The Impact of Religion on the American Society Through the Years
How religion shaped America
The Impact of Religion on the American Society Through the years
(Mock interview between a religion scholar and his student, John)
by Michael Mikio Nakade, M.A.
John: Professor Jones, the United States is one of the most religious countries among the industrialized nations. I hear that 50% of the people in this country attend church services on a regular basis. Why is it that religion is still so important in America?
Jones: We need to study America’s history. You remember that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by the Puritans way back in 1630, right? The Puritans wanted to build a city upon a hill. They took their religion very seriously, and that was how everything started in this country.
John: So, exactly what did those Puritans believe?
Jones: They believed in predestination. This doctrine holds that God is all-powerful and all-knowing; therefore, the fate of each individual soul is known to God at birth. Nothing an individual can do or say could change their ultimate fate.1 This means that humans were incapable of saving themselves and that only God would decide who would be saved. With this belief, they came to insist that those chosen by God would produce visible signs of having been chosen by God. Naturally, they tried to produce signs that they were themselves, indeed, saved.
John: Now I can see why they developed the reputation of being judgmental. It is no accident that it was the Puritans who were responsible for the Salem Witch hunt. This is nothing to be proud of. Correct?
Jones: Yes. Unfortunately, many Puritans tried so hard to be perfect in the eyes of God and their fellow men that they saw temptations everywhere. It was unfortunate. But, they did some good things.
John: Like what, Professor?
Jones: First of all, they were all very family-oriented. Secondly, they valued the education of their children. They taught their children to read and write so that they could read the Bible at home. It makes perfect sense why the New England region has had the highest level of education in the United States to this day.
John: I see. What about the First Great Awakening? I heard about it in my history class way back. Was it a series of big revival meetings that were held throughout the colonies?
Jones: In the 1730s, Jonathan Edwards was a Yale minister who became concerned that New Englanders had become too worldly. Much to his dismay, some folks began suggesting that predestination was wrong and that good works might save a soul. Edwards challenged these notions from the pulpit. "God is an angry judge, and humans are sinners!" he declared. He spoke with such fury and conviction that people flocked to listen. This sparked what became known as the Great Awakening in the American colonies.2
John: I’m not sure if I like this. This sounds like today’s televangelism. Edwards must have been highly manipulative and played on his congregations’ fear.
Jones: I agree. His style wasn’t for everyone. Awakening or New Light preachers set up their own schools and churches throughout the colonies. The Old Light ministers refused to accept this new style of worship. Despite the conflict, one surprising result was greater religious toleration. With so many new denominations springing up, it became clear that no one religion would dominate any region.3 Eventually, religious diversity within Christianity became a reality.
John: How about the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s? How was that different from the First Awakening?
Jones: Religious fervor was renewed through a Second Great Awakening. Evangelists believed that churches were the proper agents of change, not violence or political movements. Women began to explore the possibility of individual rights and equality with men through this belief. Female social reformers made gallant efforts to alleviate pain and suffering of less fortunate in their midst. This was different from the First Awakening because the Second Great Awakening rejected the doctrine of predestination. Instead, it emphasized human perfectability.4
John: But, both were huge movements. Their impacts are still being felt today. Correct?
Jones: Yes. That’s right. Some of the televangelist sermons today are carbon copies of the Great Awakening. They emphasize the repentance of vices and the asking for forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Sermons are highly emotional and carefully produced. So, in that sense, the Great Awakening runs deep in the collective memory of the nation. We must also remember that this movement was taking place during Jacksonian America. With a less formal clergy and the notion that anyone could be saved, these groups meshed nicely with Jacksonian Democracy. Women became more involved than men, and preachers soon used the revival to promote the "women's sphere." Soon reform movements designed to improve the worst evils of industrial society emerged from such churches.5
John: I can see the connection: religiously inspired people were doing good deeds to help their fellow human beings. So, the Second Great Awakening produced very committed socially conscious people. That was not a bad thing, was it?
