How the dream of a Judeo-Christian America shaped the culture wars

Healan Gaston excavates a label that has both divided and united us.

“Whatever we once were,” then senator Barack Obama de­clared in 2006, “we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” The statement was both descriptive and aspirational. Because the United States has many varieties of Christianity and many religious minorities, Obama argued, democracy demands that “the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” Democracy itself unites Americans of all faiths and those of no faith.

Obama’s invocation of both religious diversity and democracy resonated with many Americans, but it also met with pushback. During the 2008 campaign, John McCain gingerly but repeatedly described the United States as a “Chris­tian nation.” In the years that followed, conservative Christians sought a political savior who would preserve freedoms they insisted were under assault.

What were we? What are we? How do we “dream” the landscape of American religion? asks K. Healan Gaston. Terms such as Christian, multireligious, and secular are at once descriptive, aspirational, and even coercive. Gaston excavates the history of one such dream, that of a Judeo-Christian America.