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Tossing Pebbles in the Stream

This blog is my place to sit and toss pebbles into the stream. The stream of Life relentlessly passing before us. We can affect it little. For the most part I just watch it passing and follow the flow. Occasionally, I need to comment on its passing, tossing a pebble at it to enjoy the ripple affect upon Life's surface.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Religion in America

To understand the history and culture of the United States you need to know and understand the role of religion in their society. It is a complex relationship between religion and the political society throughout it's history. My years in the United States made me realize that it is important for Americans that you belong to a church, any church will do. They are suspicious on anyone who opening declares they do not have a church. I wonder if that is still the case.

American's have long felt their country is an exceptional one: one with a special relationship with God. This is the national founding myth. In many ways, they feel they are a chosen people. While this view was fostered with the early settlement of communities seeking religous liberty from European religious persecution. In New England, they developed a theocratic community where their was little difference between the church and the parish. One needed a church to found a town. The New England Meetinghouse served both as a sacred space and a political space for town meetings.

By the time of the American Revolution the leading figures which shaped the new Nation were the religious progressives of their day, deists and free thinkers. They designed a politcal system which was secular with separations of church and state. There has been a tension between the two ever since.

This is the First Church in Roxbury (Unitarian), Ma which I served as a minister for a couple of years while I was finishing my theological education. It is a magnificent meetinghouse. I love these churches that are the centerpiece of so many New England towns. New Haven, where I lived for several years has three on it's village green. It is the fifth meetinghouse on this site, built in 1804. The church was founded in 1632. I actually had a family in the church that traced their family back to the beginning of the church (13 generations) as members of this church. It is an establishment church, abandoned to the inner city. It is in the heart of the Boston area's black community. It is now the focus of an Urban Ministry which allows some 50 Unitarian Churches in the area to help with progams in the black community.

John Eliot was the first minister of this church. He translated the bible in the Algonquin language. The first book published in America was the Algonquin Bible, by this Apostle to the Indians.

The centrality of religion in the life of communities in the New World saw the tension between religion and the state worked out in other States: Rhode Island, Virginia, Pennsylvania, often starting out to claim religious liberty of themselves while discriminating against others. In time, a wide variety of religous groups came to add to the mix and make their claim for religous liberty. Among them were some uniquely American religions like Mormonism and Christian Science.The two groups that merged to become my denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association can also be considered American Religions. They represent the liberal religious tradition, the ancestors of the deists and freethinkers of the founding fathers. They along with liberal Quakers and Reformed Jews have been called America's Fourth Faith along side Protestant, Catholic and Jew. For religious liberals, like myself, we find the claims of the religious right to speak as America's religion is wrong and audacious. They seem to have failed to study the history of American religion.

The United States has been largely shaped by Protestant groups. Catholics were looked upon with suspicion, until President Kennedy was elected and the Catholic church had the Second Vatican Council. Jews were outsiders until recently, in spite of the fact the George Washington welcomed the first Sephardic Jewish Community in America in Rhode Island and offered them protection of the State. Other religions are latecomers in America. Now, of course, Muslims have come in large numbers and will help to shape the American Religious and political reality in the future just as others have done before. Conversely, the American culture and values will shape Islam as it has Judaism and Catholicism in the country.

Canada has never been as religiously vital as the United States. The French had the Catholic Church. The English brought the establishment Anglican Church. The United Church was formed in the 1920's out of the Congregationalist, the Methodists and half the Presbyterians. (Other smaller groups have since joined the United Church.) These three groups each laid some claim to be the established church. They dominate to this day the religion of Canada. Other groups have not been as dominant. Canada had lived with Catholics from the beginning so we were not as fearful of them as was the case in the US.

