Religion in the United States

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Religion in the United States is as disparate and varied as the country itself, and has evolved extremely quickly from the time of the colonial landings on. It has been shifted by Jewish and Catholic immigration, and also by the development of fringe sects, prophets and cults, some developing into worldwide religions, others themselves subdividing into yet more splinters. Religion has had an important role in American life, but also in the development of American politics and law, with the protections given by the First Amendment's Establishment Clause being constantly tested throughout the last century by believers and secularists alike.

The eighteenth century prohibitionist fervor reached its apex in the early decades of the twentieth century. Prohibition of alcohol became nationwide as a result of the passage of the Volstead Act on January 29, 1920. The movement had the support of many Protestant denominations including Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Congregationalists, although it was opposed by Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. Prohibition was repealed by constitutional amendment in 1933, with no Temperance Movement to speak of opposing its repeal.

Islam is growing rapidly in the United States, including offshoots such as the Black Muslims.

There has been considerable growth of neopagan groups, some of which are of European heritage.

The United States has given rise to a number of its own religious movements including Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, Mormonism, Christian Science, the Jehovah's Witnesses a tremendous blossoming of Protestant sects, the Church of Scientology and a variety of new religious movements[1].

New movements

The twentieth century has seen the rise of a wide range of new religious movements and cults (the distinction is often merely pejorative) followed after the Second World War, pulling from both the rise in psychology and from Eastern spirituality. These included:

These movements appealed to a new sense of self, valuing personal experience over tradition, scripture and reason, just as Pentecostalist sects were doing inside Christianity, only these groups were doing so with psychoanalytical shadows over them, and the soundtrack of the developing rock music.

Political involvement

It is as early as the forties and fifties that we can see the role of mass media and commercialism increase in some Christian denominations, especially with the rise of televangelism in the 1980s, such that the development of the Christian Right comes to seem inevitable.

The late Rev Jerry Falwell, Sr. founded the Moral Majority to lobby against abortion, homosexuality, the Equal Rights Amendment, and media outlets which are not 'family-friendly'. Pat Robertson supplanted the Moral Majority with his Christian Coalition, and as time went on, thousands of these groups bloomed - the Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Council, Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Focus on the Family and the American Family Association. In reaction to what was perceived as 'liberal' professors, universities and teaching unions, many in the religious right started supporting homeschooling, with Michael Farris setting up the Home School Legal Defense Association, and many of the leaders of the movement also set up colleges, including Bob Jones University, Liberty University, Patrick Henry College and Regent University.

The political action of these groups and individuals became important, with many in the Republican Party vying for their vote - with their opposition to judicial activism, their belief that the public sphere needs to be 'rechristianized' even despite the objections of civil libertarians who point to the Establishment Clause, and a strong "values vote": opposition to abortion and euthanasia, divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, preference for abstinence-only sex education.

Distinctive U.S. characteristics

Americans United for Separation of Church and State observes that religious participation is greater, in the U.S., than in Western countries where religions receive state support. They contend "When houses of worship are dependent on government for support, religion loses its vitality. In America, religious groups rely on voluntary contributions. This policy makes them more robust.

Church-state separation also guarantees the right of religious groups to speak out on issues of justice, ethics and morality. In countries where religion receives tax support, clergy usually are wary of criticizing the government." [2]

U.S. politicians are far more likely to make overt religious references than those of other Western democracies. . When Stephen Harper took office as Prime Minister of Canada in 2006, he closed his speech with "God bless Canada". This was quite controversial in Canada where, as Vancouver Sun Douglas Todd's put it, "The first taboo of politics in Canada (is) don't talk about your religion." Canada, which had long considered itself a Christian nation, has shown a trend to move religion into the private sphere. According to John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron,

The role of religion in American society is nothing short of unique. In the United States you have the paradoxical situation of a constitution that prevents the establishment of a state religion, but at the same time fosters a dynamic religious culture. [3]

France is strongly secular and anti-clerical. Germany has acted against the Unification Church.

Religious Right

See also: Christian Right

Most right-wing political movements are Christian, although there are small groups that look to other religious law, such as Sharia. Various religious conservatives may have a significant effect locally, such as the Mormon church in Utah.

Key issues for the religious right, which may or may not overlap other conservative movements, include:

Some allege components of the Christian Right of believing in Dominionism, that is, wanting to radically rebuild the State into a Christian theocracy. Research by the Barna Group has shown that most people under forty have a negative view of the Christian Right, and are more tolerant on the moral issues that the supporters of the Christian Right are concerned about[4] - the recent death of Jerry Falwell Sr. also signifies for many an end to the Christian Right's dominance in politics.

