One Nation under God: Religion in the USA | Sarah Stook

‘I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, and with liberty and justice for all.’

Religion in the United States of America is one that divides opinion, simply due to the uniqueness of its situation as compared to other countries. In England (but not the UK), the Church of England is the state religion, but we live in an increasingly secular society and as a whole, the country is not as overtly religious one would expect. In the United States, however, there is no state religion but if anybody asks about religion there, a common answer will be something like ‘very religious, very Christian,’ or more uncharitably ‘Bible-bashing idiots.’ Religion in the United States is a way of life that many, even in religious countries, cannot understand. America is unique in many ways, but in religion, it is certainly one of the most different.

The top quote is one from the newest version of the Pledge of Allegiance, with the highlighted ‘one Nation under God’ being added in 1954 under Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used it to reassert religion in the American consciousness. The Red Scare was in full swing during this period and as atheism was often interlinked with communism, it is no surprise that it was excitedly adopted by the American government (though not without controversy.’ Two years later, in 1956, the official motto of the United States became ‘in God we trust,’ replacing the unofficial ‘E pluribus unum’ (One of many, one). A common refrain of politicians, especially at the end of speeches is ‘God Bless America’ or something to that affect, often a genuine blessing due to the at least outward faith of elected officials. Many readers will roll their eyes at the often cheesy line, but this is a blessing that comes from true belief.

Yet, the United States was not destined to be a country known for its strong religious beliefs. From the arrival of the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock in 1620 to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and beyond, the road of American religion, specifically Christianity has been one that has been long. Key facts and events shaped the current religious sphere of the United States, and all of these are of huge importance in understanding God in the Land of the Free…

The Faith of the Founding Fathers

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers have always been instrumental to the United States. Their opinions on government, civil rights, slavery and other issues would come to influence domestic and foreign policy for years, with politicians still using ‘what would the Founding Fathers think?’ when arguing a point and historians debating their speeches and literature to this day. As the men who founded the nation, it is of little surprise that they are all revered as heroes, with many erasing some of the darker aspects of their past.

The aforementioned ‘what would the Founding Fathers think?’ is often stated by conservative Americans, usually Republicans, when questioning big government and social liberalism/libertarianism. Yet, these are the people who tend to be deeply religious and less inclined towards the separation of church and state. To the surprise of some, the Founding Fathers weren’t exactly the pinnacle of evangelical Christians or even open ones. There is no doubt that all of them were Christian, but there is also no doubt that these were not men of open faith or men who believed in a nation built on Christianity.

Deism, whilst not an atheist or agnostic belief, is an interesting one in that it rejects rather important parts of Christian dogma. To deists, God is still a divine being and the almighty Creator but chooses not to impose his will upon his creation and opposes the idea of revelation as the explanation for a superior being. Deism also happens to be what many of the Founding Fathers, judging by contemporary evidence, adhered to. Looking at George Washington and Thomas Jefferson amongst others as examples, it shows how these men held beliefs that to this day are not well-known, as deism has gone out of fashion since the 19th century. Washington left church services before communion and whilst believing in Christianity as a moral standpoint, he seemed to reject certain dogma- such as the communion just mentioned. Though this next point does not relate to deism, it shows the rejection of the idea that America is a Christian nation (though of course, the 1st Amendment highlights freedom of religion so it’s not exclusive to the 1st president). In 1790, two years after he’d left the Presidency, Washington wrote a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. It included the following:

‘The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.’

To him, the belief in Christianity was not a prerequisite to citizenship, only good character was. Of course, we cannot fully know Washington’s religious beliefs due to limited sources at the time, but evidence such as those mentioned showed, there is a strong likelihood of deism.

More notable in their beliefs were Presidents 2 and 3, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. John Adams, known was one of the few early Presidents not to have owned slaves amongst other feats (his wife was strongly anti-slavery, go her), rejected key Christian dogma. Adams once debated the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Trinity with a conservative Christian who had attempted to influence him into sharing more of his views, and later wrote in his diaries ‘Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity.’ The man he had argued with believed that mere humans could not understand the complexities of faith, hence Adams’ writings. Most notably Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli, a document with an article in it still heavily debated to this day by theologists, historians and politicians. Part of Article 11 states that ‘The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’ Whilst that does seem pretty clear, there is room for debate, especially since this was not included in an American domestic legislative sphere, instead being in a foreign relations treaty.

