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.