The Role of Religion in the USAWritten by Scott Dreyer
At DreyerCoaching.com, not only do we help students learn English, but also learn about life in the USA. Not long ago Dave, one of my outstanding online students in Beijing, China, asked me: What was the role of Christianity in forming the United States?
That is a GREAT question, and one that has many answers! The SHORT answer is: Religion, particularly Christianity, played a HUGE role in the forming of the USA, and if you want to understand the United States, the Western World, and the English language, you need to understand Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible.
The issue of religion and America's founding is complicated at best. When we look at this issue, there are two extreme errors, both of which are wrong. Consider the question, "Did America have a Christian founding?" One extreme answer, widespread today, is "Of course not! The colonists wanted to escape the crazy religious wars and conflicts of Europe, so they made a "religion-free" government, and we call it "separation of Church and State." The other extreme answer is: "Of course! All the Founding Fathers were deeply devout Christian believers who wanted to set up a theocracy where Christianity would rule." Both these views, though held by many today (especially the first one), are false. You can read more here.
For many years, museums and schools have downplayed this role of religion in America's founding and development. I think there are many reasons for this.
One, many of the people who run the musuems and schools themselves do not understand the imporant role, so they are not able to teach what they themselves do not understand or appreciate.
Two, many people are afraid of "crossing the line" or being seen as forcing religion on people, so they back off. They are afraid of being branded a "religious zealot" or committing that greatest sin in America today -- "offending somebody," so they avoid the topic altogether.
Three, other people have a political or cultural agenda to reduce the influence of religion in the US today, so to do so they deemphasize the role of religion in history. As George Orwell put it in his 1948 bestseller 1984,
"He who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future."
In other words, those who control the present (control schools, the media, museums, the government, etc.) can control the past (by slanting or twisting how history is taught, or mis-taught), and if you can create a false narrative about what the past was like, you can more easily trick or mislead people into going astray from their true cultural roots and into a totally new direction, thus "controlling the future."
I was heartened to see that the famous Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. held a year-long exhibit, on the role of religion in America. To quote: "As a focused subject area, it's been neglected," says Peter Manseau, a scholar and writer installed last year as the first full-time religion curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. He continues: "We can't tell the story of America without telling the story of religion," Manseau says, "and we can't answer questions about the importance of religion today without going back to earlier generations." Read or hear the story here.
The first permanent English colony in the New World was at Jamestown, Virginia. (This is another fine reason to study English with DreyerCoaching.com-- since we are based in the US State of Virginia, you can learn English from the birthplace of English-speaking America!) Even though Jamestown was created mainly for economic reasons (to make lots of money), Christianity was very important in its founding. The first building erected at Jamestown was a Christian church.
Plymouth Rock & Boston
The settlers at Plymouth Rock and Boston were highly-motivated by their Christian faith to leave Europe, cross the Atlantic, and built new lives in the New World where they wanted to be "like a city on a hill" as Jesus said.
(Another Virginia note: The Pilgrims actually wanted to sail to Virginia and settle here, but they were blown off course by storms and so ended much further north, in what is today Massachusetts.)
The Declaration of Independence
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
(In other words, human rights come from God, and the "Right to Life" comes first. Let's face it: without a right to life, no other rights mean anything, if we are dead!)
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
(Note: Governments do not GIVE or CREATE the rights; government is supposed to SECURE (protect) the rights that come from God.)
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes… But when a long train of abuses and usurpations… evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.” (In other words: if any government is not doing its job to protect the God-given rights, then the people have to right to alter (change) or abolish (overthrow) it, and create a new form of government that will do a better job of protecting the people and keeping them safe and happy.)
(The Declaration then lists 27 grievances, or complaints, that the colonists had against King George III of England. Like a lawyer, Jefferson lays out his case why independence is legitimate and necessary. The Declaration then ends with two more references to God.)
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown…”
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The Congress that met in Philadelphia and approved the Declaration debated and revised the wording from July 1-4, 1776. (In a little-known note, Congress actually voted for and approved independence from England on July 2, but did not approve the final wording of the Declaration until July 4, hence, that is our nation's birthday. Source) During the four days of debate over the wording of the Declaration, there is no evidence that anyone objected to or revised the references to God. No one said, "Hey, this is a government document, we can't talk about God in this!"
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
The next year, 1777, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which the Virginia government approved in 1779. It reads in part (emphasis mine):
Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time. … (source)
Many today have never heard of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and it is seldom taught in schools, but notice what words Jefferson ordered be written on his tombstone before he died, ironically, on July 4, 1826, America's 50th birthday:
HERE WAS BURIED
AUTHOR OF THE
OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
AND FATHER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826 (source)
Do you see? Jefferson did NOT want mentioned that he had been a US president (two terms), the first US Secretary of State, a Virginia governor, the architect of Monticello, etc, but he DID mention two documents he had written and the university he had founded!
