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.