What does it mean to be an American? Well, the word “American” is interpreted differently from person to person. When thinking of what an American is, some feel that events such as sitting around the Thanksgiving table, children dressed up in their best Sunday clothes for Easter service, and Fourth of July parades are truly representative of American culture. We conjure up images of the marchers in Washington, who are protesting against the government or for policy reform. We think of America as the melting pot of faces of all colors and languages, coming together to form one nation.
When political scientists consider what it really means to be an American citizen, they think in terms of political culture. An important element of Americas’ political culture is an unyielding faith in God. Political culture is defined as a wide set of views, beliefs, and values that address what is the role of government, what is and is not acceptable in society, how society should be structured, how people should be involved in politics, and so forth. Furthermore, America, like every country, has a distinct political culture, one that defines what it truly means to be an American.
America’s political culture has evolved from it’s origins as a cluster of fledging colonies battling Great Britain for their ultimate independence to the country that we are today. American political culture is based on liberty, equality, it’s based on democracy, it’s based on capitalism and it’s based on a variety of beliefs in God. America is quite unusual in that large proportions of our public believe that a God true exists who’s presence is integral in every waking moment of the day.
Thus, as Americans, vast majorities believe and strongly tout the significance of religious activity. However, American culture and government are such that they do not marginalize individual beliefs and attitudes concerning religious. Resultantly, this directly translates to the fact that every citizen in the United States has poetic license to select their own faith. For this very reason, America is a Nation that is blessed with countless religions. Unlike most Western Nations, we are not explicitly a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox nation.
Rather, the US is defined as a convivial land of Hindus, Muslims, Protestants, Christians, Catholics, Jews, and countless other belief systems from all over the world. It is the peaceful co-existence of all these religions that assist in characterizing Americans a people of different aspirations, diverse perceptions and values. How, in fact, did America come to be a haven of religious tolerance and diversity? Most Americans are well aware of the story of the pilgrims, who were victims of persecution in England by reason of their ostracized religious beliefs.
They eventually fled to Massachusetts where they foraged their own society in which they were free to openly expresses and carry out their religious beliefs. It was this tumultuous struggle for self-rule and independence that has colored American life by firmly establishing the right to freedom of religion/self-expression and by ensuring the protecting of the individual against government oppression. Both of these statutes led to the formation and creation of the First Amendment. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Much of the question of religion in America is what does the First Amendment really mean: When and how can it be violated? What is it that government can and cannot do that interferes with the free exercise of religion? There are certain conclusions that can be asserted in regards to the First Amendment. We know it was not intended to ban any form of religion from America. We know that religion was very important to the colonists and also to the founding fathers who drafted the Constitution.
We also know that these English pilgrims did not want the new nation of America to be established under the dictates of a national church, like in England, where people had to pay taxes to the Anglican Church — regardless of their beliefs and one which actively attempted to impose their beliefs on the people. We also know that the pilgrims did not want to empower religious leaders to make decisions for the rest of the population and dictate how an individual is to lead their life. This, unfortunately, is how life is in many Middle Eastern countries under the iron rule of the Ayatollahs — the supreme leaders of Islam.
Americans did not want to be ruled by a theocracy nor did they want another repressive Church of England and therefore, these systems were not established in the U. S. Religion has always been important throughout the history of the United States and remains of utmost significance to this day. Some of these examples maybe trivial, but are illustrious nonetheless. On all American money, it reads: “In God we trust,” which is clearly a religious statement. Also, congress and the state legislatures start their days with a prayer.
Indeed, even as late as 1952 Justice William O. Douglas, the great libertarian of the 20th century U. S. Supreme Court proclaimed that, “… we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a supreme being. (Pryor) Throughout American history there have been pressures on religious views. They came, in part, from immigration, which brought to the United States those who were not Protestant, and indeed, not Christian. In addition, there was the secularization movement of the 19th and 20th centuries which brought people who did not share orthodox beliefs in religion.
Unfortunately, this has created a tension between how to protect those who wish to practice their religion without coercing those who have a different view, who perhaps wish to be free of religion. As aforementioned, the text of the First Amendment says that in regards to religion”… Congress shall make no law. ” However, there is no clause in the First Amendment that states shall make no law. Therefore, this amendment didn’t apply to the individual states but this law changed in 1940 when the Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment to apply to all the states.
Then in 1947, in an interesting case, the Supreme Court offered a metaphor to think about how to understand the relationship between church and state and said there :was a wall of separation” between the two institutions. Of course, the idea behind the wall is it’s not penetrable — You can’t get through it. It’s not a street that you can cross. Now, this seemed to many people to be different from much American experience, which was previously about the government not giving preferential treatment to any religion and not the complete autonomy of the two institutions.
For the past 30 years, an ongoing battle has been waged against religious devotees and non-coercion advocates in American schools. The debate between these two institutions was sparked in 1971 and it was instigated by state’s lobbying to fund the teachers of parochial schools, and in this case the court evolved some standards to decide when government action went too far. (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602, 612, 613 (1971). The test is referred to by the name of the case and is known as the Lemon Test.