Religion has not had a dominant role in politics in Canada, with the exception of the Catholic Church in Quebec. In Canadian politics a politicians personal life, from religion to sexuality is not open for political discussion. This is not to say religion has not played a role. Some of our outstanding politicans have been clergymen. It was through their efforts that Canada developed social programs and the idea that the State should bring services to the people.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently published a study of religion in America. It has some interesting results such as Mormons and Jews know more about Christianity while atheists and agnositcs know the most about religions. Its results are worth a look. You can go to the Pew Forum site and take a 15 item questionaire and see how religiously knowledgeable you are. It is interesting how you knowledge compares with the countries and groups within the counnty. I got a perfect score. It is largely general knowedge in a multiple choice format.

All that I have written so far in a way to pointing out that this month there is a program on the TV on religion in America, God in America It is on PBS beginning October 11. I imagine it will be very interesting and offer some insights into how religion shapes American culture.


At 3:16 p.m., Blogger Anvilcloud said...

You're well positioned to make observations that most people can't. I like reading them. Have you ever posted more information about the Unitarian church and your personal beliefs? I for one would be interested.

At 4:30 p.m., Blogger Sissy said...

Again I must tell you how much I admire your intelligence, knowledge and the ability to put it forth to your readers in a way that gives me the feel of being in a classroom, listening to a favorite professor. How DO you know so much and are able to remember and weave it all together?

At 9:50 p.m., Blogger Gretchen said...

In many ways, America hasn't gotten past the burning times. Far too many have to hide their beliefs because of narrow-minded jerks who live to cause problems.

Living in a small town is even worse for those who don't follow the mainstream Christianity path. Wiccans have to stay in the broomcloset for fear of losing their jobs, having CYS take their children or have their homes burned by the "righteous Christians."

My circle of friends includes those of many different races, religions and sexual orientation. I have no problem with anything as long as it's between consenting adults in the privacy of their own bedrooms and no children or animals were harmed. Sadly, I'm in the minority on my thoughts.

We had a summer's end festival here for several years. I made the mistake of having a couple psychics rent table space for it. What says a ren fest more than jousting and palm reading? Anyhow, they were literally ran out of town by the Mayor and his band of good Christians. Broke my heart. That wasn't good enough for them. They decided the entire festival was evil and closed it down. Stupidity! Freedom of religion doesn't mean anyone is allowed to tell me who to worship or in what way I worship.

Forgive me if I'm not making a lot of sense. Bad pain tonight, but I have missed my blogger friends so much. I want to say hello to them before the pills knock me out.

Your posts always make me think, not just mindless entertainment. I have to form an opinion, even if I don't always share it in comments. Thank you!!!

At 11:48 a.m., Blogger possum said...

Ah, Amerika, the Land of the Free... free to to be cruel, free to be self righteous... free to try to impose their will on the guy down the street because he doesn't think, act, look or worship quite the same.
Some years ago I had a wonderful young man in my class - he was the son of a Baptist minister. He begged his father to let him go to a function at the local Methodist church. On Monday, he came to me and with wide eyes, whispered, "They worship Jesus, too! I didn't know that. They aren't bad people after all. They don't do Devil worship." It is amazing the lies that get told in churches about other denominations!
I, too, am a Unitarian, and that puzzles many people around here. It also confuses them when I explain that I do not worship Buddha, he is not considered a god, and that Buddhism is a philosophy that I embrace, a philosophy of Peace, kindness, acceptance, compassion.
I, too, got a perfect score on the test... but what else can we expect of a UU? ;-)
I find it hard to understand how anyone can have a religion in which hatred is taught - but that seems to be the case in many churches here in the USA. Sad, so sad.

At 3:00 p.m., Blogger Ginnie said...

Per usual...another provocative post and very well written. I am so embarassed by the religious right of our country. Their lack of knowledge is astounding.
I didn't do as well as you and Possum but only missed three.
As you know I am a member of AA & it's fascinating to me to see that it was founded by 2 white, anglo-saxon Protestants from Vermont... but in order for it to survive and thrive the whole "God" concept took a turn and our Steps remind us that it is a Higher Power of each members own individual understanding that we each rely on.
PS: If you get to my neck of the woods I would be happy to treat you to the "Pink 'n Pig" !!


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