Good essay about the changing role of religion in american public life

Religion, or belief in a god or multiple gods as well as belief-related activities, such as praying or worshipping, has various and history-motivated established manifestations in different countries. Religion has existed for centuries, starting with the holy antiquity, and reversed its direction due to a number of reasons ever since then. Religion in Europe changed its course from being politics-oriented to being apolitical, maintaining neutrality, granting political power its much needed laicized status after centuries of the Holy Inquisition and de facto governance of secular affairs. The USA, the country founded by puritan pilgrims seeking opportunities to freely exercise their religious liberties, has had religious pluralism shaping national religious setting. Though exported from insular Europe, American religion did not show the signs of a potential involvement in political affairs; however its role has changed over the past 4 centuries. Religion shifted from being the source of puritan fanaticism to being a true inspiration to the American patriots, repulsing superior British troops. Later on it came to be administered without excessive religious ardor, with modern Justices of the USA misrepresenting the concept of the “ Wall of Separation”, a term coined by President Thomas Jefferson, insisting on church separation and politics noninvolvement.
The early days of religious establishment on the American soil saw somewhat radical puritans having their minds obsessed with religious bigotry, eclipsing common sense and reason. Published in Walter Isaacson (2003) book “ Benjamin Franklin Reader” a pamphlet called “ A Witch Trial at Mount Hilly” is a fine piece of satire on the then religious vision of puritans who in the shape of peasants indicted a couple of the would-be wizards for supposedly “ making sheep dance” as well as “ causing hogs to speak and sing psalms”. Both accused underwent a trial where the Bible was meant to have outweighed their bodies put on the other scale and after the first trial proved futile, both tried were tied hands and feet and thrown into a millpond; however, the second trial turned out to be as meaningless. Franklin was excellent at depicting that all puritans did not lack were superstitions and neglecting of common sense and logic. Though not having any bearing on the reality, the pamphlet did show religious intensity at the turn of the century or rather in the early 1700s and the extent, to which religion was involved in secular affairs, such as administering justice vis-à-vis civil citizens accused of witchcraft.
Novak (2006) enunciated a number of stories that describe the changing role of religion, of which one recounts President Jefferson’s statement about no nation having existed or been ruled without religion. More than that, religion was said to be the only way to retain liberty. When it came to fighting for liberty back in 1776 against the British Empire that denied American colonies their parliament representation privileges, the country had power, wisdom, and a weighty motivator. Even if there was such a noble cause as a driving force, what American lacked was religious virtue, according to John Adams. At the time, the people of Massachusetts did not tend to hold their Georgian country fellows in that high of respect. Strong was religious influence, more than that, it might well have played the critical role of a binding force, with texts propagating independence read in 500 Presbyterian churches throughout the colonies (Novak, 2006).
When drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson mentioned God on two occasions while the Congress made two additional allusions before signing the document. As per the third article of the Massachusetts Constitution, piety, morality, and religion were what civil government depended on. Novak (2006) was inclined to believe that contemporary society tended to think a different way unlike their precursors who used to seek God’s counsel and protection. In the time of Revolution and the Declaration of Independence there existed an opinion that there could be “ no republic without liberty, no liberty without virtue, no virtue without religion”; still, nowadays, this opinion appears rather obsolete (Novak, 2006). With that in mind, religion seems to have played a pivotal role in the revolutionary war against the Britons, with colonial army major victories attributed to Providence.
These days, politicians and state officials try to make it about them, getting their personal religious beliefs to take paramount positions in the American society. Hamilton (2003) noted that Roy Moore, the Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, installed a 2, 5 ton sculpture in the building of the city courthouse, featuring the Ten Commandments only to have it removed after court’s passing a mandatory decision that the statue be evacuated from the Alabama courthouse, causing Christians to get infuriated and stand up for the monument along with Roy Moore. Interesting thing about the statue was that it had been declared to be the only source of American law. The Ten Commandments are a fundamental element in both Christianity and Judaism, which was installed inside a judicial institution that belonged to a religiously pluralistic society, tolerating equal worshipping of scores of different religions. What Roy Moore was doing was trying to have Christian religion gain monopolistic dominance over other religions as well as having people, worshipping religions other than Christianity, judged by the doctrine construed by his religion. The whole matter is that religious commandments are no more remembered by heart by the better part of judicial officials than they fit American legislative system (Hamilton, 2003).
Not only do they poorly fit legislation, but they also breach the “ Main Law” in the Constitution of the USA. If the first 4 commandments were to be made a law, there is no way they would fit since they constitute religious rules that are far from being civil laws. There is a relative possibility of the other six being nominated for that position. Honoring parents is more of a moral imperative than a law while the 7th commandment dwells on marriage infidelity, which is hardly a legally persecuted perpetration, though it may be applied in the course of a lawsuit when there is litigation over severance underway, with one of fiancées suing the other one for treachery. Nor may the 10th commandment used by judicial system insofar as there is no legally persecuting a person for coveting somebody else’s wife. The First Amendment clearly does not forbid similar activities, unless there is an illegal takeover or in the event of a person’s stalking or sexually harassing a victim (Hamilton, 2003).
