In 1831, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study its penal system. During his visit, however, he also wrote a book, entitled Democracy in America, describing exhaustively an account of the embryonic country’s democratic successes. He wrote that upon his arrival in the United States, “… the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck [his] attention. He was not sure whether or not all Americans had a sincere faith in their religion, but he nonetheless felt “certain that they [held] it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. ” Even in Washington’s timeless Farewell Address, the issue was explicitly mentioned. Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. ” It seems as if religion was embedded into the nation from the very beginning-almost as a sort of foundation.
Indeed John Adams-who described himself as “a church going animal”-had observed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. ” The Founding Fathers had a clear understanding of the despotic governments that had used religion as an instrument of state power. Thus, America guaranteed religious liberty. Nevertheless, they implemented this doctrine in a self-limiting system by forbidding state usurpation by religion.
Across the centuries, religion would persist in becoming part and parcel of all aspects of American life, corroborating with de Tocqueville’s conviction that religion was crucial to the country’s sustenance. America had begun as a religious refuge. The New England colonies-New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland-were established “as plantations of religion. ” While it is true that many settlers arrived for non-religious purposes (“to catch fish,” as one New Englander put it), the majority of the earliest settlers were seekers of religious freedom.
These efforts to create “a city on a hill” or to conduct a “holy experiment” were, to say the least, belied. Nonconformists were banished-most infamous among the cases being Roger Williams (who denounced the “[forced] uniformity of religion”) and Anne Hutchison- or executed as heretics. Quakers, Germans (including Mennonites, Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, and Moravians) and Roman Catholics alike all endured religious persecution-ironically what they had come to America fleeing from.
However, by the end of the Revolutionary War, tolerance was greatly increased and freedom of religion was finally established in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The generations that followed the original settlers were noticeably less religious. Women had come to dominate the number of active church members. However, from the 1730s through the 1760s, the colonists underwent a wave of religious revivalism known as the Great Awakening. Exemplifying the period were Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards and Methodist preacher George Whitefield.
The movement is generally described as a response to a European intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, which emphasized rationalism over emotionalism or spirituality. The Awakening is considered to have had four effects: the authority of the clergy was significantly weakened; the church no longer came to be identified with boundaries (the movement had spread well into the countryside); the church was no longer the center of society; and there was no such thing as an established church, nor privileges to certain religious groups.
One mix of the ideals of the Enlightenment and of the Great Awakening was the colonists’ “favorite son,” Benjamin Franklin. As much as he was into inventing and discovering, the statesman was as much a deeply religious figure. He authored hundreds of moral, pithy epigrams in his famous Poor Richard’s Almanac. The Second Great Awakening was equally profound. Its effects are evinced by the numerous social reform societies that sprung up in response, including orphanages, asylums, and temperance societies.
When the Revolutionary War comes to mind, there is a strong tendency to think of the event as a purely secular, political, military, and diplomatic episode. It is indeed true that the war was an outcry over “taxation without representation,” a term coined by James Otis in his pamphlet The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved; a war won significantly by the aid of France; a war fought by such brilliant generals as Nathanael Greene and George Washington. It is in the war, however, that the schism-producing First Great Awakening came significantly into play.
The generation of colonials fighting the War for Independence had recently made key choices concerning their religious beliefs and loyalties. Historians say that it is probable that these choices prepared them to make equally key decisions regarding their political beliefs and loyalties. Thus, challenging these traditional authorities, they were early schooled in self-determination. An equally scintillating example of religious justification for colonial participation in the War for Independence can be found in Thomas Paine’s extremely influential pamphlet Common Sense.
Though flaunting his deistical views in his Age of Reason-causing him to be denounced as a “dirty little atheist”-Paine purposely suffused Common Sense with several religious implications, demonstrating his understanding of the colonials’ religious views. For example, Paine compares the colonials’ plight with that of the Jews of the Old Testament who rejected monarchical government. Thus, according to Paine, it behooved God’s new “chosen people” in America to emulate that example.
The case of president Jefferson proves a good point. Many have used the writings of Jefferson to justify such issues as the banishing of school prayer and the putting up of Christmas trees on public property. They refer to a letter in which Jefferson expressed a desire to maintain “a wall of separation between church and state,” the phrase thus coined. On the other hand, many have simply attributed this conviction to the same reason Madison introduced the Bill of Rights: to oppose a national religion.
