Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
I suspect that most know that is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Like most of American government it is a compromise, designed by a bunch of brilliant men, to reconcile the various colonies (actually at the time they were federated sovereign States, thus the old usage “These United States”). The Bill of Rights (Amendments 1 through 10, plus a couple that were not ratified) were demanded by various states in order to ratify the Constitution itself.
At that time they applied only to the Federal Government, until after the Civil War, States were not bound by them. That is an important concept here because some of the States did have established Churches, those behemoths of the Revolution; Massachusetts and Virginia, among them. As the country grew, especially by immigration, the various churches were disestablished.
As this happened, something else did as well. It became sort of a free market of religions. The inhabitants had all brought their preferences (and their prejudices) with them, whether they were Congregationalist, Episcopal, Anabaptist, Catholic, Methodist, Jew, Lutheran, Orthodox, Agnostic, Deist, Atheist, or whatever else you can think of. Of course Mormons started here, and gave Unitarians a very bad name for a while.
Lutherans come in various flavors, of course, German ones came because of the forced merger in Prussia, and tend to the traditional and conservative, Scandinavians brought their variant as well, and it is much more liberal, and on and on and on. The Irish made Catholicism much more mainstream than it was.
But the point is that within a few generations these were all mainstream American churches, respected (although argued with vehemently) by all. If you don’t think so, watch any of the old westerns, you’ll find that the most respected man in town was usually the parson. And who can forget the interplay between John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn.
Seems an unlikely pair, doesn’t it? Never did here, one might be a drunken, quick shootin’ Marshal, but women and God were always respected, in the ‘Old West’, indeed as they were in all of America.
One does well to remember Abraham Lincoln said, when he met Harriett Beecher Stowe, “So, this is the little lady that started this big old war.” Referring of course to the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But she was a preachers’ daughter married to a preacher as well, nor was she very good at ‘knowing her place’, and that too is part of what Americans have always liked.
But what have we learned? Mostly not to step too hard on each other’s toes. Everybody has their beliefs, and they should be respected (or at least tolerated). Where we have gone wrong is that lately our atheist and Muslim citizens have attempted to shove our tolerance aside with their intolerance, and it’s making strains in our society that we haven’t seen in a couple of hundred years. Nor do most of us like it much, and when the government piles in on their side, it makes for a very rancid mess.
One of the other main takeaways here is that what I call “real” Christianity. The rock-ribbed fear of God Christianity of our fathers can succeed in this environment. As has been noted the conservative Catholic Archbishopric of Nebraska is doing very well. Of all the Lutheran synods the conservative Missouri synod is gaining membership better than any except maybe the Confessional Lutheran church (They overlap a good deal). Our liberal synods are not doing nearly as well, people are looking for something beyond cafeteria Christianity, it seems to me.
I think that part of that is that Christianity is a religion of the free individual, yes it involves groups but your congregation is not saved; you, one man or woman is, and there is no guarantee, you have to take it on faith.
The other thing is, Christianity is supremely the religion of the powerless, if you cannot control your life here, you still have a chance at glory. It’s rewards are not stated in worldly terms, I can easily remember thinking as a youngster that heaven sounded rather boring really, certainly not as exciting as 72 virgins. 🙂
And that brings us to the final point, Christianity does not stress the worldly aspects of being a Christian, it is not an alternate government like some religions are. It is entirely devoted to the worship of God, not man, and to attempting to help man be more Godlike. Is it really any wonder that a lot of men, who would like to have god-like power, hate and revile it? And that is its strength as well, the Pope does not have any divisions, but man has always wanted to be better than he is. And that is what Christianity has always offered. It is The Way (pun fully intended) to real self-improvement.
And for the first time in millennia we have seen , in America, that working under freedom, Christianity can easily hold its own. And it can do it with love, suicide bombers, lawsuits, compromise with the world, even The Holy Office are not required, only the Love of God. That is how it spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Arctic to the Sahara before, and it is how it will again, in God’s good time.