Sunday, 19 May 2013

Religion and society in the USA since the 1890s

The Constitution of the USA guarantees that State and Church are separate; this makes the country secular (= “laïque”). However, religion is much more present in society and political life than in countries like France. In 1990, 85% of Americans were Christian. In 2010, it was 75% (225 million people, including Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox). A small majority of Christians in the USA are Protestant, 25% are Catholic.

The first European settlers were mostly Protestant and the American nation’s early history is inextricably linked to Protestantism. Protestant (“WASP”) values have largely defined the national identity and are still very important today even if the country is more pluralist, i.e. it has several religions and also a rising number of atheists (people with no religion). Protestantism is a major branch of the Christian religion. It dates from the early 16th century (Reformation). There are about 500 million Protestants in the world (out of about 2 billion Christians). There are very many movements, denominations, groups and churches within Protestantism. The Christian religion defines most art, architecture, the calendar, practices, values and festivities in the USA. There are many minorities in the USA (it is a multicultural society), each with its religion and specific culture; these minorities have only become significant (numerically and in public life) in the latter half of the 20th century (because of immigration from a diverse number of countries).

Atheism has had less impact in the Unites States than in most European countries (for example: in France only 15% of the population actively practices a religion, and 25% is atheist).

All Western countries are secular; the State is not supposed to interfere in the religious sphere and citizens are free to practice whatever religion they choose (religion is a private matter). There are different conceptions of secularism however: there are different degrees of separation between the State and religious institutions, and degrees of neutrality of the State as regards its interference in religious practices. For example, in France, the State has forbidden (since 2004) the wearing of veils by Muslim girls in State schools; this is not the case in the USA or the UK. Another example: in the USA, the President takes the oath during his investiture with his hand on the Bible…

In the USA, secularism is a principal of the Constitution; the 1st Amendment stipulates that Congress cannot create or favor a particular religion and that people are free to choose whatever religion they like. This is unsurprising, as many colonizers (for example: the Pilgrim Fathers) fled religious persecution; they did not want their country, once free of the British, to reproduce the conditions which they had been victims of. The first Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, of speech, of publication, and of gathering.

At the start of the 20th century, the number of city-dwellers increased to 60% of the population, and Fundamentalist Christians started to combat the rise in atheism, pluralism, the decline in church attendance, and modernization. In the 1920's, Protestants made up 50% of the people who declared having a religion. “Protestant” means “non-Catholic” and includes denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. Catholics made up 35% of the population who declared having a religion at the time.

A fundamental precept of Protestantism is that the individual has a personal and direct link to God; most Americans reject the idea of the need for priests or saints. Immigrants, explorers, and the pioneers who went West, largely made up their religious practices as they went along and as they built their churches; this self-reliance reinforced the religious individualism within the Protestant faith. A Protestant Christian is on an individual journey of faith, trying to understand what God wants from him personally. The Bible - written in English - can be read and studied by the faithful; the Truth is in the Scripture and there is no need for a priest to interpret it.

The individualism that is part of the American character stems partly from religious belief: the faith rejects the mediation of priests, making the individual active and responsible for his thoughts and actions (there is no expiation of sins on Earth, so one has to act and be “good” all the time to avoid living in sin, and there is no guarantee of salvation…).

The individualism that is part of the American character stems also from the experiences of the settlers and immigrants: self-reliance (therefore courage but violence too) was necessary to survive in what they saw as a hostile world (the environment, native peoples, Godless empty lands, other pioneers...). There was no one to help them; no one was responsible for their success or failure other than themselves…

There was/is a rationalist, progressive, forward-thinking type of Protestantism. The Scripture is read intelligently in a non-literal way; what seems logical and useful and inspired is made use of. It is opposed to the Fundamentalist tendency. The approach of Fundamentalists is to read the Bible in an unquestioning way; it is a literal interpretation of Scripture.

Fundamentalism is against theological modernism and wary of technological or social progress. At the end of the 19th century and especially in the early years of the 20th century, there were many Christian  Fundamentalist movements. These were often run by charismatic leaders who often exploited the gullibility of their followers who were for the most part poor, uneducated and superstitious. Preachers sometimes practiced exorcism and miraculous cures. Charismatic movements still exist today.

Fundamentalists promoted prohibition of alcohol (they wanted temperance). The Prohibition Act was passed in 1919 (it made the production, sale and transport of alcohol illegal); this law, stemming from moral/religious beliefs had very great consequences on American society: violence and crime increased, and immoral behavior too… The Law was repealed in 1933.