Some have accordingly offered that by attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison were actually willfully proffering support to religion as a provision for republican government. A dark chapter weighing heavily on the nation’s conscience was its reaction to several waves of immigrants. Roman Catholicism in the United States is the story of immigration. Until about 1945, the Roman Catholic population was a small minority. However, a devastating potato famine led millions of Irish Catholics to flee to America.
Within fifty years, their had population transformed into a diverse mass of both rural and urban immigrants from all over Europe, speaking different languages and holding varied social statuses. Jews, Protestants, Muslims, and even some Hindus and Buddhists had arrived on the shores of America, but Catholics came in the greatest numbers and were thus more conspicuous. Generally speaking, immigration is considered beneficial to the country’s progress, yet the advent of Catholics in such great numbers let loose fears and insecurities. The opposition they faced was not limited to their “different” Christianity.
They were also blamed for raising crime levels, refused loans, called names, and rented the worst of apartments. There was even a society, the American Protective Association, which was founded to promote anti-Catholicism. Lower class citizens viewed these immigrants as potential competitors-in jobs, homes, and even in social statuses. Fortunately, the story of the Jewish immigrants is one of less intolerance, partly because Jews tended to establish communities and usually remained minorities. Religion in the Civil War is a subject that is not paid much attention too. However, like the Revolutionary War, it played a significant role.
Christian ministers implied that a Northern victory might very well prepare the way for the Kingdom of God on earth. One Baptist minister said that suppressing the rebellion would bring a time that the republic’s Founding Fathers “pictured and dreamed about, and prayed for. It will come with blessings, and be greeted with Hallelujahs, it will be the Millennium of political glory, the Sabbath of Liberty, the Jubilee of humanity. ” Many drew from the jeremiad, which took a current disaster, interpreted it as a punishment of God, and then asked why the penalty was imposed. The early defeat of Union armies seemed to reflect this punishment.
In this light, the punishments would continue until the North took steps to end slavery. This is well evidenced by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation-for now the war was not just to sustain the Union, but also to end slavery. One reverend by name Horace Bushnell said, “There must be reverses and losses, and times of deep concern. There must be tears in the houses, as well as blood in the fields; the fathers and mothers, the wives and the dear children coming into the woe, to fight in hard bewailings. ” Thus, from a religious perspective, loss and pain were essential if the war was to achieve its God-appointed purpose.
The conviction undoubtedly strengthened the soldiers’ resolve to sustain such staggering losses. Lincoln’s speeches suffused with references to God and the equally suffused Battle Hymn of the Republic also attest to the prevalent religious fervor. After the Civil War, many challenges to traditional beliefs arose. In the early 1860’s, American’s came to learn of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The theory stated that mutants in nature with ensuing favorable characteristics multiplied and came to dominate those with less favorable characteristics-thus “the survival of the fittest” (a term he did not coin).
While some argued that that this concept further glorified the power of God, still troubling was the possibility that these processes randomly occurred without divine intervention. Seemingly, the theories undercut the Bible’s authority. In addition, by the end of the nineteenth century, there were extraordinary amounts of questions being asked about authorship. Who had written the different parts of the bible? Did the authors reflect the prejudices of their times? Various groups thus emerged. On the ‘far left’ was religious naturalism.
Advocates like John Dewey abandoned supernatural components of the Bible and urged citizens to nurture its ideals of democracy, progress, and fair play. In the center was religious modernism. Proponents argued that only when validated by secular thought could Christianity be maintained. The University of Chicago and Harvard were centers of such modernist thinking. Lastly, evangelical liberalism believed that direct experience of God was fundamental in Christianity. Temperance advocate Francis Willard and settlement house worker Jane Addams applied these principles to social wrongs.
These efforts went by names such as Christian Socialism, Social Christianity, and Social Gospel. They viewed the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as calling for intervention in an unstable society. It was during the early 20th century that Fundamentalists became alarmed. Waves of non-Protestant immigrants flooded the cities from Southern and Eastern Europe. Further, Fundamentalists felt betrayed when the nation was drawn into war with Germany, notoriously the origin of biblical criticism. Most conspicuous among their efforts was their presentation of anti-evolution bills in the legislatures of eleven, mostly Southern, states.
