A Downward Spiral? How the United States falls victim to its own religious history

Seminar Paper, 2014

32 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1 Introduction

2 History and status quo of religion in the United States

3 Different approaches to religion in selected European countries
3.1 France
3.2 Germany
3.3 Turkey

4 Consequences of a strong religious sphere
4.1 Education
4.3 Science
4.4 Politics
4.5 Ethics

5 Conclusion: Possible solutions and Future prospects



Die vorliegende Hausarbeit beschäftigt sich mit der Ursache der im Vergleich zu anderen westlichen Staaten auffallend hohen Religiosität in den Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika (U.S.A.), dem wahrscheinlich mächtigsten Nationalstaat der Erde. Neben der besonderen Geschichte als Immigrationsland wird dabei insbesondere die Rolle von Religionen und Kirchen als identitätsstiftende Gemeinschaften herausgestellt; im Anschluss werden die U.S.A. religionstechnisch mit drei europäischen Staaten (Frankreich, Deutschland und die Türkei) verglichen, um auf vorhandene Gemeinsamkeiten und zum Teil deutliche Unterschiede hinzuweisen. Der Fokus der Arbeit liegt hierbei auf einer Beschreibung der (teilweise äußerst negativen) Auswirkungen einer starken religiösen Sphäre auf die Gesellschaft (anhand der Beispiele Bildung/Erziehung, Wissenschaft, Politik und Ethik) sowie möglichen Lösungsvorschlägen und Zukunftsaussichten.

1 Introduction

The United States of America (U.S.A.) is both the most powerful country on the planet as well as one of its most-populated[1], but its citizens are also among the world’s most religious. According to a Gallup poll from 2013, 56% of (U.S.) Americans consider religion “very important” for their own life (a number that has remained steady for at least the last twenty years), 59% are member of a church or synagogue and, additionally, 56% answered Yes when asked, if ”religion can answer all or most of today’s problems”[2]. Furthermore, when it comes to views on the origin and development of human beings, Gallup polls reveal that the majority of Americans believes that “God created humans in present form” (46%) or “Humans evolved, with God guiding” (32%) with merely 15% stating that “Humans evolved, but God had no part in progress” (as of 2012)[3]. These numbers seem particularly stunning when compared to the situation in other highly industrialized nations such as those within the European Union. Data from a Eurobarometer survey from 2010 suggests that on average 51% of Europeans (EU27) believe that “there is a god” (from 16% in the Czech Republic to 74% in Italy)[4] while Gallup claims in a survey from 2011 that 92% of Americans “believe in God” (with only a slight decrease from 96% in 1944)[5].

These highly varying views on life do have crucial effects on everyday life in these respective countries, particularly in the fields of education and science, but also on ethics and politics - including serious decisions about war and peace as will be demonstrated in the course of this paper. The question arises: what is it that makes religion so much stronger and more potent within the United States? What are the basic differences between the U.S.A. and Europe when it comes to religion?

Following an overview about the most significant historic events related to religion in the United States as well as on the status quo (Chapter 2), I will show fundamental differences in the approaches to religion in selected European countries (Chapter 3), before emphasizing the consequences of a strong religious sphere on education, science, politics and ethics (Chapter 4). The final chapter will focus on possible solutions to the issue of excessive and future prospects of religion in the U.S. as well as discuss whether there are any foreseeable changes - and if so, what they look like. I am furthermore trying to answer the question if it really is justifiable to talk about “a downward spiral” when it comes to religion in the United States.