Thomas Jefferson described himself as being in a ‘sect by himself,’ and as with Adams, was clearly Christian but subscribed to the tenets of deism. In a letter to Adams, Jefferson wrote the following:

‘And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.’

Yes, Jefferson questioned the Virgin Birth (not the Immaculate Conception as it’s commonly believed, as it was the Virgin Mary that was the Immaculate Conception), equating it to Roman myths. In support of the belief he subscribed to deism, Jefferson created his own version of the New Testament, editing out examples of miracles. Other Founding Fathers either ascribed to deism or were private Christians as opposed to open ones- James Madison made the church and state separation advocates today look like anti-secularists and Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he ‘soon became a thorough Deist’ after reading some anti-deist literature, which he also wrote clearly had the opposite intended effect.

Secular Europe v Religious America

Europe and the United States have a rather different opinion on a lot of matters. As a whole, both areas have seen a decline in church attendance over the past few years, as atheism, agnosticism and a genuinely more lax version of religion take hold.

Europe as a whole is not some completely godless place as some in the United States may think. Countries in Eastern Europe are especially Catholic, or at least religious, interesting in that it seems to be a response to the forced secularization of the Soviet Union. If one looks at Poland, they will see a very conservative nation in terms of abortion and same-sex marriage, a place where family is extremely important in a way that puts many of us to shame. Italy is often the butt of many jokes about its sexual indiscretions (would you just look at Berlusconi), but a 2010 Eurobarometer survey showed the 74% of respondents believe in a God and 20% believing in some sort of spirit- the 6th biggest surveyed. Malta had the highest at 94% and it shows in some very conservative, traditional policy (divorce only became legal in 2011 and abortion is completely forbidden, with only five other countries in the world also having it totally outlawed). Even as religion slides in the UK (more than half don’t identify with a religion), Christianity is still the major religion.

So why has America remained so strictly faithful in comparison to most of Europe?

In 1620, the Pilgrims left England in search of the new world, escaping persecution. This story of the Pilgrim Fathers, arriving to escape persecution and starting life in a new place really resonates with the American people in a way that many Europeans don’t understand. Thanksgiving, the national holiday is based off these first settlers and the story is huge, with many proud of being direct descendents of the men and women of the Mayflower. This religious fervour can also be linked to the First Amendment, as part of its Expression Clause reads: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ The explicit separation of church and state (religious buildings aren’t even taxed) allowed that freedom of religion to spread with ease, simply because government wouldn’t intervene in most cases. One’s religion can be as wacky as you like, but as long as you don’t do anything illegal, the government will not get rid of it. Contrast with the UK which does not have an explicitly written constitution and where the Church of England has been the English state religion since 1534.

Another key part comes in the form of the Great Awakenings. The first occurred in the early 18th century and whilst it did affect Europe in some ways, it mainly worked in the English colonies of New England (The First Great Awakening came before American independence). This event not only laid groundwork for revolution and for the Second Great Awakening, but laid the groundwork for religious America. It encouraged the colonists to start realising that the Church of England was not their only option whilst encouraging evangelicalism, a form of Christianity that is still popular to this day. Whilst it is not the only branch, evangelicalism is important in that it encourages spreading the Christian methods and finding salvation in Christ. These, along with other elements of the practice, led to a newfound love of God in the colonists. Considering how long ago this was, it is still impressive that it was so influential that it helps America remain a very Christian nation (a quarter of Americans are evangelicals), but it is important to note that the Second Great Awakening was key in keeping that hold. The Second Great Awakening, occurring fifty years later, aimed towards getting those who were not in a denomination or did not belong to a church to get into one. For men like Jefferson and Adams who were in power at this point, it presented a great concern- it rejected deism, which many enjoyed. The Second Great Awakening is another explanation for the difference between Europe and the USA- it rejected the findings of the Period of Enlightenment, a period which was dominant in Europe. The Enlightenment highlighted reason as a way of morality and explanation, in conjunction with religion- the Second Great Awakening completely rejected the idea of reason, and it was even seen as being formed to project that rejection. At this point, the USA was a free country and that schism between the transatlantic countries went ever deeper.