It was here that Darwinism, Fundamentalism, and Modernism clashed. Between 1923 and 1925, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas tried to stop the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1925, the Butler Act was passed in Tennessee forbidding the teaching of “any theory that [denied] the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and… instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal”. Biology teacher John Thomas Scopes had broken this law and the Scopes monkey trial ensued.
Three-time democratic Presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan, now serving as attorney, was pitted against the agnostic Clarence Darrow in a case that mesmerized the nation for its pertinence to the issue of whether to stick with tradition or abandon it for progress’ sake. Having received minor setbacks, as with the literary landmark writers of the Roaring Twenties, the populace resurged its religious fervor after the Second World War. Americans were flocking back to church in record numbers. A baby boom had begun, and parents of these boomers helped increase religious membership, church funding, and overall religious practice.
Releases by the Gallup organization indicated an increase in church attendance during the middle of the century: 1940, 37 percent; 1950, 39 percent; 1954, 46 percent; 1955, 49 percent; 1956, 46 percent; 1957, 51 percent; 1958, 49 percent; and 1960, 47 percent. The study also revealed that college students had a higher percentage of attendance (53 percent) than did those who did not go beyond grammar school (48 percent), suggesting that higher education encouraged religious participation. In the tumultuous 1960s and even early 1970s observers predicted an imminent decline in religion in America; however, this has not been the case.
Religion in America has remained as vibrant as it was in the early colonial years. Actually, many say that it was in the 1960s that religion in America took a turn for the better, namely because of its emphasis on diversity. Contrary to popular belief, the “sexual revolution,” the Vietnam issue, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the “alternative” religions all tended to contribute not to a rejection of religion, but rather to institutionalized Christianity. Though college students and other youngsters had challenged these institutions, studies show a significant portion of students was not so wayward.
What the 1960s did accomplish was to not characterize society’s spiritual interests as mainly Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. In the present, one can readily find almost anywhere books on angels, heightened interest in concepts such as reincarnation and the afterlife, the selling of crystals, and an interest in Eastern cultures. A survey conducted by the Institute for the Study of American Religion discovered that some 375 ethnic or multiethnic religious groups in the United States alone have developed within the last thirty years.
On March 8th 1983, President Reagan gave a message to congress proposing a Constitutional amendment “to restore the simple freedom of our citizens to offer prayer in our public schools and institutions. ” Reagan said, “the public expression through prayer of our faith in God is a fundamental part of our American heritage and a privilege which should not be excluded by law from any American school, public or private. ” He even quoted Alexis de Tocqueville. He added, “Our liberty springs from and depends upon an abiding faith in God,” and then proceeded to quote Washington’s Farewell Address.
Reagan offered support for his endeavor by noting that the nation has acknowledged God on their coins, in its National Anthem, and even in the Pledge of Allegiance. He also quoted Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for a prayer to be observed by the Constitutional Convention (“I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business”). Though the amendment would have provided for a sort of “popular sovereignty” within the involved cities, it failed to pass.
Yet Congress has overall proved to be very tolerant. In 1993, it passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which required a “strict scrutiny” of any state or federal law that conflicted with the free exercise of religion. In general, the Supreme Court too has tended to exercise broad religious freedom. It stated in 1952, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. ” Yet there seems to be noteworthy qualifications. In Engel v. Vitale (1952), official prayer and bible readings in school were banned. In Roe v. Wade (1973), first trimester abortion was decriminalized. In Lemon v.
Kurtzman (1971), the government was able to involve itself in private Christian academies. There can be no doubt that America is, has been, and will be a democracy running alongside religion. Upon comparing his native France with America, de Tocqueville said that “in France [he] had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America [he] found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country. ” The situation, with regards to the United States, has not changed. America began as a religious haven, and still continues this position.
History books tend to qualify religion to the early puritans, the first Great Awakening, the second Great Awakening, or maybe “setbacks” of the Roaring Twenties. The true story of religion in America is much more exhaustive, however. The leaders of America seemed to have deep religious convictions, and they tried earnestly to embed such doctrines into the republic-from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan. Religion is a vivacious aspect of American life, and there remains little in conspicuous view that will impede this swelling. Indeed, the recent turn of events in America has only burgeoned Americans’ interest in religion and in tolerance.