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Land of the Free, Home of the Believers; Religion in America

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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.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Joseph –

    Zoroastrianism was a monumental influence on Judaism, and the latter functioned as the spark which lit the flame of Christianity.

    Got a reference for that? Not disputing, just wondering.

    Two notes – while America set the original standard when it comes to legally-protected religious freedom, there’s a wide swath of our population that is growing ever less tolerant of other religions as was evinced by the brouhaha over the “Ground Zero mosque” which was not at Ground Zero and was more of a community center than a mosque.

    That, and if you would weaken a religion, make its members more affluent. Look at all the nations of the world, and it’s pretty obvious that the poorer the nation or culture, the stronger the religious ferver of that nation or culture. I’m not at all saying that religion brings poverty – instead, those in poverty look for hope, and religion is one of those sources of hope…an ‘opiate for the masses’ as Marx put it.

    And here’s a quick story you might like. Two weeks ago I was in the Philippines – it was the Catholics’ “Holy Week”, and on Friday of that week (the Catholics’ “Good Friday”) we all decided to go to the beach. It’s sort of a tradition there for non-Catholics to go to the beach during “Holy Week”, since the local Catholic tradition is that one shouldn’t go swimming during that time. Anyway, along the two-hour drive we saw several groups of “penitentistas” (at least that’s what I think my wife said), penitent Catholic men walking along the side of the road, flagellating their own backs by swinging a large sliced-bamboo flail from side-to-side. Without exception their backs were bloody messes, and the backs of any shirts they’d worn were shredded and soaked in blood. We were honestly worried that some of their blood would splatter on our cars as we drove past. There were other penitents walking along with both arms raised high…but with large knives or daggers taped to their triceps so that if they lowered their arms, the daggers would penetrate an inch or two into their armpits. And there were of course those who were dragging large crosses along the road.

    Suffice it to say this was another lesson in cultural education not only for myself, but for my 17 year-old son who was staring with the kind of look on his face that would normally precede a face-palm of frustration were this not in public. I think I can safely say he’ll never convert to Catholicism.

  • Joseph, a VERY good article. You close with, “…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.” I only wish that Obama, who openly embraces Islam, and his fellow travelers could see that.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    ‘Theological diversity’, Warren? Is that why your boys keep passing ‘anti-Sharia’ laws, despite the fact that such have zero chance of ever seeing the light of day? Is that why your boys keep trying to get creationism taught in our public schools, and keep trying to convince people that evolution can’t be trusted because “it’s only a theory”?

    We get it, Warren – your boys believe in ‘Theological diversity’ as long is it’s theology that they already agree with.

  • I only wish that Obama … and his fellow travelers could see that.

    Even if we allow your groundless assumption that they don’t, what difference would it make?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Warren –

    Obama, who openly embraces Islam

    Reference? Of course not.

    But maybe you could use this one where Dubya was kissing the king of Saudi Arabia….

  • “Land of the Free, Home of the Believers; Superstition in America”

    There, fixed it for you!

  • Clavos Juarez Santana Zapata

    this one where Dubya was kissing the king of Saudi Arabia.

    Isn’t that because both Dubya and the king of shoddy arabia are gay?

  • Ian

    Jesus of Nazareth? Because no-one knows exactly when ‘Jesus’ was born, and it certainly was not year ‘zero’, let’s call it the ‘Common Era'(CE) not BC or AD. Nazareth was founded some time between 50CE and the beginning of the C4th CE, a long time after the story suggests it was.

    Studying history certainly pays dividends.

  • Glenn,

    Here is the link you requested. Zoroastrianism is the undeniable seed which gave way to the root of Abrahamic religion. Interestingly enough, virtually nobody in the United States has ever heard of it; an irony so colossal that truth being stranger than fiction is the only feasible explanation.

    No debate on all too many of our fellow countrypersons following the “good for me, but not for thee” mantra when it comes to religious tolerance, amongst other things. I personally found the construction of a mosque so close to Ground Zero to be distasteful and insensitive, but at the end of the day, I accept that I am no authority on the matter. It is undeniable that the more impoverished a region is, the more fundamentally religious it is likely to be. Here in central Florida, I see that almost everyday. From my perception, people want freedom above all else. If this cannot be achieved through amassing financial capital, then the spiritual variety is often sought passionately. Either way, this boils over into partisanship, and there we find America’s modern sociopolitical landscape.

    Your story about the “penitentistas” is something else. I had heard of them in the past, but was not acquainted with their extreme tactics for relaying grief. Interestingly enough, I attended Catholic schools throughout my elementary, middle, and high school years. As time past, I noticed an increase in the unquestioning social religiosity of my curriculum, as well as my peers. I was actually reported to the dean on a few occasions for posing too many queries; quizzing a fervent religion teacher about Sartrean Existentialism can open many a mind, but reinforce the padlocks on closed ones.


    Thank you. I understand your concerns about the rise of Jihadism, which is a terribly dangerous threat to the Free World and necessitates appropriate military action. However, I do not believe that Obama is embracing Islamism; perhaps he is a bit too naive in terms of foreign policy, but it is a long stretch to claim that he would ever personally endorse such a thing.


    Most historical accounts have Jesus Christ, or Yeshua, originating from somewhere near present day Nazareth. There is no consensus on his date of birth, and some even believe that he did not exist. I do not think that the latter argument is the case, but tracking down the life and times of one of history’s most monumental figures is, if nothing else, an arduous undertaking.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Joseph –

    I’d say that Zoroastrianism might have influenced mainstream “Christianity, but not Judaism which descended directly from the Abrahamic times which significantly predated Zoroastrianism. Two notes – as far as I can find, the Hebrews were the only nation or culture in the region from the Mediterranean to the Indus that was not only truly monotheistic, but did not in some form or another worship a trinity. For example, in the first Catholic Encyclopedia (see the entry ‘Babylonia’ (IIRC) at newadvent.com), the Catholics state that Baal was part of a trinity.

    The article you referenced is interesting, but I have a gut feeling that the author allowed his opinion to skew his work. I could be stupidly wrong, for it would not be at all surprising that beliefs and practices migrated between religions, but that’s what I think (though it’s based on zero evidence).

    The reason I’m interested in things like this is that I am Christian, and the Church of which I am a member believes that only God is God, that Jesus is not and never was God…and with the tools we have at hand today, for example, I can see for myself how Jerome misinterpreted the Bible in many, many passages.

  • Igor

    #2 convinces me that Warren is the nitwit everyone says he is.

    “…Obama, who openly embraces Islam, …”

    And at other times he openly embraces christianity.

    And at other times he embraces Israel.

    I suppose he’d embrace Zoroastrianism if there were votes in it.

    Obama is a politician. So is Romney.

  • Re: comment # 5, Glenn, you may find this source interesting – or not. It’s a .pdf so it may be a bit tricky for you.

    As for the “source” you provide: (1) there is light between them, so can you PROVE that they were kissing? (2) Further, you’ve never been to Saudi Arabia have you? I have. Men exchanging kisses is quite common there, as is men holding hands.

  • Igor

    San Jose has a Zoroastrian community, and here is a pointer to a site I found easily that has a temple high on Mount Hamilton, which I am looking at this very moment.

  • Warren, I didn’t think you had a sense of humor.

    “I only wish that Obama, who openly embraces Islam, and his fellow travelers could see that.”

    I mean, the irony was intentional, wasn’t it?