Geographic Place Names
It is a normal human trait to name things. The Bible is a thick book, but right near the beginning, Genesis Chapter 2, we see Adam naming the animals. Pet owners give their pets names. Likewise, people name their surroundings. The Native Americans (aka American Indians) named places, and many of those names exist till today across America: many are surprised to know that 26 of the 50 United States--over half-- have Indian names, like Alaska, Connecticut, and Kentucky! My beloved hometown and headquarters of DreyerCoaching.com is in Roanoke, Virginia. As European settlers began pouring into the Americas starting in the 1500s and 1600s, they brought their own languages, cultures, and religions with them, and usually stamped their own sense of identity and ownership on the land by naming it. Just in the US State of Virginia alone, we have tons of English names like the James River, the Elizabeth River, Richmond, Portsmouth, Norfolk, King and Queen County, etc., plus a Moscow, Warsaw, and Dublin.
LIkewise, MANY place names come from the Bible, the holy book of Judaism and Christianity. Nearby our headquarters is Salem, which means "peace" in Hebrew and is another name for Jerusalem. Other Bible names include:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (cite of the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, in Independence Hall, on the back of the US$100 bill--right under "IN GOD WE TRUST.")
Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, the US's smallest state ("Providence" means the protective care of God, but Providence, RI recently ranked as one of the "most Godless cities in the US," because so few residents there read the Bible often. You can read the report here.)
Newark, New Jersey (from New Ark of the Covenant)
Shiloh, Tennessee (site of a bloody Civil War battle in 1862)
Antioch, Tennessee (hometown of financial guru and talk radio host Dave Ramsey)
New Lebanon, Ohio & New York
Damascus, Virginia (Saint Paul in the Bible was converted to Christianity on the Road to Damascus, now the capital of Syria.)
Goshen Pass, (Virginia's oldest state-managed natural area)
Zion, Utah, (where my family visited the beautiful national park when we went camping out West when I was a child)
In addition, there are all the places named after saints. (English is a crazy language: the abbreviation "St." can stand for "Saint" or "Street.") St. Petersburg, FL, St. Paul, MN, St. Louis, MO, St. Augustine, FL (the first European settlement in what is now the USA), St. Cloud, MN, etc. The Book of Matthew tells about a star over Bethlemen, that guided the wise men to the Baby Jesus. There are more than twelve "little towns of Bethlehem" in the US, including one in Indiana, from where a cousin of mine mails me an annual Christmas card with a Star of Bethlehem and Bethlehem, IN postmark.
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed with His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today, Mount Olive, NC is called the "pickle capital of the world," due to the presence of Mt. Olive pickle company there, at the Corner of Cucumber and Vine Streets!
Now, to make things more interesting, let's switch from English to other languages. The Spanish colonized much of what is the southern and southwestern USA, and chose many Catholic Christian names, in Spanish, for their lands. "San" or "Santa" mean "saint" or "holy" in Spanish, thus we have San Francisco, San Diego, San Bernadino, Santa Barbara, and San Jose, CA; plus San Antonio, TX and Santa Fe, NM. Corpus Christi, TX literally means "the Body of Christ." The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which stretch from Colorado to New Mexico, mean "the Blood of Christ." Sacramento, the capital of California, means "sacrament," a religious rite, such as communion, where believers receive an act of grace from God. Los Angeles, CA, the second-biggest city in the US, means "the angels." Las Cruces, the second-biggest city in New Mexico, means "the crosses." And to make things more fun, let's turn to the French language. Notre Dame, IN, means "Our Lady." And 49 of the 50 states are divided into counties, an idea from the English, while Louisiana, with a heavy French influence as a former colony of France (and Spain), is divided into parishes with names like St. Mary, St. Martin, and St. Bernard. A parish is a small administrative area having its own church and priest.
You can see a full list of Bible place names in the US here.