2 History and status quo of religion in the United States

The history of religion in the United States[6] at a time when there hadn’t even been a United States (as of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the establishment of the Constitution in 1789), more than a century earlier with European settlers either seeking refuge from religious wars, often facing prosecution on their home continent, or simply striving for a new beginning in a promising new land across the Atlantic Ocean. With the English settlers came their national church which formed a partnership with the state “in maintaining safety, stability, and moral order of society [since no] struggling young colony could survive without the steady support of those two powerful arms, [this being] the European pattern”[7]. In the beginning, church and political responsibilities were still intertwined, but this was to change soon after the middle of the 18th century when more and more settlers brought increasingly different and novel denominations with them. The separation of church and state first occured as “a practical matter (there were too many different churches for any one to successfully dominate) [and then turned into] a matter of principle (as in the legislation on freedom of religion pushed by Thomas Jefferson[8] through the legislature of colonial Virginia)”[9]. A major reason for that was the decision of the settlers to clearly differentiate from the situation they were fleeing from; in other words: they didn’t want to “import England’s intolerance or Europe’s religious wars”[10], the first being especially true for the Church of England. The state of Virginia had been the first “to cut all ties between the church and the state, to stop enforcing any sort of religious conformity in either belief or behavior, and above all to stop collecting taxes from all for the religious benefit of a few”[11] - right here the foundation was laid for the very situation the U.S.A. faces today, as we will soon see.

In 1777, shortly before becoming governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson created the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (which was introduced two years later) – generally seen as a radical step since the war against the mother colony was still far from being won. However, at least theoretically, freedom of religion was granted to people of all possible religious faiths, including Jews and Catholics[12]. After the victory of the 13 colonies in the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain (1783), the newly formed United States drafted (1787) and ratified (1788) their Constitution which is still valid today; of its seven original articles only one concerns religion, stating that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”[13]. It is indeed rather remarkable that no single remark to (a) God “even in the vaguest terms of an ‘overruling Providence’ or ‘Grand Architect’ of the world”[14] has been made. Professor Edwin Scott Gaustad goes a step further, suggesting that not only were the ties between the federal government and Christianity severed, but the original U.S. Constitution openly invited everyone to serve as President of the United States, regardless of faith[15] - almost unimaginable today. However, the ratification didn’t go without any trouble, and some accused the central government of becoming “arbitrary and absolute, since it recognized no higher law than itself”[16]. George Washington, right after taking up the presidency, proclaimed that the U.S. would have “moved beyond an age of mere ‘toleration’ to a full recognition of the natural rights of all humankind”[17] - even though these words might appear cynical when considering the ongoing slavery in the young country as well as when it comes to gender equality, it nevertheless proved to be quite an anticipation of what would follow in the upcoming centuries. Still, immediately after the ratification, some member states and many citizens and officials demanded amendments to the original Constitution and these came only a year later (1789) in the form of the Bill of Rights[18]. Here, the First Amendment (also known as the Establishment Clause) is of superior interest to this paper as it states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”[19] which is seen as a “keystone of the American republic”[20].

All this appears straightforward when compared to the situation in countries on the other side of the North Atlantic, many of which have a state church or state religion until today, e.g. the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland while others as Poland and Spain simply constitutionally privilege their religion (i.e. Catholicism) without making it a state religion per se. However, the consequences of the Establishment Clause in the still young American republic remained incalcuable as it moved into the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson, rightly called a rationalist and deist (possibly even atheist, but surely no anti-theist), after having won the presidency deepened the meaning of Clause with a letter to the founder of the first Baptist church in America, Roger Williams, when mentioning the creation of “a wall of separation between Church & State”[21], something that has been met with resistance and resentment throughout the decades. Still, many agreed to the separation concept, proclaiming that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils”[22]. Religion continued to grow in the U.S. - despite or maybe even because of a deist president when “finally in 1818, in a close state referendum, the Jeffersonian party prevailed over the Federalists, and the last ties of the church to the state were severed”[23] (since some churches like the Congregational Church in Connecticut was, until then, still allowed to collect taxes). However, the secular origins of the Constitution were now subtly attacked by a multitude of court decisions about church matters, especially after the War of Secession (1861 to ’65), e.g. when in some churches “membership could not be granted to people who voluntarily aided the South in the Civil War or who believed in slavery as a divine institution”[24]. The Supreme Court was not exactly eager to participate in decisions considering religion and soon announced that U.S. citizens would have “the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practise any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property”[25], something that in turn will be of interest when it comes to the consequences of a strong religious sphere on e.g. education and ethics (Chapter 4).

