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.
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.