Though on many levels the United States is a forward nation and global leader, American society still holds on to, in one way or another, many backwards and puritanical values that were once at the core of this nation’s foundation. While at one time certain values and principles were necessary for the survival of the community, today they have become part of an archaic system that is incompatible with a modern industrialized society such as ours. Religion has had a pivotal role in various historical events that have shaped the course of this nation as a consequence of the sentiments and beliefs of the followers of religious doctrine.
Though religion is meant for the overall good of mankind, much controversy has surrounded the actions of religious extremist over the years, ranging from intolerance, hate, and even terrorism. It is undeniable the effect that religion has over its followers ranging from the common man to politicians, but as social, political, and scientific progress continues to advance, the role of religion in the United States should be reconsidered as we look to maintain our leading position in the front of the global community.
Given the vastness and complexity of the role of religion in the history of the United States, it would be impossible to summarize all the major components of the subject within the confines of one paper. However, a brief summary of some important historical events is required to better understand the way this nation has been shaped as a consequence of religious doctrine. Religion has always had a central role in the history of this country and to a certain extent, was a fundamental player in the establishment of the American state.
From an early age in elementary school we are taught how during the 17th century, a sect of Englishmen were persecuted for their religious beliefs and so, fled the tyrannical rule of the British crown to establish a society where they could practice in peace. Having landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Pilgrims established a colony bearing the name of their place of landing where they established self rule in accordance to their puritan values.
Despite initial hardships, the colony of Plymouth was rather successful, self sufficient, and given the general sentiments and beliefs of the population, it was a colony of a people united through faith. Though the Pilgrims sought the freedom to practice their creed, being Puritans they wanted to as the name suggests, “purify” the Anglican Church from years of perversions by the English monarch. This strict adherence to traditional and conservative views and strict theological governance resulted in dissidence towards the leadership of the colony.
The neighboring colony of Rhode Island was established justly as a consequence of an uprising towards the puritan institute of Massachusetts and Plymouth as safe havens for those who wished to practice their respective religions without interference from a theologically based government. The idea of separation of church and state would eventually go on to find itself as a key principle in the newly independent United States. As guaranteed by the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (US Const. amend I).
Up until that point, religion had a significant role in the years leading up to and during the Revolutionary War. At the time of independence, religion helped define allegiances and loyalties as many of those sympathetic to the British Crown were Anglicans. Despite the negative result of the war for the Loyalists, they were able to continue practicing their faith as the principles of freedom protected them. The right to practice independent of government involvement guaranteed under the Constitution was fundamental in establishing a pluralistic state in the U. S. that embraces a diverse array of conflicting faiths and beliefs. It is this very ideal which aimed to protect the rights of the individual and ultimately the integrity of a unified national government that would ultimately go on to establishing regional differences and sectionalism within the nation. In examining the role of religion in the United States, it is crucial to touch upon one of the most marking periods in the nation’s history.
The Civil War dissolved the Union among regional and sectionalist lines, in what has been the bloodiest conflict on American soil. Until the mid 19th century, national congregations helped provide a sense of unity across state lines amongst its followers. However, with moral issues such as slavery coming into questioning, regional chapters of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches split off from their national counterparts; each one embracing certain moral views that alienated their members from one another.
As churches were central aspects of the community, ministers and religious leaders had great influence in helping fuel the division between the different regions. In border states such as Virginia, “Southern Methodism spread sectional sympathy… while in the western part of Virginia, where Northern Methodism was strong, ‘the sentiment… for Union was overwhelming’” (Goen 10). In the South, where slavery was a key part of the region’s economy and culture, religious sects “provided distorted images of ‘the other side’ and encouraged ‘peaceful secession’”.
While in the North religious groups such as the Quakers spoke out against the institution of slavery, in the south it was justified by ministers through passages in Genesis and claims that it was “God’s will” that blacks be held as slaves to the whites. The dawn of the 20th century was marked by various movements that had religion at their forefront. With the rise of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, policies regarding alcoholic beverages began to take on national importance as they, along with other temperance groups, argued that liquor was the root of many of the country’s problems.