Two 19th century events of religious history in the U.S. stand out, the first being Congress which, in 1865, sanctioned the presence of the phrase “In God We Trust” on U.S. silver and gold coins. This was generally seen as an act to demonstrate that God was on the side of the Northern (Union) States during the Civil. Controversy over this arose primarily in the second half of the 20th century, e.g. in the 1970 law case Aronow v. United States which resulted in the Court ruling that it would be

"quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency 'In God We Trust' has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise. [...] It has 'spiritual and psychological value' and 'inspirational quality."[26]

The second was actually a series of court decisions, this time by the U.S. Supreme Court and best known as the Mormon cases (in particular Reynolds v. United States and Davis v. Beason) in 1879-90 which focused on the Mormon practice of polygamy (plural marriage of one man to several wives). Even before the Supreme Court took action, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was heavily critized for adding their own scripture to the Bible (the Book of Mormon), the scorn of private property and also for “a type of communal living that set them apart from their neighbors”[27]. Polygamy had been outlawed in all U.S. territories in 1862; furthermore, a federal law from 1882 made it illegal to vote or hold office for polygamists[28]. However, the interesting part concerned the actual law case between the United States and George Reynolds (private secretary to Mormon leader Brigham Young) who was sentenced to two years of hard labor for the crime of bigamy[29]. This being the “first case dealing explicitly with the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment”, Chief Justice Morrison Waite significantly proclaimed that, even though the First Amendment would deprive Congress “of all legislative power over mere opinion”, it would still be “left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order” only to conclude with the question whose answer will be of supreme importance to this paper: “Can a man excuse his practices [contrary to law] because of his religious belief?”[30].

The 20th century came with considerably more church-state-related law cases which were due to a whole range of factors such as a “further growth of religious pluralism throughout the nation”, “large-scale immigration, notably of Roman Catholics from Ireland and Jews from Eastern Europe” (and later increasingly more Muslims and Buddhists) as well as the nation’s transformation into “the world’s most litigious society”[31]. What is remarkable for a country that both claims to officially separate church and state and whose founding fathers were partly even deist (possibly even atheist) is the fact that one of its member states (Maryland) used to require “’a declaration of belief in the existence of God’ by every official in the state” until the Supreme Court ruled that “neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or a disbelief in any religion’”. About the same time (in 1956), “two years after pushing to have the phrase ‘under God’ inserted into the pledge of allegiance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs a law officially declaring ‘In God We Trust’ to be the nation's official motto”[32] – it didn’t take long until the phrase was added to paper currency as well.

Among many other similar court decisions there is a kind of “juridical schizophrenia recognizable (at the least when it comes to religion), such as in the following cases: In 1965, the New York courts denied a young man the status of a conscientious objector because of his “’belief and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes’ [even though to be found] sincere and honest” since it “did not rest upon traditional religious teachings, such as those associated with the historic ‘peace churches’ of the Quakers and Mennonites”[33]. Congress later dropped the “requirement that one must believe in a Supreme Being in order to claim conscientious objector status”[34]. In a similar case, another young man had been sentenced to three years in prison by the Supreme Court after refusing to be inducted into the army on the grounds that his claims would be based on “a purely personal code arising not from religious training and belief but from readings in philosophy, history, and sociology”[35]. In 1972, the debates were becoming more intense as the subject was now “the legality or illegality of abortion”[36], but this will be further discussed in Chapter 4.

Before this paper will turn to three very differing European countries for the sake of comparison, there are some further and necessary remarks to be made about the development of religion in the United States, particularly throughout the last century. The question of to what extent the separation of church and state – despite being grounded in the U.S. Constitution - was and still is influencing the political society has been discussed by the American sociologist Robert N. Bellah who analyzed the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy (the first and only Catholic president) in an 1967 article: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word 'God' at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension”[37]. Even though this is not substantially different to the situation in Europe per se, the function of religious entities (i.e. churches, traditionally) is, and the keywords here are pluralist competition and religious market.