One particular episode of interest in the recent history of the Religious Right has been the controversy over former Alabama (U.S. state) Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roy Moore. Moore, sworn in after a campaign for his election headed by the Christian Family Association, moved in 5,280 lb granite statue, the base of which contained quotes from the Declaration of Independence, and the top consisted of a representation of the two tablets given to Moses containing the Ten Commandments. The whole process of moving this statue into the central rotunda in the dead of night was filmed by Coral Ridge Ministries of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who made a video available. The American Civil Liberties Union fought to have the statue removed as a clear violation of the Establishment Clause, and Moore vowed to keep it there. In November 2003, the Court of the Judiciary in Alabama voted to remove Moore from his position as the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore has since written a book, and tours the nation with the statue in tow.

Since the defeat of creationism in the Edwards v. Aguillard[5] trial in 1987, tactics used to promote the teaching of creationism changed to support of Intelligent Design instead. In 2005, Intelligent Design went to the courtroom in Pennsylvania with the case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board, where the George W. Bush-appointed judge, John E. Jones III, listened to arguments from Michael Behe, Scott Minnich and Steve Fuller who defended the Dover intelligent design policy, and Kenneth Miller, Robert Pennock, John Haught and Barbara Forrest argued against it, then came down against Intelligent Design, declaring it to be religious and not to be taught in science for the reasons given in Edwards v. Aguillard. This caused conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly to say that Jones "stuck the knife in the backs" of the evangelical Christians who elected the president who appointed him.[6].

Some religious conservatism extends into foreign policy. This may manifest itself in:

Religious Left

See also: Christian Left

The success of the Religious Right has prompted progressives and many in the Democratic Party to try and create a religious counter-movement - often labelled religious progressives or the religious or Christian Left According to John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life,

"When you look at religious progressives, generally, they come in many different varieties. Some are theological liberals who happen to be politically liberal, some are theological conservatives who happen to be politically liberal, and some are a bit of both. And they come from different backgrounds – evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant. So while religious conservatives can easily organize within their congregations, for the religious left it is more complicated. Also, people on the liberal side of these debates tend toward ecumenism and interfaith. A lot of Reform Jews might be considered part of this. Certainly, black Protestants would be part of this."[7]

One categorization breaks the religious left into four parts, sharing only a distaste for the secular left and the religious right:[8]

  • Bible-thumping liberals: "Many Democrats consider the term "progressive evangelical" to be an oxymoron...Instead, evangelicals break into three groups, making up between 7 and 10 percent of the electorate are white evangelical Christians who either vote Democratic or could. That's a voting bloc equal in size to African-Americans:
    • The fundamentalists (think Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson) are solidly Republican and represent about 15 percent of the electorate.
    • The moderates represent another 9 percent. They generally voted for Bush because they agreed with him on foreign policy and abortion and gay marriage. But the ones who cared most about economics preferred Kerry, a sign of how the Democrats could win over more of them.
    • the liberal evangelicals, who make up about 3 percent of the electorate and tend to vote Democratic. They're especially concerned with poverty and the environment.
  • Pious peaceniks: This group is in the tradition of the spirit of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s. They have mobilized in opposition to the Iraq war and have a strong interest in environmentalism and antagonism toward corporate America. Exemplars are Cindy Sheehan, the National Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, Faithful America, and the Christian peacemakers who camped out in Iraq as human shields. "Unlike the Bible-thumpers, they tend to align almost down the line with secular liberals. They were, for instance, suspicious of Clinton's New Democrat philosophy, especially its emphasis on welfare reform and crime fighting, which they thought demonized the poor and minorities. And they tend to be pro-choice or silent on abortion.
  • Ethnic churchgoers: In this group are African-Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims, who together accounted for about 19 percent of the Kerry vote in 2004. They look to Democrats to preserve their civil right, but like the social values of the Republicans. Though they also opposed the Iraq war and share the views of other religious lefties about the importance of fighting poverty and protecting the environment, they differ from the other groups on abortion and, even more so, gay rights. Muslims tended to move away from Bush over the PATROPT Act.
  • Conflicted Catholics: Liberal Catholics are like liberal Protestants and Jews on poverty, war, and the environment. Slight differences arise around gay marriage and abortion. Though more pro-choice than Hispanics or blacks, liberal Catholics tend to feel guiltier about abortion. The real difference may not be in the policies they support—the majority want abortions to be legal but restricted, just like the majority of the rest of the population—but in their attitudes toward pro-life people. Liberal Catholics are less likely than secular liberals to hold pro-lifers in contempt. To frame abortion for this group, Democrats at least need to pretend that they want to reduce the number of abortions. And even as they fight to keep abortion legal, the Dems shouldn't mock pro-life advocates as sexually repressed theocrats or describe abortion as merely a surgical procedure.
  • Religious feminists: This is perhaps the newest faction. In aiming to win for women the right to control their own bodies, feminism ran up against the patriarchy of many religious institutions. Some feminists, however see spirituality as an important part of their lives and have begun trying to bring faith into their movement.

