Theology and Civil Religion essay

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America a Christian Nation?

During the founding of the new Republic, soon to be the United States of America, the idea of Christianity and the power of God to represent the best will of the people was part of the Founding Fathers' notions. It was inconceivable to them, in fact, to separate the idea of being religious and being political; and the notion of religion was tied with Christianity. The social view of the time was different than it is now, and there was a difference between the cultural heritage of religion and Biblical Christianity. There are examples from both sides of the argument that show America as one founded on the basic principles of Christianity -- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution being, for their time period, quite egalitarian. In the Declaration of Independence, for instance, there is a clear reference to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." "That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" (Declaration of Independence). Patrick Henry, for instance, writing about the founding of the new nation wrote: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here" (Henry). In the last verse of the Star Spangled Banner, the poem emphasizes that we are a nation under God, powered by God, and solidified through mutual belief in God:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war's desolation!

Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave! (Key)

If one asks about the nature of Christianity today, though, there is a surprising set of statistics. About 28% of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion or no religion at all. Sixteen percent say they are unaffiliated, which is double the number from past surveys. And, when we dig deeper into actual practicing Christians, we find that the number of Americans who report that they are Protestant is barely 51%. This population is characterized, in fact, but a significant number of diversity and fragmentation in which there is no semblance of agreement. For example, Figure 1 shows the overall breakdown of religion in America; and we see that almost 79% of Americans do identify themselves as Christian. Figure 2 looks at the Christian segment alone, showing the tremendous divide amongst those even professing faith. The survey also shows more diversity and a larger increase in Hinduism and Islam (Pew Form on Religion and Public Life).

Philosophically, we can look at America as a sociological explanation of Christianity in combination with the development and expounding of modern capitalism. For instance, the basic tenet of the Calvinist Biblical Interpretation of the Bible is that the way to succeed is through hard work, effort, diligence, and application to a task. In essence, it is part of the socialization of the American Middle Class -- part of the value system that we must uphold whether we are taking music lessons, studying for exams, or playing sports -- the entire paradigm is that rewards will NOT come to those who do not toil. In this, the Protestant Ethic was to become the ethic of the American Middle Class -- working hard and expecting to take care of their families, strong family values, and kindness to those less fortunate, and extreme patriotism based on the idea that God is on the side of America (Weber). In this, religion is not simply spirituality or worship, but an ethic that combines the interpretation of the Bible with individualism, organization, and what tends to become economic control.

If we think about the actual founding of America, of course, we turn to the basics of religious freedom. . By the very nature, the structure, right or wrong, of the Protestant ethic was to "go forth and prosper," and a gender-based rule of child-bearing an important economic contribution for women. The Puritans did not seek asceticism, but if asceticism of a certain type was not necessarily a normative behavior, it was, for the time and culture, an economic reality. The Puritans sought to make themselves as ethical as possible in their pursuit of order and godliness. For the next century, the idea of the immigration of people from Europe to practice religious freedom and base their societal covenants upon religion would form the basis of the Colonial laws and finally the break with England and the establishment of a new nation. Despite some segments of intolerance, the ideals of Protestantism seemed to be endemic to the ideas of democracy and a separate nation from European Powers (Lambert).

However, we must also define what we mean by a Christian Nation. Does this mean that everyone in America is Christian? Of course, the answer is no, America is full of pluralistic views on spirituality and religion. Does it mean that the State Religion is Christianity? This is a bit more vague, for the Pledge of Allegiance identifies "one nation Under God," but does not specify the Christian God, it is implied. We can also ask if America operates under Christian principles. In this, values like life, liberty, freedom, and natural rights have been grounded concepts for hundreds of years. But do the behaviors of the nation tend to be the moral, ethical or reasonable decisions that are advocated by Christian texts? Again, this is a gray area. Decisions based on morality are sometimes interpretive. Witness, for instance, the considerable disagreement within Christian sects about topics like capital punishment, abortion, or same-sex marriage. And, even if we look historically at America's actions -- what about the issue of slavery? Can we honestly contend that a nation that condoned slavery for about a century could be Christian? Do we also examine the laws, structures, and societal norms and ask about Christianity? This is also debatable -- what is Christian for the Amish is certainly not Christian for the Southern Baptist and is clearly different than many Lutherans (Fea).

Thus we come to the conundrum of the nature of religion in America. The facts show that religion in the United States is characterized completely by a diversity of religious beliefs and practices, with very little common ground on a number of issues. Despite over 70% of Americans identifying themselves as Christian, though, only 9% said that religion was the most important thing in their lives, compared to 45% who chose family and 17% who said money and career (Poll Shows That Only A Few Americans Consider Religious Faith). This is a relatively new trend, though, since historically there were several period of religious fervor and awakening in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since 1947, though, there has been a definitive notion about the separation of Church and State based on Everson v. Board of Education. This case dealt with a state law that allocated governmental funding for transportation to all schools -- including religious schools (Everson v. Board of Education). This case was upheld, and then in 1962 the court heard Engel v. Vitale in which the Court determined it was unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and require it to be recited by all students. Any student or teacher, then, can excuse themselves or opt to have a moment of silence if a prayer is…[continue]

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