Fundamentalists were against the teaching of most science; for them, the world can be explained using Scripture alone. Fundamentalists were particularly influential in the 1920s in the Bible Belt (i.e. in the rural South and Mid-West). They managed to have the teaching of Darwinism (the theory of evolution) replaced in certain schools by the teaching of Creationism (i.e. the idea that Man and all living creatures were created by God just as they are). A teacher called John Scopes was brought to trial in 1925 for teaching Darwinism; the Creationists had wanted to promote their ideas through the “Monkey trial”, but they did not achieve this. Fundamentalists wanted in fact to control the education of children as a means of spreading their beliefs.

The religious pluralism of the USA comes from the fact that the population is made up of immigrants from many parts of the world. Religious pluralism means that different religions co-exist within the same territory. In the USA, the religions are:
  • Native Indian shamanism/animist.
  • Catholicism arrived with the Spanish, Portuguese and French at the end of the 16th century. In the second half of the 20th century, the number of Catholics increased with the influx of Latin American immigrants.
  • Christian Protestantism arrived with the British settlers at the start of the 17th century.
  • During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, an ever-increasing number of immigrants brought a diversity of beliefs and religious practices (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.).
  • The Chinese, Koreans, etc. brought oriental religions mostly after 1965.
  • Islam has increased in the last 30 years with the rise in immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia.
The USA was founded by people who were persecuted for their beliefs. The USA has a tradition of welcoming persecuted peoples (cf. the Statue of Liberty). However, people whose religious beliefs were too distant from that of the WASP mainstream (especially from the 17th to first half of the 20th century) often suffered from being marginalized. This was true of Jews, but particularly so of Catholics. Catholics have been the largest single religious group in the USA since the early 20th century, but Anti-Catholic sentiment by the majority has made it difficult for Catholics to be accepted into political or economic circles (there has only been one Catholic President: J.F. Kennedy). 

Integration into the mainstream being difficult, the result is a multitude of communities. Members of the same community usually share the same ethnic origin, language, beliefs and practices, religion, and very often (especially when newly-arrived) the same neighborhood. The physical, social/cultural center is often the church, temple, mosque, etc. Religion is inextricably linked to ethnic identity (for example: "Irish" equals "Catholic"). Many Americans who see themselves as belonging to families or communities that settled a long time ago, are hostile to new immigrants, fearing for the “unity” of the country (and for their jobs too perhaps). This hostility reinforces the sense that ethnic minorities have of having to belong to a community (for self-preservation, and "solidarity in numbers"). Note that communities do not necessarily define themselves along ethnic or religious lines: there is a “Gay” community (defining itself on the basis of sexual orientation) and a “Black” community (defining itself by “race”).

The USA is a land for refugees and immigrants, but they are not obliged to adopt (all) the cultural habits (at least not the religion) of the majority in order to become "American". There is tolerance of religious and cultural differences generally, but this does not prevent hostility against ethnic or religious minorities by some people within the majority (which is increasing as it gets smaller?). Racism and discrimination of (and between) minorities  is a perennial problem in the USA...

“Americanization” means that an immigrant becomes an American citizen and adopts certain practices and learns to share certain values (patriotism, self-reliance, individualism, belief in hard work and success, etc.) but he does not have to abandon his religion or all aspects of his original culture (especially as “community” is a basic tenet of Protestantism). Communities settle along particular streets of neighborhoods, sometimes creating a strong social and spatial division of the major cities.

After 1965, because there were fewer restrictions on immigration, the number of Latin American immigrants in the USA increased. In 1970, there were 9 million Hispanics, and in 2012, there were 50 million. As a consequence, the number of Catholics (though not the percentage) increased (from 45 million in 1970 to 70 million in 2012). About 20% of these immigrants, mostly from Puerto Rico and Mexico, not feeling welcome by the Catholic Church and English-speaking parishes (with few Spanish-speaking priests and no ceremonies in Spanish), have turned to Pentecostal or Baptist congregations (where the people are often quite poor, like themselves, and where the style of worship resembles more what they were used to in their countries of origin).

From the 1950's on, many Blacks turned to Islam (organizations like the Nation of Islam, in which Malcolm X was a leader, recruited actively). They felt, because of the racial abuse of which they were victims, that this religion empowered them, gave them some dignity and a means to fight for their civil rights.

Islam is, after 9/11, associated by many Americans with terrorist activity and Muslims are finding it very difficult to feel accepted by the majority (some even turning to more fundamental forms of their religion). Tolerance and fraternity, which are strong values in the USA (JFK defended these in his 1960 speech) are being challenged by religious extremism and by rising insecurity and intolerance.

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