For many, myself included, personal religion is a very touchy subject. At a dinner party for instance, it is not merely something that I dislike bringing up, but actually strive to avoid. This is because, since childhood, I have witnessed the way 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 choose to attend as a sorority rather than a portal to the divine. However, while I might be able to sneak my way out of discussing religion with family, friends, or acquaintances, what I cannot do is work my 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, allowing those of widely varying theistic backgrounds to live with an unparalleled degree of liberty, and this grand tradition of tolerance has lasted into present times. Today, there is no set number of religions in America, their numbers are in constant flux. Of course, certain religions have attracted a greater number of followers than others, and others have low membership butd high cultural impact.
Perhaps the smallest major religion in America is Zoroastrianism. Rooted in ancient Persia, it is the world’s first known monotheistic belief system. It also strongly influenced the big three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Considering humans to be caught between the promise of Ahura Mazda, a loving, peaceful god, and the clutches of Angra Mainyu, existence’s source of evil, it scored a landmark in tolerance for ancient religions. Recognizing other theologies as perfectly valid so long as they upheld the inherent dignity of human beings, proselytizing was sternly forbidden and personal achievement made paramount. Today, American Zoroastrians are a dwindling community due to reproduction not being treated as a paramount theme. Being a good man or woman, however, remains everything.
In contrast, Christianity is America’s largest religion by far. Divided into countless subsets, with the largest schism between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, it revolves around the acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s ultimate savior. This is because Christ, who was indisputably a Jewish social reformer from Nazareth, is perceived as the God of Abraham’s son. Christianity eventually enveloped the entire European continent due to aggressive evangelization tactics and political posturing. Colonialism, in turn, brought it to every continent across the globe, which is why it now is the planet’s most populous religion. In America, it has touched all conceivable aspects of society; from business strategies to medical care. There can truly be no underestimating its influence here.
In terms of worldwide adherence, Islam is at Christianity’s gate. Though it comprises only a small minority of Americans, it is growing steadily. Formed by Muhammad, an Arab prophet, in present day Saudi Arabia, it succeeds Christianity to become the youngest Abrahamic religion. Muslims are required to submit their lives to Allah, and this act is rewarded by passing on to a utopian setting after death. Five Pillars of conduct must be consistently obeyed: Faith, Prayer, Alms, Pilgrimage, and Fasting. Islam has reached a wide audience in a manner similar to Christianity; it has spread through a combination of missionary work and political control. In America, strategies for bringing the religion to prisoners and the downtrodden have proven stunningly successful. Only the future can tell exactly what influence it will have on society.
Despite having a small membership and relatively short existence, the Baha’i Faith is ripe with history. Launched in Iran in 1863, it has a monotheistic foundation and interestingly syncretic nature. Believing that humanity is essentially of a positive orientation, it focuses on delivering one’s soul to God through a regimen of prayer, self control, and social responsibility. The American Baha’i community is particularly strong in the Chicago metropolitan area, where its House of Worship for the whole of North America is located.
Another modern religion is the New Age Movement. Becoming immensely popular during the 1970s, it professes that humans can reach a higher form of consciousness through spiritual development and experience reincarnation after death. Evil is manifested not in an otherworldly demon, rather common ignorance. New Age’s focus on positive theology has endeared it to several million Americans, and it shows no signs of decreasing its appeal.
These five religions are only scratching the surface of what is practiced in this country. I found them to be especially interesting due to their respective historical or theistic aspects. I also admire the fact that they have widely varying creeds and nonetheless flourish in the United States; a testament to the aforementioned liberty if ever there was one. Listing these, however, does beg the question of my own beliefs. I have already written that I do not typically like sharing them and why, but for the purposes of this essay, it would appear that I am presented with little choice. I observe Judaism from a deeply existentialist, humanistic perspective. The tradition of the Hebrews, a Semitic ethnic group, it was the first Abrahamic religion. Fixated on maintaining traditional rituals during holidays, all of which commemorate historical events, and adhering to the Ten Commandments in order to live an ethically sound life, it is followed by less than two percent of Americans. Most Jews are of some form of Hebrew heritage, though not all as progressive denominations welcomingly perform conversion or adoption ceremonies.
In one way or another, Judaism is comparable to the religions I mentioned. All, excepting the New Agers, are monotheistic. Zoroastrianism was a monumental influence on Judaism, and the latter functioned as the spark which lit the flame of Christianity. Afterwards, Islam developed in an environment accustomed to the presences of Judaism and Christianity. The Baha’i Faith incorporated many elements of Judaism into its doctrine and the New Age Movement places a strong emphasis on learning, something that comports nicely with Jewish cultural norms.
Speaking of cultural norms, Max Weber, the late godfather of free enterprise fashioned sociology, believed that religions themselves were the products of formerly dominant cultures. 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 an idyllic divine entity with the less than stellar conditions of humankind, reinforced cultural standards can also serve as a lucrative incentive to remain with the faith of one’s birth, family, or ethnicity. This is why it should come as no surprise that desiring wealth, for many, is intertwined with a yearning for spiritual salvation.
This probably explains capitalism and fundamentalist theology’s enjoinment in terms of certain elements of American politics. At any rate, this nation’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 of belief, though admittedly not without a few pitfalls; many of which persist to this very day. However, no place is perfect, and as one not in the religious majority, I can proudly say 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.