The US Constitution
Unlike the 1776 Declaration of Independence, which mentions God four or five times, the 1787 Constitution does not mention God by name at all. So, some people claim, "See, since the Constitution does not mention God at all, then the US government had a totally secular (non-religious) founding!" However, that is wrong thinking. The Constitution is the written plan of government that the USA has used since it was ratified (approved) in 1788. The US Constitution is the OLDEST written plan of government still in use in the whole world today! The men who wrote the Constitution, with George Washington in charge, generally had a Christian worldview. Their education, culture, and value system were heavily influenced by the Bible. A big part of that biblical belief is that people are flawed by sin, and that includes leaders, so the best way for these imperfect, flawed people to govern (rule) themselves, is to spread out the power. Do not let too much power be in the hands of just one person or group. (Think about the World War II dictators Hitler of Germany and Stalin of Russia. They tried to create a utopia [perfect society], and used all the power of their governments to do that. But instead of creating a "heaven on earth," they created nightmares that killed MILLIONS of innocent people. The USA is not a perfect place--and of course, no place is perfect--but it has never given the world a Hitler or a Stalin.) Major ideas of the Constitution are "separation of powers" and "checks and balances." So, the US government has three branches of government: legislative (Congress makes the laws); executive (the President enforces the laws); judicial (the courts interpret the laws). They all have overlapping powers and ways of controlling or "checking" the others, so the goal is to avoid a dictatorship, where one person or group has all the power. Since 1789, the system has worked! Not perfectly, but it has worked! (To learn more about the Judeo-Christian worldview that the US Constitution is based on, and three other common worldviews, see the "Four Worldviews" part at the bottom of this page.)
When the Founding Fathers met at Philadelphia in 1787 to write a Constitution and create a stronger form of government, they were in danger of splitting up because of disagreements between the larger and smaller states and the North and the South over the issues of power. Actually, it looked like the meeting would end in failure, and maybe the new USA would collapse, but 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin asked for prayer, to ask God for wisdom and success. Read more here. This is what he said, when he suggested prayer for their meeting:
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? --Benjamin Franklin
The Bill of Rights
This may come as a surprise to you, but as the Founding Fathers were working to create the new Constitution in 1787, many American patriots OPPOSED the idea! Why? They thought: "We fought a war with England to be free from a dictatorship, but if we create a new, STRONG USA government, it might become a dictatorship some day too and we will be unfree again!" Those patriots were afraid that a strong NATIONAL government would gradually take away power from the STATES. When the patriot and Christian Patrick Henry of Virginia heard about the new Constitution, he replied: "I smell a rat!" (And when you look at US history, you can see those patriots had a good point! That was basically a major cause of the US Civil War, and since WW II, Washington DC has grown in power as the states have lost power. But that is a different story for another day.) So, in order to persuade some of those fearful patriots and reluctant states that they should ratify (approve) the new US Constitution, the Founding Fathers decided to guarantee some powers and rights to the people and the states. Those rights were added as the first ten amendments (additions) to the Constitution. Those special freedoms, now called the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution in 1791. The first part of the Bill of Rights is the First Amendment. It was put first, because it is most important: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (source)
Notice a few points:
- religion came first
- Congress cannot establish a "state religion." In other words, England had a "Church of England," but the USA was to have no "Church of America" with forced membership, tithes paid, etc.
- It says Congress (the national government) cannot establish a religion, but it does not mention states or local governments
- It does not say "Freedom FROM religion," even though we hear that language much today
- Congress cannot make a law to prohibit (block) how people practice their religions
- Freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, and seeking to change the government come later.
(Sadly, a 2017 survey shows that 37% of Americans could not name ANY of the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment!) (source)
Separation of Church and State
As seen above, the Bill of Rights mentions Religion first. Its purpose was to avoid creating a "Church of America" but also to guarantee freedom of religion. However, that language made some people nervous. They thought: "if the government is talking about religion, what do they plan to do? Will they control our religion or take away our religious liberty?" On October 7, 1801, a group of Baptist pastors in Danbury, Connecticut wrote a letter to newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson. They wrote to congratulate him on his 1800 election, but also to ask him his views about religion and government. They wrote to Jefferson: "But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific."
That letter, and Jefferson's letter back, are important. We do not know why, but even though the Baptists dated their letter October 7, Jefferson did not receive it until December 30. But somehow, it seemed very important to Jefferson, because even though the letter was almost three months old by the time he got it, he quickly wrote a response that same day, December 30, and asked two New England political leaders for their thoughts on it. You can read the Baptists' letter and Jefferson's response here. On January 1, 1802, Jefferson opened the new year by finishing his letter. It is a mystery. Even though Jefferson was busy on New Years Day 1802 with many guests and well-wishers, and New Years Day is a holiday, Jefferson thought this issue was important. On that day, Jefferson sent his draft letter to his secretary explaining why he had written it, got his secretary's feedback, edited the letter, signed it, and released it, all on January 1. Some claim Jefferson's letter was just a "short note of courtesy"-- a Thank you Note to the Baptists-- but actually it was much more than that. The Library of Congress holds Jefferson's handwritten letter, and almost 30% of his letter-- seven of 25 lines--Jefferson deleted before he sent it. The Library of Congress actually asked the FBI to use their technology to read the parts that Jefferson had marked out. You can learn more about this fascinating but little-known mystery here.