Religion in Politics

‘I, X, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.’

‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.

The first is the Congressional Oath of Office, the second the Presidential version. Under the Judiciary of Act of 1789, the First Congress explicitly stated the phrase ‘so help me God,’ should be used in all oaths for judicial and elected officials save for the President. It is believed that the first President to use the phrase during the oath was Abraham Lincoln, but it was not used consistently until Franklin D. Roosevelt, with some using it and others not. Though the separation of church and state has been mentioned frequently, it seems that there was a strong belief in religious faith and that officials should hold it (though at that point, nobody would have outright admitted atheism). Legislation seems to be in favour of the faithful as evidenced by a little known fact. Seven states in the US have pieces in their constitutions that forbid atheists from holding office. The seven states all happen to be in the Bible belt and though the phrasing varies from Arkansas to Texas, it’s all pretty clear. It is highly unlikely that it is strictly enforced (the Supreme Court would have a field day). This, however, goes against Article Six of the constitution: ‘no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,’ though again it may be down to the lack of enforcement that is has not been challenged.

Recently, former Liberal Democrat leader and current MP Tim Farron got into hot water for comments made about social issues. At a meeting with the Salvation Army, Farron stated that he ‘wished he could argue the issue [abortion] away’ and that it doesn’t matter when it is performed, because ‘if abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time.’ He refused to say if he thought that gay sex was a sin, starting in an often parodied interview that ‘we are all sinners.’ Even if his comments didn’t affect his personal politics, him abstaining from the vote on same-sex marriage had many questioning the Lib Dem leader.

In the USA, this would not be an issue in the slightest, even if he was a Democrat. A lot of Americans are conservative on abortion or gay marriage- they may not be outright protestors, but they will disagree on it, especially from a religious perspective. John Kerry and Joe Biden, two of the most important Democrats in recent years, are deeply Roman Catholic, Kerry even carrying several religious items including a rosary on his campaign trail in 2004. Both personally oppose abortion but are willing to put it aside for votes. For most Republicans, his views would be welcome and for most Democrats, they would be tolerated. So what’s the difference?

In the USA, politicians are religious and that is a general rule. The first openly atheist Member of Congress (let’s add that there are 535 members of the US Congress) did not admit it until 2007, only eleven years ago. Whilst the majority of Americans probably know friends and family who are atheist, openly or not, there is still some stigma from a vocal minority. In a list of minorities- gays, women, Jews and Muslims, the lowest of the low seems to be atheists and from that list, the least amount of polled would elect them as President. A 2017 study revealed that over half of Americans would be ‘less likely’ to vote for a candidate they knew was atheist and around 52% wouldn’t or were unsure whether they would in a 2015 survey. The ingrained consciousness of religion, even non-Christian, is so great that they would not consider a godless President.

Look at the US Presidential election in 2016. Pretty much all of the candidates were pretty religious men (and women), with the super, super religious Rick Santorum topping the list and others like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz not far behind. The ‘pretty much all’ essentially refers to the Republican Party (a majority of atheists vote Democrat and describe themselves as liberal), and it is no surprise that they are more openly faithful. This leaves the Democrats. Hillary Clinton is seen as fake for a lot of genuine reasons, but there is no doubt that she genuinely believes in God. A Methodist, Clinton went to a lot of church groups, Bible study sessions and held prayer circles. Her religion influences her politics and she made sure to ramp up the faith on the campaign trail, especially in the Bible Belt. This leaves us with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Donald Trump didn’t strike many as a religious man, even though he is most likely a believer. He was embraced by white evangelicals despite holding many contrary positions, and made an effort to show his religious roots. He has attended church for years and receives Communion, but is not the open Christian that Ted Cruz is. Sanders is even less open about his faith and he definitely has the right, but even he accepted that he would get nowhere with that. The Clinton campaign reportedly wanted to leak the idea that Sanders was an atheist to take the upper hand in more religious states, but Sanders confirmed his proud Judaism and said that he was very spiritual.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook has been pretty indifferent towards religion for a while. As soon as speculation mounted that he planned a Presidential bid, his response to an interview about atheism was: ‘I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.’ Yeah, that man knows the game.

