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Religion and Society

One community for all differences

Writing in The Federalist Papers toward the end of the eighteenth century John Jay, one of the American Founding Fathers, declared: «Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united peoplea people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government»(1). The 1790 census of the United States showed that, excluding nearly 700,000 slaves and the aboriginal tribes (American Indians), the total U.S. population of 3,929,000 was 80% of British origin and nearly 100% Christian.

 

However, less than one hundred years later, the great American novelist Herman Melville would write: «Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own . Our blood is the blood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation so much as a world». Melville was reflecting the fact that already in his time America was a nation of immigrants. From 1820 to 2000, approximately 66 million immigrants arrived in America. More than 50% of the current population is attributable to immigration(2).

 

According to the Census Bureau the total resident population of the U.S. exceeded 288 million in 2002. This total was comprised of 196 million Whites, nearly 39 million Hispanics, nearly 37 million Blacks, 12 million Asian, nearly 3 million American Indians and 4 million of two or more races. Hispanic and Asian American populations are increasing significantly faster than the overall population. Hispanics are increasing almost four times as fast as the total population and Asian Americans are increasing at nearly twice the national average.

 

These trends also have made significant changes in language in the U.S. Next to Spanish, Chinese is the most widely spoken non-English language. French and German rank third and fourth, but Tagalog(3) ranks fifth, Vietnamese sixth, Italian seventh and Korean eighth. Nearly one-fourth of the world's 140 million immigrants reside in the United States making up more than one out of ten of those persons residing in the U.S(4).

 

 

Toqueville's question

 

Despite the racial, ethnic, cultural and religious differences within the general population, however, the country "works," due to the principles embedded in its founding Constitution.

 

Visiting the United States during the nineteenth century, the French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville asked, «How does it happen that in the United States, where the inhabitants have only recently immigrated to the land which they now occupy where, in short, the instinctive love of country can scarcely exist; how does it happen that everyone takes as zealous an interest in the affairs of his township, his county, and the whole state as if they were his own? It is because everyone, in his sphere, takes an active part in the government of society(5)».

 

Tocqueville said that «immigrants and their children claimed the United States for their own and became attached to it through the exercise of civil rights. The freedom of Americans to worship, speak, assemble, and petition their government, and their protection under equal laws bound them in a national community even though their political interests often were diverse(6)».

 

Although more than half of the population of the United States today consists of individuals who have either immigrated to the U.S. or who are the descendants of those who did, extraordinary increases in U.S. population occurred by other means. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 doubled the size of the U.S.. Large territories were obtained through a series of wars with the American Indians who were all eventually granted American citizenship in 1924. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ended the war with Mexico and granted the U.S. territory that would later become California, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. Texas became part of the U.S. in 1845 after its War of Independence from Mexico. And finally, Africans were brought to the U.S. by the slave trade.

 

 

The neutrality of the First Amendment

 

The experience of American Indians, many Mexican-Americans and many African-Americans differs from that of immigrants to America, since their inclusion in American society was often not voluntary and the continuing history of each group's efforts to achieve civil rights is too complex to discuss here. But it is worth noting briefly certain achievements of African-Americans since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting racial discrimination. When the Act was passed, the poverty rate for African-Americans was 42%. Today it is half that figure. When the Act was passed only one-fourth of African-Americans had graduated from high school, today 80% have graduated.

 

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that government «shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof». The language requires neutrality by the government as among various religions. It requires the American government to act to achieve only secular goals and that it achieve them in a religiously neutral manner. If a law is challenged on the basis that it furthers the establishment of religion, the government must show that its action (1) had a secular purpose, (2) had a primary secular effect, and (3) did not involve government in an excessive entanglement with religion.

 

In regard to the free exercise of religion, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government may regulate the actions of all persons even when those actions are motivated by religious beliefs or convictions without violating this constitutional protection of religious liberty if the action is religiously neutral and promotes important social interests.

 

This principle of government neutrality toward religion may be seen as hostility to religion or as favoring atheism. However, more than 40 years ago a better interpretation was suggested: «devotion to the concept of neutrality can lead not simply to that non-interference and non-involvement with the religious which the Constitution commands, but to a devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious. Such results are not only not compelled by the Constitution but are prohibited by it»(7).

 

The provisions of the U.S. Constitution that recognize the right to religious freedom and diversity have historically been central to the incorporation of many minorities into American society and to their full participation as citizens.

 

What Tocqueville wrote continues to be true, «In the United States, religion is mingled with all the habits of the nation». A recent Gallup Poll found that 75% of Americans consider religion important or very important and less than 10% consider religion not important. This is consistent with what Robert Bellah observed in 1960 about a sort of civil religion in America understood as a «genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in the experience of the American people»(8).

 

Americans treasure religious freedom, not because they are in general less religious, but because they greatly value religious belief.

 

 


 

(1) Quoted in S. HUNTINGTON, Who Are We?, Simon & Schuster, New York 2004, 44

 

 

(2) Ibid., 45

 

 

(3) Uno dei principali idiomi parlati nelle Filippine [n.d.t.]

 

 

(4) Z. BRZEZINSKI, The Choice, Basic Books, New York 2004, 164

 

 

(5) ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America, Vintage Books, New York 1945, 251

 

 

(6) L. FUCHS, The American Kaleidoscope, University Press of New England, Hanover 1990, p. 3

 

 

(7) School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) (Goldberg, J. concurring)

 

 

(8) R. BELLAH, Varieties of Civil Religion, Harper & Row San Francisco 1980, 17

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