At the level of individual candidates rather than party, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spoke openly about their faith, attending the "CNN Faith and Compassion Forum" at Messiah College. Later, Obama appeared at Saddleback Church, home of conservative evangelical leader Rick Warren, where Warren asked both him and Republican contender John McCain questions about their faith (Warren would later lead the invocation at Obama's inauguration). Obama stated in his speech to the Democratic National Convention: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states."[9]. Part of the reason for this is the perception that previous Democratic nominations and contenders - Al Gore, John Kerry and Howard Dean - were considered unpopular among religious groups.


There have also been some major, public scandals involving religion in the U.S., both at an organizational and individual level. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI apologized for sexual abuse by some Catholic priests, and the lack of response by the hierarchy. [10]

There have also been some major, public scandals involving those in the Christian right: buying metamphetamines from a gay escort led to the dismissal of Colorado Springs megachurch leader Ted Haggard[11]. Before that, televangelists have had numerous controversies, including Oral Roberts claiming that God wanted viewers to give him $8 million or God would "call him home"[12][13] (who subsequently claimed that he could raise the dead), and the conviction of televangelist Jim Bakker.

In 1993, the Branch Davidians sect, led by David Koresh, had their compound in Waco, Texas, raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

In 1997, Heaven's Gate, a new religious movement/cult based in San Diego, California and led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, organized a mass suicide to coincide with the appearance of the Hale-Bopp Comet. Thirty-eight members of the group committed suicide. The group was partly made famous by their website, which attracted quite a lot of attention before the Internet had become as mainstream as it is today, and they raised money by selling web development services.

Religion and modern marketing methods

Since the middle of the twentieth century, a large number of megachurches have been set up in the United States[14], providing a highly produced style of worship, often with rock-and-roll style lighting, Christian rock performances, large PA systems and theater seating rather than pews, and targetted, 'market research' style organization. Megachurches provide for many a complete community base, with a large variety of on-site basketball and fitness suites, restaurants, banking services, rock climbing walls and cafés[15].

In 2004, religious fervor and excitement was built up around the release of The Passion of the Christ, a film directed by action movie star Mel Gibson. It stars James Caviezel as Jesus, who is arrested, put on trial, graphically crucified and resurrected. The film was controversial, but became enthusiastically watched by churchgoers to build their faith.


  1. Religions founded in North America,
  2. America's Legacy of Religious Liberty - Pass it On, Americans United for Separation of Church and State
  3. "One nation under God", Ottawa Citizen, 27 September 2008
  4. Ronald Bailey (2008) The New Age of Reason, Reason Magazine
  5. 482 U.S. 578
  6. Phyllis Schlafly (2006) Judge's Unintelligent Rant Against Design, Eagle Forum, Jan. 6, 2006.
  7. Linda Feldmann (6 June 2007), "Can the religious left sway the '08 race?", Christian Science Monitor
  8. Steven Waldman (5 April), The Religious Left: It is fruitful and has multiplied.
  9. Washington Post transcript of Obama's DNC speech
  10. Eve Conant (April 17, 2008), "The Pope's "Deep Shame"", Newsweek
  11. Alan Cooperman and Bill Brubaker (2006) Church Leader Admits Buying Drug and Getting Massage From Gay Escort, Washington Post.
  12. See James Randi, The Faith Healers
  13. Richard N. Ostling (1987) Raising Eyebrows and the Dead, Time.
  14. Academics use a weekly attendance rate of 2,000 as the limit to determine megachurch status - see Scott Thumma, Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their characteristics and cultural context, Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
  15. Patricia Leigh Brown (2002) Megachurches as Minitowns, New York Times