Unlike countries with a state church or religion - like the ones mentioned above - there never was such a thing in the United States which allowed the establishment of a high variety of different religions, a so-called religious market “in which individuals can, indeed must, make choices”[38]. This is simply so because churches in the U.S. serve both as Markers of Class and Agencies of Immigrant Absorption - something that can hardly be understood outside the historic context in which especially “religious institutions and the network of philanthropic services they spawned were very important in easing the immigrants’ entry into life in the new country”[39] (this was the case with the Catholic Church for the Irish as well as the Lutheran Churches for the Germans and Scandinavians) and one needs to understand “the role of religion [in the U.S.] as a fundamental category of identity and association. As a result, immigrant groups have, right from the start, used religion as a means for grounding solidarities and identities as they arrived in a new place”[40]. It is furthermore to be noted that the religious institutions they chose mattered since “they became themselves arenas of social change, molding the country of which they had chosen to be part”[41] thus transforming religion into “a means of coping with the challenges of relocation, of maintaining cultural and ethnic identities, and of providing important forms of assistance”[42]. According to Berger/Davie/Fokas, this alone highly differentiates the situation of the U.S. to that of Europe; the history of religion in the former revealing “an entirely different trajectory [...] it’s an upward spiral”[43].

As for the Markers of Class, Max Weber’s anecdote of a freshly immigrated German dentist[44] possibly illustrates best the unique stand of religion and church membership within the United States as follows: as “a new patient had come in, sat in the chair, and told the dentist which church he belonged to. The German dentist] didn’t understand what church membership had to do with the man’s teeth. What the patient was telling the dentist was clear: ‘Take care of my teeth. Don’t worry about your bill. I’ll pay you’”[45].

One could thus conclude that religion and thereby church membership in the United States[46] - being driven by a unique immigration situation and simultaneously supported by originally well-meaning (partly deist or even non-religious) founding fathers - developed into some kind of class as well as identification marker. Additionally, by (literally) including the reference to “God” into national symbols like the anthem, currency and pledge of allegiance plus and also making it the national motto, religion serves as a common denominator as well as a patriotic symbol of unity. The following chapter will be examining the very dissimilar situation in three European countries (France, Germany and Turkey) and the actual consequences and side-effects of this rather extensive religious sphere are the topics of Chapter 4.

3 Different approaches to religion in selected European countries

The question of “how two economically advanced societies, or groups of societies, can be so different in terms of their religious dimensions”[47] is not particularly new - however, apart from historic differences (and a certain uniqueness on the U.S.-American side), one encounters major differences between most European societies and their relation to religion when compared to the United States, in particular when it comes to institutionalization. The following three sample countries serve as prime examples with a different approach, respectively. Among the differences most often quoted are church-state relationships, questions of pluralism, institutional contrasts and different understandings of the Enlightenment[48]. On this occasion, one certainly needs to mention the concept of the welfare state across Europe which is “strikingly different from the American case [insofar that there are] comparatively greater expectations of Europeans regarding the state as a carer for its people”[49]. This, too, is the case in France, often called “the quintessentially secular state”[50] and first example.

3.1 France

Freedom of religion as well as freedom of thought are both part of the French Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen from 1789, a fundamental document of the French Revolution which is also included in the preamble of the Fifth (and still current) Republic from 1958; it is generally seen as having a major impact concerning natural rights of the individual citizen, often compared to the American Declaration of Independence[51]. Roman Catholicism lost its status of being an official state religion after the revolution and the French republic has since (with interruptions) been based on the principle of laïcité, the nonclerical - or secular - control of political and social institutions in a society[52]. Traditionally, the largest religions in France are Catholicism, various Protestant sects and Islam. However, since the state does not record any statistics on religiosity of its people, there are only surveys available, but no official figures on recent developments of religious demographics in France.

Unlike the United States, the more rigid separation of church and state in France has not led to a remarkable increase of religiosity due to pluralist competition (which could indicate that the role of the churches is to act as agencies of immigrant absorption instead). On the contrary, probably precisely because of the heavy influence of the Catholic Church, the French Enlightenment proved to be “sharply anti-clerical, in parts openly anti-Christian”[53] (famously stressed by Voltaire and his credo: “Écrasez l'infâme!”[54] ). The result, though, was a long struggle between a very conservative and Church-supporting side and a notoriously anti-clerical and progressive side, with the first eventually succumbing to the latter when the French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State was enacted in 1905[55]. In particular, Article 2 sticks out in proclaiming that The Republic does not recognize, remunerate, or subsidize any religious denomination [56]. It should be noted, however, that the state does not fail “to appreciate the existence of religions, churches, or religious movements”, but rather ‘”definitively abandoned the system of ‘recognized religions’” and thereby putting “all religions on the same level politically”[57].


