America: Fundamentally Religious: Our Puritan Spirit Is Still with Us but in Different Forms

By Glenn, Gary; Stack, John | The World and I, December 1999 | Go to article overview
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America: Fundamentally Religious: Our Puritan Spirit Is Still with Us but in Different Forms


Glenn, Gary, Stack, John, The World and I


Judicially imposed public secularism, America's new philosophy, relegates religion to a purely private affair. Religion still stubbornly maintains a place in our public life, however. Whether the public religious traditions that Americans have maintained are symbolic gestures or religiously significant, many Americans continue to practice their faith in public. Students in public schools may pray privately in class or in the cafeteria over lunch, if they do so silently. They also have the opportunity to study the Bible as literature, comparative religions, and the philosophy of religion. In high schools throughout the nation, thousands of religious clubs congregate after instructional hours, so long as other extracurricular clubs are also allowed to meet.

The congressional and military chaplaincies still in existence trace their origins back to the First Congress. President Eisenhower added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and President Lincoln added In God We Trust to our coins. Many political speeches, especially those given by presidents, continue to employ religious rhetoric. In his 1992 State of the Union message, George Bush proclaimed, "By the grace of God, America won the Cold War." President Clinton has also found occasion to use the rhetoric of religion, particularly when speaking to African-American Baptists.

The Supreme Court occupies a courtroom that posts the Ten Commandments. In 1993, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), making it more difficult for government to prohibit conduct motivated by religious beliefs. In 1996, the Supreme Court declared the RFRA unconstitutional, implying that the Court, not Congress, defines religious liberty. Undeterred by the Court's attempt to supplant the people and their elected representatives, the House of Representatives recently passed the Ten Commandments Defense Act, which would allow public officials to display the commandments in classrooms and other government venues.

Three of our national holidays are importantly religious. Thanksgiving is "a national holiday for giving thanks to God" and Christmas is "the annual festival of the Christian church commemorating the birth of Jesus; celebrated on December 25 ... now generally observed as a legal holiday" (Random House Dictionary of the English Language). Christians have maintained the religious tradition of displaying the crache at Christmas and Jews the menorah during Hanukkah, though nowadays they are usually required to share public space with Santa and his reindeer. We also celebrate the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s life with a national holiday.

The faith of our fathers

The late M.E. Bradford argued that 50 of the 55 framers of the U.S. Constitution were Christians "and that their political philosophies were deeply influenced by their religious convictions." That may be a stretch, however, since many of the founders leaned toward deism. Catherine Albanese pointed out that at least 52 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons.

Whatever the particular faith of individual founders, they more or less subscribed to the same morality. James Madison made explicit the connection between this shared morality and America's future: "We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God" (June 20, 1785).

Thomas Jefferson pointed out in his first inaugural address that Americans were "enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man." Tocqueville, the celebrated analyst of American democracy, later observed the same phenomenon, noting that in the United States "all [sects] preach the same morality in the name of God.

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