Peace on Earth to People of Good Will: Religion, the United States, and the Web

By McDermott, Irene E. | Searcher, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Peace on Earth to People of Good Will: Religion, the United States, and the Web


McDermott, Irene E., Searcher


We all remember that ghastly day in September 2001 when Islamic terrorists murdered thousands of Americans. According to Osama bin Laden, the attack was part of a worldwide holy war between Muslims and the "atheists and infidels" of the United States.

Wrong about the "atheist" part, Mr. bin Laden. Americans are a deeply religious people and have been ever since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. A 2001 survey showed that more than 80 percent of us identify with a religious group of some kind.

American Religious Identification Survey http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/ research_briefs/aris/key_findings.htm

The Graduate Center of the City University of New York conducted this survey of religious identification among American adults in 2001. Among the 81 percent of responders who said that they were religious, about 77 percent said they were Christians. Non-Christian religious people make up about 3.7 percent of American society. About i4 percent of Americans reported that they have no religious affiliation.

A Really Short History of Religion in America

The First Amendment in the United States Constitution reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or pro hibiting the free exercise thereof" [http://www.law.cornell.edu/consti tution/consfitufion.billofrights.html]. Our nation's founders established the doctrine of the separation between church and state not because they wanted to eliminate religion, but because they wanted to protect it.

The Pilgrims traveled to North America to escape state-sponsored religion. For a while, religion in England was like a revolving door that swung around whenever the monarch changed. In the early 1530s, King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church because he wanted to get a divorce. He made everybody switch over to his new church and seized Catholic lands. When his daughter, "Bloody" Mary, took the throne in 1553, she reinstituted Catholicism as the state religion and had many Protestant leaders killed. Five years later, Elizabeth I ascended to power and flipped the country back to Protestantism, although this time, she blended Catholic-based rituals with Protestant teachings in what came to be known as the "Elizabethan Compromise."

Some British Protestants had fled to Geneva to escape Bloody Mary. There, they picked up some new ideas about salvation by faith from John Calvin. When they returned home, they found that they couldn't stand the Anglican Church because they felt it was too much like the old Catholicism. Then, even though England was officially Protestant, it began persecuting these "Puritans" for going too far.

All this time, anyone who practiced a religion not sanctioned by the current government was guilty not only of heresy, but treason. It's no wonder that our Founding Fathers, albeit very religious, nevertheless drew a clear line between the civil rule of law and private devotion.

America as a Religious Refuge: The 17th Century http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/ rel01.html

This Library of Congress site illustrates the religious persecution in Europe in the 17th century and why the Puritans left for America. The page also shows how the settlers translated the Bible into Native American languages, the better to convert the natives to Christianity.

In the U.S., the separation between church and state has allowed religion to flourish and change. The mid-18th century saw the "First Great Awakening," a revivalist movement among Protestants that called for individual conversion and holy living. A "Second Great Awakening" in the early 19th century included many African-Americans. It was also during this time that Mormonism emerged as the first indigenous American religion.

After the Civil War, the "Holiness Movement" spawned many new denominations, including the Seventh-day Adventists in 1863 and the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879. …

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Peace on Earth to People of Good Will: Religion, the United States, and the Web
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