[1] The 3rd highest with about 314 million after China (1,343 million) and India (1,205 million, all as of 2012) if one excludes the European Union (506 million, as of 2013); http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats8.htm and http://blog.world-statistics.org/2013/11/eu28-population-5057-million-at-1.html.

[2] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx.

[3] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/155003/hold-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx.

[4] See http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/publications/religion_or_belief_briefing_paper.pdf.

[5] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/147887/americans-continue-believe-god.aspx.

[6] This paper focuses on religion in North America, starting in the late 16th and early 17th century with organized European churches which is still of meaning today and therefore cannot cover the religions of Native Americans.

[7] Gaustad: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”, pp. 2-3.

[8] American Founding Father and 3rd president of the United States.

[9] Berger/Davie/Fokas: „Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 16.

[10] Gaustad: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”, p. 19.

[11] Ibid, pp. 20-21.

[12] See ibid., p. 21.

[13] See http://www.usconstitution.net/xconst_A6.html.

[14] Gaustad: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”, p. 26.

[15] See ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 27.

[17] Ibid., p. 28.

[18] Which is the collective name of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

[19] See http://www.usconstitution.net/xconst_Am1.html.

[20] Berger/Davie/Fokas: “Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 16.

[21] See http://www.usconstitution.net/jeffwall.html.

[22] Dierenfield: “The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel V. Vitale Changed America”, p. 5.

[23] Gaustad: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”, p. 38.

[24] Ibid., p. 43.

[25] Ibid., p. 44.

[26] See openjurist.org/432/f2d/242/aronow-v-united-states.

[27] Gaustad: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”, p. 45.

[28] See ibid.

[29] See http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=98&invol=145.

[30] Gaustad: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”, p. 46.

[31] Ibid., p. 51.

[32] See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-eisenhower-signs-in-god-we-trust-into-law.

[33] Gaustad: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”, p. 55.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Gaustad: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”, p. 56.

[36] Ibid., p. 58.

[37] Bellah: “Civil Religion in America”, see http://web.archive.org/web/20050306124338/http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm.

[38] Berger/Davie/Fokas: “Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 13.

[39] Ibid., p. 21.

[40] Ibid., p. 30.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Berger/Davie/Fokas: “Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 31.

[43] Ibid.

[44] In an essay on American Protestantism.

[45] Berger/Davie/Fokas: “Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 20.

[46] According to J. Gordon Melton there were around 2,000 different religious communities in the United States by the end of the (last) century - compared to 350 in 1900 and “[m]ore than half of these had been formed since 1965”; see Melton: “American Religion. An Illustrated History”, p. 289.

[47] Berger/Davie/Fokas: “Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 2.

[48] See ibid, p. 3.

[49] Berger/Davie/Fokas: “Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 27.

[50] Ibid., p. 37.

[51] See Kopstein: “Comparative Politics: Interests, Identities, and Institutions in a Changing Global Order”, p. 72.

[52] See http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Laïcité.

[53] Berger/Davie/Fokas: “Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 17.

[54] See http://www.terceracultura.net/tc/?p=119.

[55] Berger/Davie/Fokas: “Religious America, Secular Europe?“, p. 17.

[56] See Law of Dec. 9, 1905, arts. 1–2, J.O., Dec. 11, 1905, p. 7205.

[57] Robert: “Religious Liberty and French Secularism“, p. 640, in: www.law2.byu.edu/lawreview4/archives/2003/2/ROB.pdf.

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A Downward Spiral? How the United States falls victim to its own religious history
European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)
Religion and Science
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religion, history, religious, united states, victim, case studies, ethics, politics, science, education, germany, france, turkey
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Gordon Wagner (Author), 2014, A Downward Spiral? How the United States falls victim to its own religious history, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/279761


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