Religion affects many areas of society in a profound way. It shapes the moral standards of individuals, which in turn influences the decisions of policy makers. It has played an important role in many movements for social change, including the movement to abolish slavery in the United States. Many religious organizations work to promote social welfare by such actions as assisting the poor, caring for the sick, and sheltering the homeless. Also, in some societies, a shared religion is a powerful social bond that ties people together. However, when people of different faiths live together, religious differences can lead to conflict and even war. Throughout history, societies have attempted to find the appropriate role for religion in public life—one that takes advantage of religion’s many benefits while controlling its divisive tendencies.
American Religious History
Religion has been a basic part of American society since colonial times. In his classic 1835 work Democracy in America, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville notes, "the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention." In a 2009 Gallup poll, 56 percent of Americans consider religion to be very important in their lives. Sixty-three percent are members of a church or synagogue, and 31 percent attend some form of religious services at least once a week. However, although religious belief has always been an aspect of American culture, religious orthodoxy has not. People of many faiths make up the nation, and freedom of religion is one of the cornerstones of American democracy.
Freedom of Religion
Many groups of settlers, such as the Pilgrims, came to America so that they could practice their faith freely. However, this did not always make them tolerant of other religious beliefs. Several colonies in the South and in New England established state churches that were supported by public taxes. However, residents of some other colonies strongly opposed attempts to create state churches. In general, the wide variety of faiths practiced by the colonies’ early settlers weakened the links between church and state.
After the United States won its independence from Great Britain, the founders of the new nation addressed the issue of religious freedom in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It declares, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This phrase guarantees not only that the government will not interfere with religion, but that it also will not promote one religion over others.
Some devout people feared that the lack of an established, or state, church would destroy religious sentiment in the nation. However, exactly the opposite occurred. With all religions free to practice equally, the United States became a hotbed of religious expression and experimentation. Over the course of history, a variety of new religious groups emerged to attract people dissatisfied with their current faith. The list of religious groups that originated in America includes, among others, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam.
The First Amendment discourages any direct connection between religion and government. However, religious groups have always played a role in American public and political life. One of the most influential religious movements in the country has been fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalists are Protestants of several different churches who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and a strict adherence to its requirements. Many fundamentalists have tried to shape the nation according to these beliefs, usually by promoting conservative political goals.
Fundamentalists in early America fought against aspects of American culture that clashed with their moral views, such as prostitution, alcoholism, and slavery. In the period following the Civil War (1861–1865), some fundamentalists tried to...
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