All judicial system can use are amendments six, eight, and nine, dealing with killing, stealing and lying. However, there is one big “ but”. One major caveat is that lying is not always a crime provided that it is not the breach of a sacred oath pledged by top echelon officials, perpetrating a perjury. There is also no proviso in the respective commandment as to a murder committed with the aim of self-defense. Too heavy a focus on commandments prevents one from embracing the whole complexity of American legislation, the sources of which are many and hardly traceable (Hamilton, 2003). There should also be no forgetting most countries will not cease relying on the Roman Laws that were created thousands years ago and incorporated into foreign judicial systems to a certain extent. Roman paganism and Christianity were hostile; however, these dissensions could have hardly been adopted judicially. According to Hamilton (2003), laws against stealing and killing were adopted from British common law, which stem from customs and natural laws rather than religion. Clearly, the Founding Fathers were never about making the Ten Commandments the law to abide by. Thomas Jefferson himself critiqued judges for their attempts to “ lay the yoke of their opinions on the necks of others” by making the Ten Commandments an official law. Rather than being guided by ecclesiastical legacy, American legislators set sights on the judicial experience of antiquity, most notably, of Rome and Greece, being experts in classics that they were. The reason for legislation authors to keep religion away from exerting its influence on public life and its legislative aspect was that religion had proved ignorant, superstitious, idle, fanatical, prioritizing “ servility in the laity” and persecution for over 15 centuries (Hamilton, 2003).
The accuracy which the Founding Fathers were treating religion and legal system with cannot but demonstrate a clearly drawn division line between what is called law and what is regarded as religion. It does not make any sense at all saying religion role was anywhere near being important by legislators’ compiling American legal system, as of the second half of the 18th century. Religion together with its ardor and fanatical intensity cannot be instrumental in shaping a judicial system, which needs cases legally provided for by cold-minded, rational, and impartial compilers. With commandments not fitting judicial system as well as stemming from Christian and Jewish religion, their application is the direct breach of constitution, the ignorance of the representatives’ religious beliefs and an attempt to dominate law or put it to one’s own good use on the part of judicial officials, such as Roy Moore. Seeing that the monument was ordered to be removed, the reverence of law is high enough not to let religion gain extra power, as it used to be centuries ago in Europe and to some extent at the early stages of the American history, involving puritans, a branch of protestants.
According to Dreisbach (2006), what was dubbed as “ the wall of separation between church and state” by Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the USA came to be perceived as a sacred icon of a stringent separationist doctrine of today that oversees so that there might be no influence on public life. This is basically an unwritten rule, which is not prescribed in the Constitution. During the Everson v. Board of Education hearing the justices interpreted Jefferson’s declaration as though the First amendment was meant to erect a high wall between church and the state to be kept impregnable without the slightest breach. The above-mentioned court hearing barred religious institutions from being girt with legislative commissions. Justice John Paul Stevens warned that pulling a brick out of this wall may be fraught with threatening democracy (Dreisbach, 2006). Should such a firm fortification get dismantled, the wall may give way to religious commandments that, if made judicial, will trespass on democratically free and unrestrained infidelity and coveting.
However, Jefferson’s attitude towards religion was misrepresented and distorted. It was from the early days of his presidency that his reputation was targeted by Federalists who were trying to expose Jefferson as a heathen and atheist. His supporting the French Revolution, defiling religious sanctuaries, was thought to make him unleash similar persecutions. Instead of following French example, the president caused states to build a number of churches, being financed by federal funds as well as lending support to Christian missionaries. All Jefferson did was build a conventional wall between the national and state governments with respect to religion. Dreisbach (2006) admitted, “ The wall’s primary function was to delineate the constitutional jurisdictions of the national and state governments, respectively, on religious concerns, such as setting aside days in the public calendar for payers, fasting, and thanksgiving”. Federalists verbally confronted Jefferson, being dissatisfied with him not approving religious proclamations, causing him to achieve the reputation for being the enemy of religion (Dreisbach, 2006).
