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How has religion affected history and literature?
“And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” With these words, penned by the eminent political scientist Thomas Jefferson, the struggling colonies known as the United States proclaimed their independence from Great Britain and began an adventure that would develop this small nation into a world superpower. With this “firm reliance”, her people embraced the unknown future and set out to advance their country politically, economically, and socially. Now, over two centuries later, many would argue that this “Divine Providence” has been almost completely eradicated from society. Yet, despite these many claims, the fact remains that religion has played a vital role in American public life and, despite the “demoralization” of the United States that so many individuals cry out against, religion continues to be a basic cornerstone of American societal life. Over and over again, both the history and the literature of the United States of America have taught her people and the world that religion has and always will have an incalculable effect upon the society of the United States.
Historically, many see the United States as a “Christian nation” founded on Christian principles by Christian men with Christian motives. Therefore, they will argue that this heritage should be continued in the U.S. today by allowing prayer in public schools, outlawing abortion, or giving religious organizations special privileges. However, a closer examination of American history reveals that although the United States was founded with many religious guidelines, America is not a specifically Christian nation. This having been said, it is important to recognize how religion has historically affected American society. A chief example of religion’s impact is found in the landmark Supreme Court ruling of 1962 in the case of Engel vs. Vitale in which organized prayer in the public school system was declared unconstitutional. Steven Engel, a Jewish man in New York, had visited his son’s classroom in the fall of 1958 and was offended when he observed the entire class, including his son, with their hands clasped together and their heads bowed. Along with four other parents, Engel challenged the school board and its president, William Vitale, and, on June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that organized prayer in public schools, regardless of whether they are a requirement or not, were unconstitutional and therefore must cease immediately. The storm of controversy and outrage which ensued clearly demonstrated that many Americans consider religion and its various practices to be of vital importance to their children and to society as a whole. Protest demonstrations became commonplace, newspapers were flooded with editorials, clergy dedicated their messages to the issue, and teachers and school boards across the nation rushed to find alternatives that would still allow their pupils a “moment of silence” at the beginning of the day. Since this ruling nearly forty years ago, society has dramatically changed. According to a report by David Barton of Specialty Research Associates entitled America: To Pray or Not to Pray, after the ruling of 1962, “crime, venereal disease, premarital sex, illiteracy, suicide, drug use, public corruption, and other social ills began a dramatic increase” among young people (www.forerunner.com). This, coupled with continued protests and pressure from an abundant number of citizens to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling, makes a bold statement regarding the important role that religion plays in society.
Modern history displays only a small portion of the spectrum of religion’s influence, however. Looking further back into American history, one can see the influences of religion quite clearly. Case in point: the American Civil War, particularly regarding the issue of slavery. The years leading up to the attack upon Fort Sumpter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861 were filled with controversy throughout the United States due to the questions surrounding the “Peculiar Institution” of enslaving men and women within the borders of the United States of America. Northerners and Southerners debated the topic in Congress, in publications, in speeches, but most notably in houses of worship. Northern clergy proclaimed that slavery was an abomination in the eyes of God that should be abolished. The Negroes in bondage were men and brothers, not animals, and the conditions and treatment these men, women, and children had to endure were wholly impermissible. Furthermore, they reminded their congregations, the Biblical principle known as the Golden Rule was an important principle, not just in the treatment of other whites, but in the treatment of that “inferior race” as well. However, Southern religious leaders held a view that was a polar opposite from that which Northern “Yankees” preached. The common view of many Southern theologians was that slavery was designated and commanded by God and was therefore not only permissible but also a divine institution. Many cited the story of Cain and Abel, found in the book of Genesis, as being a proclamation of the superiority of the white race. The mark that God placed on Cain, according to these, was a transformation in skin color, resulting in the Negro race. Therefore, they argued, blacks were a cursed race that God had designated for slavery. This schism between the North and South, which developed because of the issue of slavery, would be a primary cause of the Civil War, which eventually resulted in the abolition of slavery and later led to the Civil Rights Movement. The effects of this upon society are far-reaching. To this day, there are some divisions between the North and South, many of which will take many more years to completely heal. But more importantly, because of the religious movement from the pre-Civil War era to the post-Civil Rights age, rights previously not granted to minorities are now guaranteed to all citizens of the United States of America.
