OCALA, Fla., April 7, 2014 — For some, personal religion is a touchy subject. At a dinner party for instance, it is not merely something awkward, but avoided.
This should be no surprise considering how many people tend to manipulate religion’s invariably political arm, churches, for the sake of social, rather than spiritual, capital. Indeed, a substantial number treat whichever house of worship they attend as a sorority rather than a portal to the divine.
However, while we might be able to sneak our way out of discussing religion with family, friends, or acquaintances, what we cannot do is work our way around it when studying the history of the United States.
It is an undeniable fact that religion played an essential, if not pivotal, role in the founding of this nation. From the day that Juan Ponce de Leon’s crew of Spanish explorers set foot on the stretch of marshland now called St. Augustine, religion has been here, and here to stay.
Of course, Ponce de Leon’s native predecessors had religions of their own which were widely practiced across the fruited plains. However, in terms of understanding the influence of religion on contemporary American society, the first domino fell with the force of the Spanish empire’s state enforced Roman Catholicism. When the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock over a century later, Protestantism was introduced to what would become the Massachusetts colony.
In December, 1791, the United States Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, was added to the Constitution. The First expressly prohibited the establishment of a government sponsored religion. This allowed those of various theistic backgrounds to live with an unparalleled degree of liberty. Such a grand tradition of tolerance has lasted into present times.
Today, there is no set number of religions in America. Of course, certain religions have attracted a greater number of followers than others. Nonetheless, certain religions may have low membership but high cultural impact.
Speaking of culture, Max Weber, the late godfather of free enterprise fashioned sociology, believed that religions themselves were the products of formerly dominant societal structures.
Creating a sort of domino effect, any given religion then generates a culture in its own right. Said culture relates to anything and everything from sexual standards to economic policies. While the allure of religion has historically been to reconcile the idea of benevolent supernaturalism with the less than stellar condition of humankind, reinforced cultural standards can also serve as an incentive to remain with the faith of one’s birth, family, or ethnicity.
This is why it should come as no surprise that, for many, desiring wealth is intertwined with a yearning for spiritual salvation. Hence the Protestant work ethic, which formed the moral backbone of our nation.
America’s rich heritage of religious liberty is something that can only be described as groundbreaking. The Founding Fathers’ use of various Enlightenment philosophies to achieve this end is something that should be learned from today. By embracing the mind as opposed to the gut, proactive strategies may be taken to allay problems before they fully present themselves.
Considering the alternative, which would be to deal with crises after they have already begun, this should really be no dilemma at all. However one opts to view the United States on a personal basis, it cannot be denied that its distinct religious heritage has paved the way for unparalleled freedom. Admittedly, there are a few pitfalls; many of which persist to this day. However, no place is perfect. Whatever each of us might believe, it can proudly be said that America is a shining example of how theological diversity can pay off in dividends.
Not too many people in too many countries can do the same, unfortunately.
Much of this article was first published as Land of the Free, Home of the Believers; Religion in America in Blogcritics Magazine.