The word of advocates of the wall is that it does the job of preventing sectarian religious organizations from vying for governmental legal preferences and aid. The concept of the separation wall did mis-conceptualize the First Amendment to the American Constitution. The purpose of the amendment was to arrange for religion to exercise its rights and liberty without state intrusion, with restrictions imposed on the civil government, which was similar to the guarantee of free press, protecting it from governmental pressure and intervention. That being said, salvos added to the Constitution were tailored specifically in order to protect religious establishments from corrupting intrusion by the federal government, without protecting the political system from religion. The wall’s main purport, in turn, implies bipartite or mutual limitations inflicted on both religious and political civil institutions (Dreisbach, 2006). That is at least how “ the wall of separation” concept is deemed today by contemporary representatives of the judicial branch who have their own vision as to Jefferson’s remark that was never to have
According to “ Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists” (n. d.), Baptists issued a note of protest to President Jefferson, complaining about their religious rights being infringed, to which the president responded with a measure of sympathy. It is worth noting that Jefferson never advocated the nowadays’ approach that excepts church involvement in the public square. His expression had not been used until the 1947 case Everson vs. the Board of Education when Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black made a brand-new interpretation of the First Amendment, declaring any support or preference for religion to be equal to the unconstitutional and thus illegitimate establishment of religion. To this end, Black cited Jefferson’s remark about the wall of separation, interpreting it anew. The third president’s intention did not go further filtering sects, attempting to gain dominance (Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, n. d.). Political rhetoric from 20th century seemed to run counter to what was originally meant by the First Amendment and presidential commentaries regarding the issue. Having political dogmas regulate the way justice is administered is hardly acceptable since moral code has nothing to do with law and justice and is likely to lead to a plethora of controversy up to the claims of it trespassing on democratic principles of the American society where neither marriage infidelity nor lust for someone’s spouse is considered reason enough to initiate a legal persecution. However, erecting a firm unassailable wall between public and religious institutions is nothing else but a constitutional violation that disregards American Constitution and its amendments. It is a must-admit fact religion has not always been that pious in the course of its history, having a well-documented record of controversies; still, Catholic Church, for example, have tendered their sincerest excuses for what they did in the past to their parishioners and believers as a whole. With church on its way to a complete reconciliation with society and religion having plenty of knowledge to offer, why not have it clad with a modicum of controllable legislative powers, considering the amount of authority and influence church has on people who do not tend to question its authority. It about time historical accuracy were established and American Constitution were interpreted in no politically convenient opportunistic ways. So changed religion in the USA with the course of time from being a fanatical belief to becoming a peaceful subject of separation from public affairs.


The role of American religion has changed over the years; however it has always been diverse in society constituted by the natives of a variety of European nations. At first, it used to be dominated by fanatically intense and conservative puritans; then it came to be a binding force for a fragile American nation, which states were in need of a unifying power to get them to put aside their differences and overcome the British in the War of Independence under the flying banners of patriotism and religion. Following the war the status of religion free from intrusion on the part of the federal government was prescribed through the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA.
In the 20th century religion received a new tint as there appeared claims as to the urgent need to make it happen the separation of church from public affairs. Hugo Black, one of the Supreme Court justices alluded to Thomas Jefferson’s remark about the wall of separation between church and the public sphere in a very misinterpreting way. The rehashed phrase evidenced in a court hearing ushered in new era of separation between church and public sector, which was compounded by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s decision to let the Ten Commandments, regulating the morale code of Christian and Jews be instrumental is judging pluralistic American society. The episode further re-aggravated the political conjuncture, strengthening the positions of pro-separationists.
However, misinterpretation and subsequent legal developments seem to violate Constitution, the main document of American democracy, and the First Amendment that by no means precludes religion from influencing public affairs. That being said, considering church having regained people’s trust as well as its immense experience, it would be wise for American legislature to give Church and clergy what is rightfully theirs, constitution-granted and God-given rights to create a constructive influence and regulate sometimes abusing political institute.


Dreisbach, D. L. (2006, June 23). The mythical “ wall of separation”: how a misused metaphor changed church – state, law, policy, and discourse. The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from: www. heritage. org/research/reports/2006/06/the-mythical-wall-of-separation-how-a-misused-metaphor-changed-church-state-law-policy-and-discourse
Hamilton, M. (2003, September 11). The Ten Commandments and American law: why some Christians’ claims to legal hegemony are not consistent with the historical record. Find Law. Retrieved from: writ. news. findlaw. com/hamilton/20030911. html
Isaacson, W. (2003). A Benjamin Franklin Reader. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. Rockefeller Center. Retrieved from: books. google. com. ua/books? id= jTWYQItJ0nEC&pg= PA58&lpg= PA58&dq= franklin+a+witch+trial+at+mount+holly&source= bl&ots= zRJ9wzfq7y&sig=-bO0pNTOhGeVan4BHP67UTH42OU&hl= en&ei= I5chSqzAHIGGtgfjja3DBg&sa= X&oi= book_result&ct= result&redir_esc= y#v= onepage&q= franklin%20a%20witch%20trial%20at%20mount%20holly&f= false
Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists. (n. d.). The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from: www. heritage. org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/jefferson-s-letter-to-the-danbury-baptists
Novak, M. (2006, November 06). Faith and the American founding: illustrating religion’s influence. The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www. heritage. org/research/reports/2006/11/faith-and-the-american-founding-illustrating-religions-influence