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. Fundamentalism 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 amend the Constitution to make Christianity the nation’s established religion.
In the early 1900s, fundamentalists battled against communism and promoted temperance (avoidance of alcohol). They also organized to oppose the teaching of evolution and other doctrines that contradicted their belief in the literal truth of the Bible. For a while, fundamentalist goals met with some success. In 1919, the Constitution was amended to ban alcohol, and in the 1920s, some states passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution. In 1925, a Tennessee schoolteacher named John Scopes was charged with breaking the state’s law against teaching evolution.
Clarence Darrow, a famous lawyer and outspoken critic of organized religion, defended Scopes in what came to be known as the Scopes “monkey trial. ” The case proved very damaging to fundamentalism. Darrow embarrassed the defense attorney Williams Jennings Bryan—one of the nation’s leading fundamentalists—by showing in court that not even Bryan could successfully explain some of the contradictions between fundamentalist beliefs and scientific knowledge. Another blow to fundamentalism came in 1933, when Congress amended the Constitution to make alcohol legal again.
After these developments, the power and prominence of fundamentalism declined considerably. However, the movement persisted outside of the public spotlight, particularly in the South and Midwest. After World War II (1939–1945), as American culture grew increasingly secular, liberal, and permissive, fundamentalists once again became more active in public affairs. In 1979, preacher Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, an organization that supports conservative social policies. Fundamentalism regained its vitality as a political force after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 with the public support of the Moral Majority.
Since that time, fundamentalist Christianity has remained an important voice shaping political debate and policies in the United States. Fundamentalists today are particularly vocal in their opposition to abortion. Political and Social Issues Although the Constitution bars any official connection between religion and government, religious belief has had an influence on many areas of public policy. As noted above, religious groups are deeply involved in the abortion debate. Some groups seek to ban or limit the practice, which they view as the taking of a human life.
Others support the right of a woman to choose abortion, which they believe to be a basic right. Other social issues related to religion include school prayer, civil rights, and the teaching of creationism in school. Religion and the Courts The First Amendment forbids the state to promote a particular religion and guarantees the right of all citizens to practice the religion of their choice. However, sometimes it is not clear whether a government action is merely protecting religious freedom or actively promoting religion. The classic formula for drawing that line is the Lemon test, based on the Supreme Court decision in Lemon v.
Kurtzman, which states that any government action that is designed primarily to aid religion is unconstitutional. In 1968, for example, the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law forbidding the teaching of evolution because the law’s main purpose was to protect a particular religious viewpoint. However, in other cases the Court found the Lemon test to be too restrictive of religion. In 1987, the Court ruled that religious groups are exempt from laws that bar other organizations from discriminating in employment on the basis of religion.
Many Supreme Court cases dealing with religion have centered on the treatment of religion in public schools. In early America, public schools tended to provide religious instruction with a Protestant orientation. Members of other faiths, particularly Roman Catholics, protested that the schools were promoting Protestantism. In an attempt to please both Catholics and Protestants, the state of New York introduced a prayer in its public schools that made no mention of particular religious doctrines. They believed this prayer would be acceptable to all major faiths.
However, in 1962 the prayer was challenged and found unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that even though the prayer did not favor any group, any practice intended to aid all religions was just as unconstitutional as one intended to aid a particular religion. In the following years, the Court heard several additional cases involving religion in schools. In each case, it struck down school practices, such as posting a copy of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, in which the main purpose was to promote religion.
However, it also struck down school rules that restricted free speech and free assembly for religious groups. For example, it found that schools could not deny religious after-school groups access to school facilities that were open to other groups. They also could not suppress religious speech by students, as long as that speech did not harass others. Religion and Civil Rights Religious groups played a major role in the civil rights movement. Early efforts to end segregation in the South were led by activists who had ties to religious groups.
Organizations such as the Quaker-inspired Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Federal Council of Churches, and the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen formed alliances between white and black antisegregationists during the 1920s and 1930s. By the early 1950s, black churches had stepped to the forefront of the civil rights movement. African American religious leaders such as T. J. Jemison and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led boycotts of segregated bus lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Montgomery, Alabama. King emerged as the undisputed leader of the civil rights movement.
His Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), described by one author as the “decentralized arm of the black church,” became the leading organization combating legalized segregation in the South. Since the 1960s, black churches have remained a strong voice in issues affecting African American communities. International Perspectives Around the world, religion plays many different roles in society. Some countries are theocracies, where officials of one religion control most aspects of public life. In others, a variety of religions exist side by side.
In some areas, competing religious groups struggle for dominance, often with violent results. Religion and War Throughout history, religious differences have been a major source of conflict between nations. For example, the rise of Protestantism in the 1500s led to intense religious strife in Europe, marked by wars between Catholic and Protestant nations. Such tensions still exist in some European countries, such as Northern Ireland, where outbreaks of violence between Catholics and Protestants have continued for many years.
The Balkan region of southeastern Europe contains a variety of ethnic groups that practice different religions, including Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Islam. Under Communist rule, the tensions between these groups were held in check by strict government control over religious practice. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s destabilized the region and brought these tensions to the surface. The former country of Yugoslavia broke apart into different states, each identified with a different religious group. A brutal war erupted between Orthodox Christian Serbians and Muslims in the area.
The war ended only after military intervention by other European nations and the United States. In other parts of the world, tensions between different religious groups make war a continual threat. The Muslim state of Pakistan and the predominantly Hindu nation of India continue to struggle over disputed territory. Many of the Muslim nations of the Middle East fail to recognize the Jewish state of Israel, claiming that the land belongs by right to Palestinian Arabs, who are mostly Muslim. Meanwhile, clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories killed nearly six thousand people from late 2000 through 2008.