Religion, an Individual Right
Pre-reading: Discuss questions in small groups. What does it mean to be religious? Should countries have a state religion? Should religion be part of a school curriculum?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,…”
This is a portion of an extract from the First Amendment of the US Constitution. In short, this means that there must NOT be one single state religion, but that everyone should be free to practise his or her own faith. Neither state nor government may establish a church.
Freedom of religion is one of the pull factors that has lead and continues to lead immigrants to the USA. This freedom, along with freedom of speech and assembly, are important parts of the First Amendment which Americans hold close to their hearts. It should therefore be no surprise that the US has the greatest number of religious groups in the world.
Setting a Standard
The United Nations followed the lead of the US and passed a similar statement referred to as Article 18, the Declaration of Human Rights. Although it was not passed until 1948 it guarantees individual freedom:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
In the USA and much of the world, religious belief is one of choice.
A considerable number of Americans consider themselves religious, and many attend church. As public schools are not allowed to include religion in their curriculum, many families send their children to Sunday school, Bible study, and youth retreats.
Church plays an important role for many, both spiritually and socially. Meeting new people and helping one another are common threads in religious life. Very often, churches lead charitable work in the community, and a number of Americans volunteer their time to help for example, the poor and homeless. Members of the congregation are often active and eager to be of assistance. Churches raise money by donations and by having church fairs, bazaars, bake sales and more. Volunteerism is one of the unique qualities associated with Americans, and the church helps make this possible.
The US is a conglomerate of different religious beliefs living side by side. This is evidence of true democracy and pluralism, but there are still some churches with only black or only white parishioners. The majority of Americans are Christian, as many as 78%, where Protestants represent half of this percentage, followed by Catholics claiming approximately one quarter. The remainder are Jewish, Buddhists, Muslim and Hindu. Another 16% are unaffiliated, with the majority in this group considering themselves “nothing in particular”.
Tasks and Activities
- Explain the first amendment and why it is so important to the American people?
- What are many Americans church-goers?