Another impact of religion in society is found in American literature. Throughout the course of development of the United States, nothing possibly has quite influenced society and public life as literature has. It has introduced new concepts, destroyed long-enduring stereotypes, and popularized theories that were previously dismissed as foolishness. And religion has clearly been a major factor in all of this. Transcendentalism is an indisputable example of this. Conceptualized by men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, this movement in American literature mixed Unitarianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Naturalism into an optimistic philosophy that would prevail throughout the American Romantic period. Transcendentalism developed out of a rebellion against rationalism and Lockeanism, but particularly out of a reaction against Calvinism. Calvinism, which teaches that man is totally depraved and sinful, had long been embraced before this time. However, all changed in 1836 when Nature, a philosophical work by Emerson, was published. In it, he proclaimed, “I am part or parcel of God,” and thus shifted the literature and philosophies of the United States for a number of years following (996). The concept of each man as an essentially good individual quickly evolved. Perfectionism and optimism became part of the normal status quo in literary circles. Simplicity became an ideal, as enforced by Thoreau: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them” (323-324). Instead of Christianity and Judaism, authors began following the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism in their quest for enlightenment. As a result, society was greatly impacted. Those who read the works of the Transcendentalist authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller began to view religion in a very different light. Religion, rather than being a corporate movement, became an individual quest for spirituality, in which any way that one achieved his or her perfection was acceptable. This led directly to relativism, which is prevalent in society even today. Today, American society faces a dilemma as a result of this movement. Because of relativism, society now seemingly lacks a dominant moral standard, and as a result, heinous crimes continue to plague this nation, depression and other mental illnesses are far from uncommon, and innumerable men and women find themselves searching for a sense of purpose and structure in their lives. Public life has, is, and continually will be influenced by the Transcendentalist movement and its quasi-religious philosophies, although much of the impact has been greatly detrimental.
Quite possibly the greatest piece of literature in American history is the Constitution of the United States, which specifies the freedoms and rights of all of this nation’s citizens. In this great document, nothing is so widely debated as the First Amendment, where the influence of religion is explicitly clear. The statement is clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The freedom of religion is undeniable in the United States of America; it is a sacred and basic right that cannot be withdrawn. However, along with this religious freedom comes the concept of keeping the government out of religion. Although the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is never found in the Constitution (the phrase actually comes from a Communist document), the concept is very important, if not vital. Religion, if influenced by the government, is never truly free, and the government, if controlled by religion, will never be able to represent all the people of the nation. So therefore, how did religion influence the development of the Constitution? America’s Founding Fathers feared a day in which individuals in their young nation would be oppressed because of their beliefs or religious practices. That, along with the fact that most of these men were indeed religious (albeit that many were Deists) in some sense of the word, drove them toward the greatly treasured freedom of religion. The impact upon society is immeasurable. Without this freedom, America could indeed resemble a Communist nation, where those who refuse to comply with the government’s beliefs are arrested, tortured, or killed. Without this right, many of this nation’s people would live in doubt of their ability to maintain their rights to worship and meet together freely. Without this liberty, all would be different in the United States of America, and public life would show stark contrast to what, in actuality, exists today. America is greatly indebted to the United States Constitution, and therefore is greatly indebted to the religious background that so influenced it.
History and literature are two prime examples of how religion has impacted the society of the United States. It is clearly indeniable that religion is an important aspect of public life, and thus shows the utter foolishness of those who desire to minimize the importance of it in culture. Without the influences of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many more faiths, this nation would be quite different. Therefore, let no one diminish the indispensability of doctrines, allow no man to question the importance of beliefs, and permit no individual to lessen the essentiality of creeds. Instead, all must be reminded of the basic influence of religion in all aspects of American life; without it, without this “Divine Providence”, this nation would be left seeking much, and still be in search of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”.