America has long had a complex, almost schizophrenic attitude towards religion. As the popular narrative goes, the country was founded by those fleeing religious persecution in England, who sought to establish their own society free from the tyranny of state-imposed faith. But the actual history is more complex. For every Pennsylvania, where different faiths flourished in relative harmony, there was a Maryland or Massachusetts, where there were strong conformist pressures, if not outright persecution of minorities. Indeed, it was not until 1833 that Massachusetts, home of those famous Pilgrims, stopped requiring that its citizens belong to a church. Thus, even as America offers freedom of religion, it has certainly never offered freedom from it. Religion penetrates every sphere of American life: education, politics, and that nebulous thing called “society.”
It seems appropriate that the HPR should now take on the task of examining American religion. After all, Harvard has seen it all when it comes to religion. The College was first established as a school for Congregational ministers. As the history of the University’s founding puts it, “After God had carried us safe to New England … one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”
Yet by 2008, the tide had turned to such an extent that the Committee on General Education refused to require undergraduates to take courses in the field of “Reason and Faith,” settling for the blander and more general “Culture and Belief.”
If Harvard is any guide, the stature of religion in America appears weaker than ever before. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has grown precipitously, and their influence seems poised to increase (p. 6). And American Christianity is not the only religion facing a seeming crisis; Muslim Americans, for instance, are struggling with a racial divide in their community (p. 12).
Nonetheless, the history of American religion is one of innovation and renewal, just like the history of the nation itself. Religion may have to change, but by no means will it be lost to the public sphere. Indeed, a new generation of evangelical Protestants has found in their faith the motivation to tackle new issues of social justice, while de-emphasizing the confrontational moral issues that defined their parents’ political involvement (p. 10). Such a balancing act has been inherent to American religion, from the past to the present day (p. 13).
And, if evidence were needed that faith can still play a vital role not just in individual lives but in public service, one need look no further than the involvement of faith-based organizations in the delivery of foreign aid (p. 8). Religion has not just a long past in America, but an interesting future as well.
Chris Danello ‘12 is the Covers Editor.