In all of our briefings, our authors aim to make a reasonable case and supply the facts and referencing to support the argument made. But some briefings make a more controversial case than others. We consider this one of our more controversial briefings.
The combination of America's robust religious liberty model and the persistence of high levels of religious observance are unique in the world. Religious ideals, individuals and institutions have played a critical and constructive role in American political and civic life.
The US Constitution protects religious liberty as America’s “first freedom”
The most consequential words in the US Constitution are found in its First Amendment“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. There is no established church in America because Americans place a supreme value on freedom of religion. Thus, the two clauses of the First Amendment serve a single, overriding purpose: to protect the free exercise of religious belief and practice. This is America’s “first freedom,” because without the freedom of conscience it assumes, none of the other basic liberties are possible. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right of association, the right to petition the government—all depend on the rights of conscience being secured as inalienable, God-given rights.
America’s religious diversity is a major source of its social strength
America was founded largely by Protestant dissenters; most had some experience with religious persecution at the hands of a national church. America’s Founders were determined not to repeat what they viewed as the European mistake—a national establishment of religion that, by definition, favoured one sect over others. This would hinder the process of assimilation and create the conditions for sectarian strife. In addition to the separation of church and state, America’s legal system guarantees equal justice under the law, which applies to all creeds, races, and ethnicities. As a result, religious groups of all kinds have found a place in the American landscape: They endorse the basic propositions of the American Creed, yet are free to worship according to the dictates of conscience. Together, they offer a rich storehouse of values and resources that sustain civil society.
Regular religious worship substantially benefits family and community life in America
Frequent attendance of religious services is associated with happier marriages and stronger parent-child relationships. Furthermore, domestic violence, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation, and extramarital sex are all reduced among families that worship regularly. Given that the family is the bedrock of society, the benefits of religion on the family are extremely significant. Strong families are a primary source for transmitting the defining ideas and ideals of a culture to the next generation.Regular religious worship benefits community life as well, fostering stronger civic participation and greater charitable expression among neighbours.
The separation of church and state has helped to protect the
integrity of religion in the United States
One of history’s most painful lessons is that state-sponsored religion produces corrupted religion. It invites coercion, hypocrisy, and violence. This was the lesson that English Quaker, William Penn, brought with him to his “holy experiment” in religious liberty in Pennsylvania. It served as a model that would inspire America’s Founding generation. His Puritan counterpart in New England, Roger Williams, fought to establish a government that would respect Jews, Muslims and Catholics alike. His argument was simple: “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” America’s “free market” of religion, in which no religious group receives government support or favouritism, has proved to be a great benefit to people of faith. It means that houses of worship and religious organizations must rely on their own resources, receiving support from their own communities through persuasion and by effectively meeting the needs of their members.
Religious ideals and religious institutions have led social reform
movements throughout American history
Evangelicals, Catholics, and other orthodox believers historically have been at the forefront of every important social movement in America—including abolition, women’s suffrage, child labour laws, the civil rights movement, and welfare reform. Recently evangelicals have emerged as one of the most important voices in the human rights community, and have formed coalitions with others on issues such as global AIDS, the sexual trafficking of women and children, and genocide in Darfur. This “prophetic role” of the church has been one of the great factors in America’s ability to learn from its mistakes and address social injustice.
American charity is
closely linked to American religion
Recent studies show a strong connection between high levels of religious commitment and the charitable impulse. Historically, religious organizations in America have been a mainstay of mutual aid and social service to their local communities, which continues to the present day. Religious congregations support numerous charities, medical relief efforts, and international aid. Religious organizations such as World Vision, for example, were the most visible providers of relief following the 2004 tsunami that devastated much of Indonesia and the surrounding region. There are over 325,000 churches, synagogues and mosques in America, most of which have at least one program for the poor. Add to that thousands of religious nonprofits engaged in social outreach. Together, they contribute billions of dollars each year to help the poor and needy, at home and abroad. This charitable impulse is also reflected at the individual level. Individuals who regularly attend houses of worship are more likely to give monetarily (to religious as well as secular causes) and in non-monetary ways through service and volunteering. Religious individuals are also more inclined to engage in “everyday” charity, such as helping the homeless.
Religion has been a great ally of liberty and human rights in the United
Christian ideals strongly influenced America's founding, with ministers endorsing the political principles of republican government from their pulpits. Similarly, the architects of America's founding frequently referenced the importance of religion in maintaining ordered liberty. Fifty years after American independence, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the fruit of this alliance between faith and freedom during his famous visit to the United States in the 1830s: “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.” 20th Century sociologist Robert Nisbet makes a similar claim. Cultural allegiances to local religious institutions are some of “the most powerful resources of democracy,” he notes, for a diversification of authority helps to prevent any one institution from becoming too powerful. Whatever its inconsistencies, America’s commitment to democratic values is inseparable from its deep roots in Christian belief and practice.
www.thearda.com (Association of Religion Data Archives)
www.isreligion.org (Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University)
Mary Jo Bane, Brent Coffin, and Ronald Thiemann, eds, Who Will Provide? The Changing Role of Religion in American Social Welfare (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2000)
Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (New York: Basic Books, 2006)
Don Eberly, The Rise of Global Civil Society (Encounter Books, 2008)
Robert W. Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 2000)
William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: America’s Foundation in Religious Freedom (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003)
Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1992)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990)
 ’Teaching About Religion in American Life: A First Amendment Guide’, Freedom Forum. See http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/about.aspx?id=6262
 ‘The Shame of Darfur’, Allen Hertzke, First Things, October 2005.
 ‘Religious Faith and Charitable Giving’, Arthur C. Brooks, Policy Review, Oct-Nov 2003
 ’The March of Equality’, Francis Fukuyama, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 11, No. 1, January 2000