Mar 16, 2016
Just to the Right: Religion, Sociologically Speaking
Before one can begin to understand our First Amendment Rights (there are several guaranteed), there must first be an understanding of terms. The first right listed is what is commonly known as Freedom of Religion. What is a religion? When we study various cultures, why is it important to understand the religion(s) prevalent in a...
Before one can begin to understand our First Amendment Rights (there are several guaranteed), there must first be an understanding of terms. The first right listed is what is commonly known as Freedom of Religion.
What is a religion? When we study various cultures, why is it important to understand the religion(s) prevalent in a culture?
Sociologists have identified eight elements that define the word religion. These elements are: a belief in a supernatural being(s), definitions of sacred vs. secular spaces/objects, rituals, a moral code based on the supernatural, religious feelings (awe, mystery, adoration, guilt) aroused by the sacred or by rituals, communication with the supernatural, a worldview of how man fits into the whole picture, devotion to the defined worldview, and a social group that is bound by all of the above.
Rabbi Marc Gellman’s and Monsignor Thomas Hartman’s definition states, “Beliefs give religion its mind, rituals give religion its shape, and ethics give religion its heart.”
Benjamin Franklin defined religion with five fundamentals. In a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, Franklin wrote
Here is my creed: I believe in one God, the Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence [guidance and care]. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is in doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion.
John Adams stated that the American civilization had been built on these “general principles.” Thomas Jefferson believed that it was these principles “in which God has united us all.”
In 1796, two years after the French Revolution had resulted in the eradication of Christianity, the imprisonment of at least 300,000 and over 17,000 Frenchmen being executed at the guillotine, George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.”
One can suppose that Washington’s hope was that the evil that had befallen France, a nation that had been the only American ally in the Revolutionary War, would not one day be experienced in America.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a member of the French aristocracy and whose relatives were executed during the French Revolution, except for his parents (imprisoned for several months), arrived in the United States in May 1831 to inspect the prison system in Philadelphia and New York City. France was again on the verge of civil war after the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor and after the House of Bourbon was restored in 1830. His most famous work was “Democracy in America”, published in 1835.
Tocqueville glowingly wrote about the democratic ideals and the importance religion played in American lives as the defining economic factors when compared to British culture. He praised the treatment of women and how women were effective forces in American culture.
Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion for who can search the human heart? – but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.
Tocqueville, like the Founders, believed religion to be essential to society’s prosperity, particularly in a democracy. “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot,” he stated. He concluded, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, American will cease to be great.”
Given that Christianity is a Western religion and that it was foundational to American culture, how is it that the Founders didn’t establish Christianity as the national religion? This question will be examined in the next column.
by Jacque Martin, who contributes ‘Just to the Right’ each month to The Sun Times. Reprinted here with permission of the author.