The BackShop Journal

A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Religion in the United States

Even though an increasing number of people are irreligious, even openly atheist, there is no question about the importance of religion in a society and about the influence on its culture. In fact, religion is one of the most important parts of a culture; it divides nations into cultural regions based on the most prevalent religion in the country. In the United States of America, close to 90 percent of people still say they believe in God or a higher power, but only 40 percent belong to a church or some other religious group. The influence of religion, however, is apparent even in popular culture.

Most original US colonies were populated by different Protestant groups from Europe, mainly England. A lot of them came to America fleeing persecution, looking for a place where they could practice their faith in peace. Pennsylvania was thus founded by Quakers, Maryland by Roman Catholics and Massachusetts by Puritans and Separatists. Quakers, like most Protestants, practiced the "priesthood of all believers," meaning they did not have an intermediary, a priest, between the believers and God, and they professed a "direct experience of Christ." Quakers refused to participate in wars, wore plain dresses, abstained from swearing and using alcohol.  Their preaching was considered blasphemy in England, and they were even persecuted in the New World. A Quaker preacher, Mary Dyer, was hanged by the Puritans in Boston in 1660. Some Quakers became very rich as founders of famous banks, and William Penn, the first governor of Pennsylvania, was a Quaker. About 400,000 Americans are their descendants.

Another religious group, the Puritans, sought to purify the Church of England, and had a considerable political influence in Britain, even seizing power after the First English Civil War (1645-46). Oliver Cromwell, the ruler of England, was a Puritan. This religious group called for greater personal and group piety. Upon their arrival in the New World, Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were well known for their discipline and democratic practices. The famous Pilgrim Fathers, who formed the Plymouth Colony in 1620, were Separatists. Their Mayflower Compact, the first constitution-like document drafted on the American soil, has been dubbed the seed of American democracy. 

One of the fastest-growing religious denominations in America are Mormons, who got their name after the Book of Mormon, discovered and translated into English by Joseph Smith in the 1820s. This scripture tells about Christ's appearance and teachings in Americas soon after his resurrection. After the murder of Joseph Smith by a mob in 1844, and a period of search for a place to inhabit, Mormons were led by Brigham Young to Utah territory, where the center of this religious group, called the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, is still located. They abide by a law of chastity and health code, and they are still associated with polygamy, which some of their leaders practiced in the 19th century. Mormons are known for their proselytism, since every adult male has to spend a year abroad preaching their religion. In general, Mormons are very affluent, especially their leaders.

One of the fundamental characteristics of Protestant settlers in America was the notion of self-improvement, which they try to achieve all their life. This aspiration is evident in the abundance of self-help books that attempt to improve individual's self-esteem and relationship to others. As opposed to traditional Christians, Protestants do not see a contradiction in becoming rich and being Christian, since material wealth is a direct result of hard work and self discipline. This idea is called Protestant, or Puritan, work ethic. 

The abundance of Christian denominations, as well as various other religions in the country, can be seen as a reflection of the importance Americans place on individual freedom and competition, two important American values. The Protestants' rejection of the early Christian tradition, especially in the interpretation of the Bible, has lead to the establishment of entire churches and large followings based on assigning paramount importance to a single event described in the New Testament. Thus the Pentecostal Church, for example, is based on the descent of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost described in the Book of Acts, when the apostles started preaching in different languages to the representatives of various nations gathered around them. During Pentecostal church services, certain members fall into a trance, start "speaking in tongues" and "healing" the sick. Perhaps a desire to achieve spirituality instantly and a penchant for spectacles has contributed to the appearance of the so-called "megachurches," in which thousands of people, gathered in indoor stadiums, listen to charismatic preachers, singing and praying in unison. Since in Protestant churches, unlike in the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is no holy consecration of bishops and priests, pastors are appointed mainly on their ability to preach and attract a sizable congregation. 

Lately, there has been a widening rift between the traditional Protestant churches in America (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist), which are more liberal and tolerant toward controversial ethical issues, like abortion, same-sex marriages and female priesthood, and Evangelical Christians, who are more conservative in their worldview.

Some characteristics of the Protestant religion are evident in pop culture as well, like public confession and forgiveness in talk shows reality TV, and the 12-step meetings that originated in the Alcoholics Anonymous groups aimed at helping individuals get rid of their addiction to alcohol and other abusive substances. Finally, the humanist notions of political correctness and tolerance are obviously acquiring characteristics of a religious movement in modern-day America.

Books to Read and Films to See

The Scarlett Letter (1850) is a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, it explores the themes of sin, repentance and dignity.

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980) is a television miniseries about the Peoples Temple led by Jim Jones, and their 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana. It depicts the murder of nearly 300 people by cyanide poisoning, initiated by the infamous American cult leader.


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