Whilst a good amount of Americans wouldn’t vote for an atheist, it’s not a place that is completely hostile- an atheist is generally ok outside of public office unlike Saudi Arabia (surprise, surprise, they don’t like atheism). Yet, for those who aren’t fans, they aren’t fans.  In a 2011 interview, former Speaker of the House in the Clinton years and architect of the famous ‘Contract for America,’ Newt Gingrich had some thoughts. He accused Democrats of trying to push for a ‘secular-socialist’ agenda and that when his grandchildren were his age, they would be living in a ‘secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding with what it meant to be an American.’ He added that courts had become more ‘anti religious’ and that the ordinary church and synagogue goers would stand up to elites in the media and academia who will not bring about the founding Christian values of the US. Clearly this is a man who disagrees with the Treaty of Tripoli. Critics contend that Gingrich is on his third marriage and had cheated on wives one and two with the next wife (he blamed it on his passion for America, yes, really), so he was in no shape to talk about traditional values. Rick Santorum used a study to determine that going to college encourages one to become atheist and being Rick Santorum, he obviously is not thrilled about that. The study he apparently used stated that 64% of students in four-year colleges have curbed their church attendance, but he failed to understand that church attendance has fallen for all religious demographics over the years. He may not hate atheists, but I don’t think he likes the idea of it spreading.

Jews, Muslims, Atheists and all the Rest

Though the USA is fundamentally Christian in its demographics, many will be quick to remind you that the place is a melting pot. Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus- many religions and denominations make up the country.

Of course, it is highly Christian (70.6% according to the Pew Forum), but significant minorities are shown and are represented in public life, though perhaps not in a way that occurs in the UK. The second biggest group are the ‘unaffiliated’ at 22.8%. Whilst most in this category hold religious beliefs but just don’t belong to any particular group, it includes atheists (3.1%) and agnostics (4.0%).  The unaffiliated group is not one that is often included as a larger one in the UK, and some may find it odd that someone can have religious beliefs but not be a Christian, Jew etc, though many celebrities and other figures stated they believe in a higher spiritual power.

Non-Christian faiths make up 5.9% of the population, the largest of this group being Jews at 1.9%. Well-known Jews in the public sphere include Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (second cousin of the perennially unfunny Amy Schumer), sassy Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin. Jews, despite being a minority, have had a large amount of success in becoming public figures, with seven people of Jewish faith having run for the Presidency. Bernie Sanders is one, Jill Stein is another and also Barry Goldwater (though raised Christian, he was ethnically Jewish). Donald Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism in order to marry Jared Kushner, and the two raise their children in the Jewish faith, making them as close to the Presidential family as it could be. 34 Jews have served in the Senate and over 100 in the House of Representatives- the first Jewish Senator was David Levy Yulee and the first Jewish Congressman was Lewis Levin in 1845. Though formerly Republican, most Jews are Democrats and many have questioned how their views have not shifted in the ways others have. Around 90% of Jews voted for FDR in several of his elections and whilst their support for Democrats has been relatively strong, it has fluctuated- 90% for LBJ in 1964 (despite Goldwater being Jewish) but 68% for Obama in 2012.

Muslims represent 0.9% of the population and are much better integrated than their European fellows. They tend to be more affluent and educated than the average for all Americans and other minorities, a majority holding college degrees and earning high wages. Famous Muslims include famous activist Malcolm X and the recently departed Muhammad Ali. In 2006, the first Muslim was elected to Congress (Keith Ellison) and the second in 2008 (André Carson), and are the only two currently there. There are probably several reasons for a smaller amount of Muslims in office, though the fairest answer is because they are a larger minority and are less likely to get further due to perceptions by Americans (though Americans have a better perception of Muslims (55%)  than Atheists (35%). Their politics, unlike ones of the Jews, have changed significantly. In 2000, 72% of Muslims voted for George W. Bush. That number was 7% in 2004. Why? They believed his foreign policy unfairly targeted Muslims and they felt there had been a huge backlash against them by the Republican Party. Since then, they have been solid Democrats, even though they are more conservative than many Americans. Some conspiracy theorists believe that we’ve had a Muslim President in Barack Obama, though that is a very vocal minority.

Buddhists and Hindus make up 0.7% each, other world religions is at 0.4% and other faiths make up 1.5. Adherents of these minority faiths include former Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal and Un Ambassador Nikki Haley (Hindu and Sikh respectively before they converted to Christianity), and first African/Native American to serve in Congress, Hiram Revels (1870).