The period of Prohibition started 1919 with the passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States…”(US Const. , amend. XVIII). Though the main goal of Prohibition was to curb crime and reduce the social ills of society, the opposite effect took place as the sale and production of alcohol continued illegally and boomed under the command of criminal organizations headed by gangsters such as Al Capone.
As the operations and revenue of crime lords increased, so did their power and influence, allowing them to bribe the police and do ultimately as they pleased. It was not until the passage of the 21st amendment in 1933 that Prohibition ended and was ultimately deemed a failure. There’s no denying that over the course of this nation’s history, religion has become a fundamental part of the American life, reaching out and affecting various members of our society.
Despite the concept of separation of church and state, there is no place where the effects of religion are more evident than in politics. There is evidence that clearly supports the hypothesis that the way the President is viewed is heavily influenced by his personal ideologies. Even though the United States is a diverse nation that encompasses many different races and ideologies, there has been a curious pattern with regards to those elected for the office of President. All of those elected to the Presidency have been followers of Christianity.
Even more curious is the fact that only John F. Kennedy was Catholic when all the others have been followers of Protestantism. The issue over the President’s religion is a heavily contested one even today, where even though President Obama has clearly stated he is a Christian, many still question his faith and claim that he is in fact a Muslim. Whether someone is a Christian, Muslim, or Jew should have no importance in determining whether he is fit to become President or not, or determine how his administration is viewed.
For a nation such as ours that embraces diversity, we should judge the President not by his personal beliefs, but by the content of his work and the effectiveness of his administration. The fact of the matter is that politicians are elected to represent the general interests of the population, and since religion is a major part of the lives of many, providing a sense of connection and community between followers, it becomes a major criterion in selecting those who will lead us. “Religion contributes to attitudes or beliefs that are less likely to allow for acceptance of ideas with which one disagrees” (Eisenstein 335).
In a nation as diverse as ours, the interests and beliefs of many often go unrepresented as they are often the minority in a sea of communities whose majority are Protestant. It is a shame that for a nation that is a world leader on so many fields, we are starting to lag behind nations in Europe and Asia in terms of social, scientific, and technological development. This recent decline can be attributed to no other than the rise of right-wing Evangelicalism that has gained power by capitalizing on the more conservative beliefs of many in the heartland of the country.
This movement that started at the end of the 20th century, continues to promote greater recognition of the important role religion should play in public life. With politicians acting on the basis of faith, much legislation that would go on to push forward initiatives for scientific research has been voted against. While China and the European Union have backed stem cell research for quite some time, the United States only recently under the Obama administration began to remove some of the restrictions on it placed under previous administrations.
The main argument against stem cell research from fundamentalists and religious politicians is that utilizing human embryos for research would constitute murder as they believe life officially begins with conception. Even though stem cell research promises much good in combating innumerous health conditions, advancements in the field have been limited given the widespread opposition by those who are against “playing God”. Religion has also had a major role in terms of impeding certain levels of social progress.
Gay marriage is a controversial measure that has time and time again been put down by conservative legislators who hold that the institution of marriage is divinely constituted between a man and a woman. Though the United States prides itself on diversity and tolerance, we are behind other countries such as Argentina and Iceland who have taken more liberal and progressive stances on the issue, granting the same rights heterosexual partners enjoy to homosexuals. The Icelandic people have even gone as far as appointing the world’s first openly gay prime minister to office.
While the prospects for a change in stance by Washington seem slim, various state legislatures such as that of Massachusetts and New Jersey have already legalized gay marriage showing that a path of hope and equality for homosexual partners exists regardless of religious bias. After a brief examination of the role of religion in shaping American politics and as a consequence various events in American history, it is necessary to understand the influence faith has over its followers, more importantly on families.
Religious institutions have been particularly influential carriers of family-related culture over the course of American history. As families are the basic units of society, the tremendous effect that religion has had over society stems justly from the impact that it has over individuals and their loved ones. Our parents, siblings, and relatives exert great influence over us, especially during the first years of our lives, where much of what we learn comes from their teachings and experiences.
Religion not only acts as moral path to guide us, but as link between us our kin and society, providing a source of informal networks that provide social support for family-oriented behavior. As parents raise their children, they will often times instill in them their own personal beliefs. At a young age children are highly susceptible to influence, causing in them a sense of obligation and pressure to please their parents by following in their faith.
