How Has Religion Affected History and Literature?

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"And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." With these words, penned by the eminent political scientist Thomas Jefferson, the struggling colonies known as the United States proclaimed their independence from Great Britain and began an adventure that would develop this small nation into a world superpower. With this "firm reliance", her people embraced the unknown future and set out to advance their country politically, economically, and socially. Now, over two centuries later, many would argue that this "Divine Providence" has been almost completely eradicated from society. Yet, despite these many claims, the fact remains that religion has played a vital role in American public life and, despite the "demoralization" of the United States that so many individuals cry out against, religion continues to be a basic cornerstone of American societal life. Over and over again, both the history and the literature of the United States of America have taught her people and the world that religion has and always will have an incalculable effect upon the society of the United States.

Historically, many see the United States as a "Christian nation" founded on Christian principles by Christian men with Christian motives. Therefore, they will argue that this heritage should be continued in the U.S. today by allowing prayer in public schools, outlawing abortion, or giving religious organizations special privileges. However, a closer examination of American history reveals that although the United States was founded with many religious guidelines, America is not a specifically Christian nation. This having been said, it is important to recognize how religion has historically affected American society. A chief example of religion's impact is found in the landmark Supreme Court ruling of 1962 in the case of Engel vs. Vitale in which organized prayer in the public school system was declared unconstitutional. Steven Engel, a Jewish man in New York, had visited his son's classroom in the fall of 1958 and was offended when he observed the entire class, including his son, with their hands clasped together and their heads bowed. Along with four other parents, Engel challenged the school board and its president, William Vitale, and, on June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that organized prayer in public schools, regardless of whether they are a requirement or not, were unconstitutional and therefore must cease immediately. The storm of controversy and outrage which ensued clearly demonstrated that many Americans consider religion and its various practices to be of vital importance to their children and to society as a whole. Protest demonstrations became commonplace, newspapers were flooded with editorials, clergy dedicated their messages to the issue, and teachers and school boards across the nation rushed to find alternatives that would still allow their pupils a "moment of silence" at the beginning of the day. Since this ruling nearly forty years ago, society has dramatically changed. According to a report by David Barton of Specialty Research Associates entitled America: To Pray or Not to Pray, after the ruling of 1962, "crime, venereal disease, premarital sex, illiteracy, suicide, drug use, public corruption, and other social ills began a dramatic increase" among young people ( This, coupled with continued protests and pressure from an abundant number of citizens to reverse the Supreme Court's ruling, makes a bold statement regarding the important role that religion plays in society.

Modern history displays only a small portion of the spectrum of religion's influence, however. Looking further back into American history, one can see the influences of religion quite clearly. Case in point: the American Civil War, particularly regarding the issue of slavery. The...
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