by necessity, take religious oaths along with Jews, Deists, Unitarians, Muslims and Hindus whose religions are incompatible with theirs.
Likewise, just because Samuel Langdon was (or appeared to be) orthodox doesn't necessarily give the concept of "natural religion" ANY value to orthodox Christians. Of course, when said Christians understand the CENTRALITY natural religion played during the Founding era -- it is THE RELIGION THAT UNDERLIES THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE -- they might wish to "find" value in it. But perhaps that's just wishful thinking.
By way of analogy, Elias Boudinot was, without question, an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, and a very important Founding Father. He also argued that the American Indians were Lost Tribes of Israel. Boudinot's orthodoxy along with the important place he occupies in American history should not give his theory any credence in fact for the simple reasons that 1) it's in all likelihood wrong, and 2) it has nothing to do with orthodox Christianity. Yet it's precisely this kind error of appeal to authority that David Barton and the "Christian America" crowd oft-make.
But much of this depends on the approach orthodox believers take. Orthodox Christians are not all monolithic. Many orthodox Christians argue Jews and Christians worship the same God; I've seen some argue Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God (I would assert that if you argue former, you must, by logical necessity argue the latter; but I don't have time to get into that in detail here). And some like Carter argue that Christians worship a Triune God, Jews, Muslims and everyone else, a false God. If one takes Carter's approach to orthodoxy, then the Declaration of Independence, America's Founding civil religion, the concept of natural religion all should not speak to one's personal religious convictions.
On the other hand, if one takes a more ecumenical approach and is open to the idea that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God, that, like Paul on Mars Hill, non-Abrahamic folks (for instance, unconverted Native Americans, worshipping "the Great Spirit") can unknowingly worship the Abrahamic God, then the Declaration of Independence, Freemasonry, America's civil religion and natural religion might resonate with one's personal faith.
Finally, as a philosophically minded fellow, I like it when folks shit or get off the pot, and follow their theory to its logical conclusions, consequences be damned. If one is going to take Joe Carter's approach, as Dr. Gregg Frazer does, then argue Christians worship a Triune God, all other religions a different God and this includes Jews, Deists, Unitarians, Muslims, Native Americans, Mormons, the God of the Declaration of Independence, America's civil religion and the key Founders.
On the other hand, if you are going to be ecumenical, cut the self serving sophisticated crap and admit that Jews, Christians, Unitarians, some/(most?) Deists, Muslims, Mormons and others all worship the same God, which could be the "Nature's God" of the Declaration of Independence. The idea that the God of the Declaration of Independence is a "Judeo-Christian" God that Jews and Christians, but not Muslims or others (Mormons?) worship is an indefensibly nonsensical assertion. The key Founding Fathers intimated that UNCOVERTED Native Americans who worshipped "the Great Spirit" worshipped the same God Jews and Christians did. If Paul on Mars Hill applies to "the Great Spirit," it certainly applies to Allah, the Mormons, Deists and Unitarians, and probably just about every other exotic world religion. At least that's the way Christian defenders of "natural religion" like Samuel Langdon would see it.