Though children lack the maturity and understanding to be able to make an educated decision with regards to what spiritual path is right for them, they should not be obligated to adhere to their parents’ faiths. Salvation is a perfect example of how sometimes children are pressured not only by their family but by their communities and society to follow a certain religious path. As a child, Langston Hughes recalls a revival at a local church where a “special meeting for children” was held in order to save them from sin.
Amid a frenetic congregation, Hughes remained alone at the mourners’ bench as all the other children were overcome with emotion as they were “brought before Jesus”. In order to avoid embarrassing and disappointing those he loved, Hughes lied about being saved. Though the church broke out into jubilation with his salvation, Hughes latter went on to feel shame and personal guilt for his lie and more importantly for the fact that he “hadn’t seen Jesus, and … didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come to help” (Hughes 230) him.
It is evident that the potential psychological effects religion can have on a child can carry on to adulthood, impacting the life of someone. Religion has had a tremendous impact in shaping the course of mankind. Though religion preaches doing good by our fellow man, much harm has been caused in the name of God as entire wars, political movements, and social uprising have occurred as a result of faith. While religion unites people, it also acts as a barrier between members of different creeds who fundamentally share similar ideals and beliefs.
Religion has been responsible for backwardness in terms of scientific and social development as much progress has been impeded by religious doctrine and morality. While other countries are making scientific and social advances, we lag as we still hold on to a set of archaic ideals and beliefs that are no longer compatible with our times. As we are confronted by the challenges of tomorrow, we must reconsider the role of religion not only in our personal lives, but as a nation, in order to continue at the forefront of the global community. As the United States moves into the future, religion as an institution will struggle to survive.
While many in the United States continue to hold on to puritan values, there are a growing number of people that have rejected their religious upbringing or have decided that there is no validity to religion. Between 1990 and 2000 the U. S. saw roughly an eighteen percent decrease in individuals that called themselves Christian. Likewise, many Christians were interviewed and over fifty seven percent said that accepting Jesus Christ as one’s savior is not the only way to get to heaven or achieve everlasting life. This is an interesting change of ideology in many Christians today.
It represents a social and religious change that is becoming accepting of other doctrines and loosening its grip on old puritan values. In the future world, what will make not only the U. S. successful but the world as a whole will be the rejection of the Great Monotheistic Religions or at least, moving forward, seeing a significant decline in their combined political and social power. This will allow a platform to be created from which humanity can lay the foundation for a new concept of what religion is and could be. However, religion in its current state will not simply cease to exist or wither away.
It will undergo several changes before its final days. First of all, the GMS will attempt to cope with the exponential advances in science and social change. Society as a whole, by this time, will have lost its firm grip on its old Christian roots. The art of practicing ones religion will not be the most prevalent thing in most people’s lives. People will begin to turn towards advances in science and technology as solutions for the Great Paradox.
For after all, religion is simply man’s creation to feel wanted and to answer his deepest question of “what happens after I die? To cope with the changing times and contradictions between itself and science, the GMS will change parts of their doctrines to be accepting of new discoveries and in turn hopefully increase its membership. However in the long run these tactics will result in failure. With a growing number of people questioning the GMS’s doctrines and theologies I believe that there will be a reformation of sorts in which all of the religions attempts to go back to their pure beginnings. This is similar to what has started in the Islamic religion.
Religious fanatics will call for a purification of their religion and a cleansing of their part of the world. This revolution might attract new member either from fear or by desire, but it will spark several conflicts throughout the world. This “cleansing” or religious revolution will escalate to a full scale conflict with the potential for a religious war. However, eventually neutral parties will step in to prevent more bloodshed at the hands of religious fanatics and put an end to the violence caused by those future religious fanatics. These “neutral” parties will most likely be either China or Russia.
The reason these countries would have for interfering in a religious conflict would be for monetary gain. If a large scale religious conflict were to erupt in any of the major parts of the world, especially the U. S. , it would greatly disrupt the world economy and stock market. China would have a sufficient base for interfering due to the fact that they are a major exporter of goods. If a large scale war were to erupt, the countries involved would not be so keen to purchase goods from suppliers. By preventing a large scale conflict or putting an end to one, these two countries would be saving their own economies.