|Living the Dream: faith in America|
|Written by Roundtable Magazine|
|Saturday, April 23, 2011 02:09 PM|
Multiple studies and surveys confirm what many may not realize: the United States is the most religiously observant country in the developed world. American history is certainly full of examples of religious influence and motivation, from the Pilgrims of the 17th century to the religious refugees of today. Important domestic policies, for better or worse, are often driven by religious organizations acting as special interest groups or by individuals who are influenced to act in the public sphere by their religious beliefs. There is no question that religious radicalism of all kinds thrives in America. To ask whether or not religious life has been good for America is a question loaded with theological, ideological, and historical implications. If one asks, however, whether America has been good to those who live religiously, the answer is clearly yes.
While the United States is a predominantly Christian nation, it still boasts a great deal of religious diversity. Roman Catholics, once suspected of being more loyal to the papacy than their nation, compose nearly a quarter of all Americans and make meaningful contributions to American society. The most famous Catholic to rise to political power was John F. Kennedy. Vice President Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic, as are six of the nine current Supreme Court justices.
Protestant denominations, as a whole, have also thrived in America. Beginning their rapid multiplication in the first half of the 19th century, a uniquely American religious capitalism has allowed churches to succeed and fail on their own terms and enterprising religious leaders to reach congregants in the ways they deem most effective. More to the point, small denominations and congregations survive because religious groups are, by and large, free from government interference. Ecumenism is prevalent in American Christianity because religious influence is not a zero-sum game. There is no need for religious groups to compete for power.
The United States even boasts a home-grown religion: Mormonism, which originated in New York and moved to Indiana before permanently rooting itself in Utah and spreading throughout the West. While early Mormons experienced discrimination, they were eventually able to establish their own faith- based community. Mormons, on their individual merits, have become known throughout the entire country for their business acumen and political savvy. Republican Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, is a practicing Mormon who was only narrowly defeated by John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is likewise affiliated.
Through their establishment of Chabad houses worldwide, Lubavitcher Jews have become known for catering to unaffiliated or non-observant Jews in the most unlikely of places, in both the United States and the world at large. Former spiritual leader Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson famously remarked that “America is no different” from the war-torn and religiously-fragmented Eu- rope they had left. Schneerson meant that Jewish life could survive within a pervasively secular culture; had he lived, he might consider different words. America proved to be different, and Chabad houses and other religious outreach organizations have taken the country by storm. With Chabad at its forefront, the United States has proven a fertile ground for the maintenance and growth of religious life and engagement.
There is much to say about the Protestants who founded this country in the colonial period. Inarguably, Protestantism has flourished in the United States. Perhaps most remarkable is the proliferation of Protestant churches and denominations, hundreds or even thousands of which have managed to survive. Many of these are small, but the true beauty of American religious diversity is that smaller denominations can survive without having to compromise their beliefs. In the absence of an official religion, all Americans are given a chance to succeed or fail based on individual merit.
In 2009, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found something extraordinary that speaks to the state of true religious freedom in this country: a majority of Americans have switched away from the religion of their birth at some point in their lives. This has as much to do with American culture as it does with American law. While the First Amendment protects a person’s right to practice the religion of their choice, it is our open culture that allows people to exercise that right. While some countries punish converts to other religions, our country permits this practice and imposes little or no cultural stigma on those who change religions during the course of their lives.
Students of American religion can attest to the presence of religious discrimination over the years. Jews, Irish Catholics, members of certain Protestant denominations, and nonreligious persons have all been persecuted at various points in our history, and it is right that these stories be heard. The reality, however, is that this is more of the exception than the rule. American history has repeatedly shown that regardless of our other faults as a nation, we are not characterized by discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs. In fact, just the opposite has been the case; even our highest office, the Presidency, has never been truly off-limits to anyone because of their religious beliefs.
Without a doubt, religious bigotry— the hatred of other religions and belief sys- tems fueled by one’s own sense of correctness—has also been an unfortunate part of our history. This discrimination has been both painful and violent at times. Religion has been used as an excuse to prop up other forms of discrimination, and each generation has had to commit itself anew to employing religion for good and not evil. Some have certainly done better than others. The current generation, which possesses on so many levels a religiously-motivated commitment to help the world, has the greatest hope of reshaping this country. Their faith has the power to mark them as an unquestionable force for good, both at home and in the world.