Jones: Not at all. Those socially conscious folks helped end the institution of slavery. Although being an Abolitionist was neither pretty nor respected back in the 1850s, the Abolitionists certainly contributed to the demise of slave labor in this country.
John: Would you say more about the Abolitionists being unpopular back in the day? Today, they are revered for their courageous efforts.
Jones: The new Abolitionists were uncompromising and militant. They saw slavery as an embarrassing stain on America. Slavery had to end immediately and without compensation to the owners. They sent petitions to Congress and the states, campaigned for office, and flooded the south with inflammatory literature.6 However, most Americans accepted the notion of the right to private property. Abolishing slavery meant overriding the slave owners’ right to private property. To most Americans, the Abolitionists were unreasonable. Abraham Lincoln privately hated slavery but knew it was guaranteed in the constitution. Telling slave owners to give up slaves without any compensation was totally unrealistic back then.
John: Okay. I see. Then, the Civil War came and went. Slavery ended in the South. What was the next issue that made religious folks in America get involved in politics?
Jones: It was the rise of modern industrial capitalism. The gap between the wealthy and the poor widened. Beneath the magnificent skylines lay slums in abject poverty. Overcrowding, disease, and crime plagued many urban communities. Pollution and sewage plagued the new metropolitan centers.7 Reform-minded Christians were motivated to do something about this situation.
John: What about the rising immigrant population?
Jones: Good question. Many new types of immigrants arrived in the United States between the 1870s and 1920s. Immigration swelled the ranks of Roman Catholic churches. Eastern Orthodox churches and Jewish synagogues were sprouting up everywhere, as well. At the same time, many cities reported the loss of Protestant congregations. They would have to face this challenge or perish. The old-style heaven and hell sermons just seemed irrelevant to those who toiled long, long hours for small, small wages. 8 The Social Gospel movement led by such figures as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch became prominent by the 1920s.
John: How about the Progressive Movements? They were inspired by Christian faith. Correct?
Jones: Not all of them. Some were. The most notable one would be the Prohibition. Many Protestant Christians wanted to eradicate social ills associated with excessive drinking and the saloons that served alcohol. Their efforts led to the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919. Although the Prohibition was a dismal failure, it showed how powerfully religious faith could help legislate morality.
John: I see a kind of love-hate relationship between religion and politics in America. On the one hand, we have a strong Puritan tradition in which some religious people wish to uphold high moral standards through legislation. On the other hand, there is a liberal-Jeffersonian impulse that makes people want to separate Church and State. How do you see this issue?
Jones: You’re correct. Many of the Supreme Court cases in the 20th century were about the clashes between the religious/moral impulse and the civil liberty impulse. There are too many cases to mention here, but the following issues were indicative of what went on: 1) Can unmarried women purchase the Pill? 2) Is it legal for public schools to tell students to participate in religious prayer on campus? 3) Should the federal government support Planned Parenthood with our tax dollars even when abortions are performed at this non-profit organization? Debates over these issues continue right up to the present.
John: I see. This is such an American thing. Other industrialized and secular nations in Europe do not deal with the voices of religious people like we do here in the United States. I’m not saying it’s good or it’s bad. I am just saying that religion matters in this nation.
Jones: It really does. What I do remember most vividly is the rise of New Right in the early 1980s. After two decades of the Vietnam and Watergate national traumas, the American people in general were tired of protests, riots, and the general decline in morality.9 Reagan came around and appealed to people’s desire to return to the good old United States that was both righteous and secure. He endorsed the conservative lifestyle and scaled down the spread of Welfare Capitalism. He declared that he was a born-again Christian when he ran for the presidency in 1980. It worked. He connected well with the people and was overwhelmingly elected twice. He set the conservative standards for the Republican Party, and to this day (2017), he is very much revered.
John: Thank you, Professor Jones, for teaching me about the history of religion and politics in America.
Jones: You’re very welcome.
- Chapter 3 c
- Chapter 7 b
- Chapter 7 b
- Chapter 26 a
- Chapter 26 a
- Chapter 28
- Chapter 42
- Chapter 42 a
- Chapter 58 e