It has been a learned joke for 40 years that long-serving Chinese premier Chou En-lai, when asked the principal consequence of the French Revolution, replied: “It is too early to say.” As events unfold in this rather dismal election year in the United States, that does not now seem such a jokey comment. The Revolution in France was carried out in successively more radical stages in the name of Reason, culminating in the bloodbath of the Terror of Prairial in 1794 under the Committee of Public Safety headed by Maximilien de Robespierre. Robespierre menaced the National Convention; he was deposed, declared outside the law, and executed without trial. The calm of Thermidor ensued and there followed pell-mell in the next 165 years a cavalcade of directory, consulate, empires, restorations, republics, and occupations.
The central struggle, in France and in most of the West, was over the role of the state, and more generally, over the cohabitation in Western civilization of the forces of Faith and the forces of, broadly speaking, Reason. (Between 1793 and 1871, one archbishop of Paris fled, one was publicly guillotined, one executed by firing squad, and two were assassinated — pretty rough treatment for normally serenely eminent pillars of society; yet, at intervals, the Church was exalted.) This naturally unstable balance, as the sage Chinese statesman realized, is unresolved, even in America. Most of the leaders of the American Revolution were not religious men; of the six principal founders of the United States, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams, only Adams was a practicing Christian. Washington managed the vocabulary and rites occasionally, as when he prayed at Fort Necessity in 1754 (as well he might, after effectively starting the Seven Years’ War with France and being in a desperate military siege), or when he recommended, for war profiteers in the Continental Congress, a higher gallows than Haman’s in the Old Testament (reckoned to have been 50 feet tall). Jefferson was a deist but managed to refer to “Nature’s God” and Man’s “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence.
The principal intellectual inspiration at the founding of the country was the cult of Reason chiefly sponsored by the French philosophes, especially Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. None of them admitted to being an atheist, but they were all assumed to be indifferentists (agnostics). Voltaire professed to find Christianity “ridiculous, absurd, and sanguinary”; and Montesquieu’s seminal Esprit des Lois, which — more than any other source — inspired the U.S. Constitution, was long condemned by the Holy See.
Though the constitutionally declared U.S. presidential oath does not refer to God, those who take it have, in practice, appended the words, “so help me God” to the oath, and most up to Franklin D. Roosevelt, including Washington and Lincoln, kissed the Bible after being sworn. The most familiar patriotic songs are very explicitly religious. “My Country ’Tis of Thee” exhorts: “Long may our land be bright, / With freedom’s holy light, / Protect us by Thy might, / Great God our King.” Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” could hardly make a more direct invocation, and urges the Almighty to “stand beside her, and guide her, / Through the night with a light from above.” More precise still is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which scripts the Union Army, in specific emulation of the death of Christ, to seek to “die to make men free.”
The First Amendment to the Constitution forbids Congress to prohibit the free exercise of religion, and there are unofficial overtones in many faiths, including most Christian denominations, that the United States has been a providentially favored country, almost a promised land. If a 19th-century British bishop could famously aver that “God is an Englishman,” the United States asserts that “God has favored this undertaking” (the establishment of the American republic, the proverbially “last best hope of earth”). Culturally, all learning and advancement of knowledge is encouraged, and fundamentalist Christian efforts to suppress the teaching of evolution and other scientific concepts apparently inconsistent with the Bible have always been unsuccessful. The state has not oppressed religion, and no level of religiosity or religious authority has been officially permitted to restrict freedom of scholarly research and expression (there have been countless local infringements in both directions, but none sanctioned by higher courts or entrenched in statutes invulnerable to judicial review).