Before I address the "Christian nation" assertion, let me clear up another common misunderstanding: Our laws and Constitution are NOT based on the 10 Commandments. Commandments 1 through 4 are not only absent from American law but would be unconstitutional and run completely counter to our guarantees of religious freedom (are we going to arrest people for making idols and not honoring the Sabbath?). Commandments 5 (honoring father and mother) and 10 (do not covet) are also not found anywhere in American laws, and some have argued that covetousness (#10) is what makes capitalism possible. Commandments 6 (murder) and 8 (stealing) are indeed reflected in American law, but certainly not unique to America. Prohibitions against murder and stealing predate the Bible and have been found almost universally in societies all over the world. Commandment 7 (adultery) is found as a law in some states but only becomes relevant in divorce proceedings. Prohibitions against "bearing false witness" (Commandment 9) in American law are only applicable in certain situations, like when testifying under oath. Do I personally honor and try to follow the 10 Commandments? Absolutely. I have freely chosen to. And that's the key difference. Not only should the 10 Commandments not be plastered everywhere and forced upon people, but they are nowhere close to being the keystone of American governance as some would have us think.
The affirmation of the separation of church and state is not a secular, liberal, or godless viewpoint. Quite the contrary; it is an entirely necessary position to take for anyone who believes in a non-coercive God. Christians have long spoken of "free will," and the God we read about in much of the Bible never forces Himself on anyone. It is an affirmation that faith in or love of God is not genuine unless it is chosen, and that any other human being should be free to accept or reject faith just as I was. It's a simple matter of putting myself in another's shoes. Would I react favorably if I felt persecuted or marginalized for having a faith that differed from the majority? Would that make me want to sign on with them?
Some of my fellow modern day Baptists have gone a complete 180 from their predecessors. In early America, of all the denominations, Baptists spoke the loudest in favor of the separation. (And again, they did so from religious conviction, not secular interests). Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church on American soil, along with John Clarke, obtained for Rhode Island the first charter in the world that secured full liberty of conscience and religion. Thomas Helwys, widely regarded as one of the first Baptists, wrote the first call for full religious freedom in the English language. Virginia Baptist minister John Leland was set to run against James Madison for a seat at the ratifying of the Constitution until he met with Madison and was assured that he would fight for a provision for religious freedom. Leland once wrote:
"The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever...Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."Those who say that we should be a "Christian nation" or that in our governance we should "recognize our Christian beginnings" can never, in my experience, explain exactly what that would mean. What is being proposed here? Should we replace the Constitution with the Bible as the law of the land? Should we give Christians more rights than everyone else and implement an all new three-fifths compromise for all the inferior non-Christians in our ranks? Who would get to define "Christian?" What exactly would it look like for our country to "return to God?" Christian attempts to baptize government have backfired, serving only to discredit Christianity and setting it back on its larger spiritual mission. The revelation that scripture was used in government documents arguing for war with Iraq is just one of many clear examples of what government would do with scripture and why it's just not a good idea. (Make sure you catch this: the Bible is never quoted in the Constitution, but was quoted in government documents arguing for an illegal, unprovoked invasion of a country. Puke.) The church abuses the Bible enough already - let's not let government have it. Faith, evangelism, and ministry are the work of the church. Government has a different purpose.
Some say we used to be a Christian nation. When exactly was that? When we were running off and killing Native Americans so that we could expand? When we were oppressing and enslaving Africans, Chinese, or other foreigners and minorities to help us prosper? When we were holding witch trials or persecuting Catholics and Jews? When we were not letting women vote? When exactly was this golden age of Godly living?
Read your history: every single time religion gets political power, it's a maniacal mess. BUT, every time people who have willingly chosen to love God and follow Christ freely come together to live that faith out, marvelous things happen. Which brings up the question: What would our nation look like if everyone took the teachings of Christ seriously? Would it look anything like the struggle for power, wealth or influence that Christians are engaged in now, or would it be something drastically different? See Part 2.
Recommended reading: The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church by Gregory A. Boyd.