The most famous part of Jefferson's letter is this:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ʺmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,ʺ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. (emphasis mine) Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
There is a HUGE storm around the words "separation of Church & State." (In this case, "State" means government.) MANY Americans believe this phrase is in the Constitution, or Declaration of Independence, or both, but it is not! This phrase is in private letter only-- a letter to Baptist preachers! Many believe that Jefferson, if he were alive today, would be shocked to find out that this little phrase he wrote has become one of his most well-know and often-quoted phrases.
But what does it mean?
If we read the context, Jefferson is quoting the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: Congress cannot make a state "Church of America," and it cannot prohibit the freedom of religion either. Frankly, Jefferson seems to say the "wall" is to keep the government out of the church's business, since freedom of religion is guaranteed. However, since about the 1950s, this phrase has been used countless times to push these ideas:
- the church is to play no role in the US, state, or local governments or law-making
- religion should be a largely private matter, to be kept inside the four walls of churches or homes
- religion has no role in the "public square" or public life
- public schools cannot have the 10 Commandments, public prayers, religious songs at Christmas concerts, even Christmas or Easter holidays (instead "winter" and "spring" breaks, etc.)
But Jefferson's views on the First Amendment and the interaction of religion and government are not so clear. Two days after he sent his letter, he attended a Christian church service held in the US House of Representatives! (source) Even till today, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have a full-time chaplain who is paid a government salary from the US Treasury!
There is MUCH more to say, but here is one last resource. In May 2009, the US House of Representatives approved House Resolution 397, naming the first week of May as "America's Spiritual Heritage Week." I am happy to say that a congressman from Virginia and whom I once met, Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA-4), introduced this resolution. It gives a fuller list of the role of religion in the founding of the US than I could blog about. You can read its full text here.
What are people? Precious beings created in the image of God.
Why are there problems in the world? People are fallen (sinful).
How do you govern these people? With Checks & Balances. ALL people are fallen, including leaders, so don’t give all the power to 1 person or group.
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -- Thomas Jefferson
The U.S. government is set up on the model, with 3 branches; federalism; a written constitution, etc.
Truth is absolute. Whether you agree with it or not, there is a universal truth.
This was the overall worldview of most Americans till the 1950s and 1960s.
What are people? Precious beings able to think & reason.
Why are there problems in the world? People are born good (Locke’s tabula rasa), but society can make them bad. (Rousseau)
How do you govern these people? Make a government strong enough to make a better society.
This worldview also emphasizes written laws & constitutions. It emphasizes individual/personal rights, hence, the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Truth can be found through science & reason.
This was believed by many American leaders since the Enlightenment (1700s), but went “mainstream” in the 1960s.
20th Century Utopianism
What are people? Products of evolution.
Why are there problems in the world? Humankind is basically good, but society is unfair. If we can just change society, the economy, education, etc., we can make the world a better place. We can create a utopia!
How do you make this utopia? Give the state enough powers to make it happen! Make “heaven on earth!”
Very Conservative (Right-wing)
Strictly enforce the laws. OR
Very liberal (Left-wing)
Overthrow the kings, the rich, the factory owners... Make everyone equal! “Share the wealth.” After awhile, the gov’t. will “wither away.” What if people don’t want to be helped? Make them; it’s for their own good. “We are seldom so cruel as when we seek to be kind.” -- George Orwell
Truth is what the Party says.
What are people? Products of evolution.
Why are there problems in the world? Humankind is basically good, but society is bad and unfair.
How do you make this utopia? Give the government (state) enough power to make it happen. (Hence the American explosion of the number of laws.)
This worldview often emphasizes GROUP over individual rights. Key words are diversity, tolerance, & inclusiveness.
Truth is whatever you want it to be. There is no absolute truth. “You have your truth; I have mine.”
From the 1990s, it seemed this was increasingly where American society was headed. Is it still?
Many of the social, economic and political conflicts in post-modern America are actually a clash of worldviews, a clash of orthodoxies, “culture wars,” a “civil war of values.”
Thank you for reading this far! This tiny list is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope to keep adding to this post, but the subject is vast and inexhaustible, so in a sense, this post can never be declared "finished."
Would you like to know more about English or life in the USA? Contact me today to find out how we can help you!
A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.dreyercoaching.com/en/about/scott-dreyer
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