Separation of Church and State and Freedom of Religion

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

It’s in the First Amendment and considering how seriously Americans take the Constitution, it’s no surprise that it is a hugely discussed issued. One such example is that of the United States Pledge of Allegiance, which has come under legislative, judicial and social attack from many people. A proposed piece of legislation has been suggested to combat this, the ‘Pledge Protection Act,’ would not allow courts to hear challenges to the Pledge or any part of it (specifically the ‘under God’ part). Most states have laws that prevent students from being punished or discriminated against for not reciting the pledge, though there have been reported cases of students being taken from classrooms. Several state judicial decisions have decided that it is not discriminatory against atheists: The First Circuit Appeals agreed with a New Hampshire decision that it is not discriminatory if atheists are reciting the pledge voluntarily and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the pledge is fine because the ‘under God,’ is not a religious exercise, but a patriotic exercise.

The display of religious symbols is one that is also controversial amongst secularists in the United States. In 2005, a case was brought to the Supreme Court called ‘Van Orden v Perry.’ In this case, a man named Thomas Van Orden sued Texas when a monument dedicated to the Ten Commandments appeared outside the Austin’s State Capitol building, arguing it was a government endorsement of religion and therefore unconstitutional. After he was ruled against in lower courts, he brought it to SCOTUS and was accepted. A 5-4 majority ruled that the monument did not violate the First Amendment because the monument recognised the historical influence of the commandments, not the religious one. Other states that have had Ten Commandments monuments include Oklahoma (built 2012, removed 2015) and Arkansas (was destroyed within 24 hours of installation).

One of the more controversial parts of American tax policy is that of the 501(c)(3) code. This Inland Revenue Service (IRS) code allows non-profit organisations, mainly charities, to receive exemption from federal taxes. Churches are able to take advantage and are often granted tax exempt status, because churches obviously aren’t corporations and are some of the biggest and best providers of charitable giving. Yet, people are angry and many question why super rich mega churches are able to get away with not paying taxes. Property tax exemptions take roughly $100 billion from the tax roll, and many argue that this can go towards schools, infrastructure and medical research. Until recently, churches had to agree not to endorse political candidates in any election in order to keep this status (a clear example of church and state separation), but a November 2017 GOP tax reform bill changed that. Most notoriously, there was a long, 37 year legal battle between the IRS and the Church of Scientology, where the IRS took on investigations which they say proved that the church had used, amongst other many disreputable practices, fraud, tax evasion and smuggling to get its tax exempt status back. In October 1993, the two groups struck a bargain where the church would pay back its tax bill and stop its illegal activities in return for that tax exempt status. For many, this was controversial. The church itself is extremely unpopular amongst wider society, with members such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise being seen as strange (Elisabeth Moss was mocked for using her 2018 Golden Globes acceptance speech to praise women’s rights, considering the Scientology’s super record). Yet, there isn’t much the federal government could do. They have no right to reject a religion, as stupid and whacky as it could be, and the Scientologists are no exception. In the UK, this would not fly but in the USA, it makes perfect legal sense.

As a fellow Mallard writer already did a brilliant piece on the subject, I will not go too much into religious freedom regarding the right to refuse service. Whilst the bakery subject has been covered, a new piece of potential legislation has come out in the last few days that is interesting. The Trump administration plans to allow medical professionals to reject performing an abortion if they have strong religious beliefs against it. This is not unusual- physicians here are perfectly allowed to do this, but research has shown they are strongly penalised for it. Yet, there is another more controversial step. These professionals will be allowed to refuse treating transgender people, as some may disagree with their lifestyle. The policy has only just been announced but has immediately caused a stir, with many thinking it’s wrong to deny someone treatment even if they can pay in the market based USA system. Many LGBT and other special interest groups are already speaking out against this and it is my bet that the ACLU will be on this like a fly to honey.


Reading this as Brits, it may be hard to swallow this somewhat. Believe me, whilst I had a fair knowledge of practice in the US, my further research led med into a lot of surprises I didn’t expect.. Is it, however, really the position of everyone? More laws will pass, more lawsuits will be passed but overall, it seems like the United States of America really is One Nation under God.

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