It is generally well-known that the USA is still a majorly religious country; Christianity of all divisions being the main belief of around 71% of the population. 4.7% of the country is may be affiliated with another religious sect, yet it is Christianity is the main proponent within American politics.
In particular the Republican Party have always – and still do – pandered to scriptures of the Bible to highlight policies. Certain communities across the USA even today use religion as the main factor in defining everyday life; where the general worldwide trend is that Christianity is declining globally, the opposite seems to be occurring in the States. The notion of ‘God Bless America’ is echoed consistently throughout the country.
But where did it all start? Why and how did this relatively new and ultimately diverse country come to have such a close relationship with religion? The origins are in the Founding Fathers, and it seems they have stayed this way ever since…
Ironically, American political thought has its manifestations in European Protestantism. The 1517 Reformation – whereby the continent gradually went from predominantly Catholic to all manner of Christian denominations – is seen as kick-starting European Protestant thought in a move to decentralise and depoliticise the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, the reformation was never intended as a political move; it was a move FROM centralised power to emphasise the individual’s relationship with God. It was the development of Anglicanism (the English form of Protestantism) and those which separated from it, which really became relevant to the American political thought as known today.
The Separatists, as they came to be known, were a group of reformists who placed an emphasis on congregationalism (self-run and elected churches). However, this lack of church hierarchy came as a problem to some of the other emergent Christian sects and in 1620, fearing persecution, the Separatists made a quick dash for the ‘New World’ (North America), with the intention of settling in Virginia. In fact, they actually landed in Massachusetts and quickly drawing up Puritan doctrines (the Mayflower Agreement), established a new community based on religion.
Thus, the American ideal of a community being based on a group of believers was formed. Anglicanism had no so much been transferred over from Europe, as scrapped completely and resurrected according to what the Founding Fathers believed was right (namely an autonomous society). This emphasis on community religion led to the locally self-governing structure of the 1600s, still seen today in the political system of the Constitutions. The Federal government hold much less influence in terms of the ability to create laws and pass legislation than the State governments.
Thus the dissolving of individualism, born out of a desire for a lack of Anglican monarchy or aristocratic structure, led in the 17th Century to the idea of community based on ‘collective belonging’ and the implications for the development of American society, particularly in terms of how religion is perceived, is still obvious today. A gradual progression from the self-governing state of Massachusetts, to the 13 autonomous states, to the 51 states as they are known today, has always been fragmented due to juxtaposing ideas, yet the original Puritan doctrines are something which remain unchanged.