The Puritans came to the United States to practice their religion free from the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church. Faith was so important to communities in those days that people were willing to travel halfway across the world to keep their faith intact. In recent years, however, Americans seem to have lost the commitment to religion that was so prominent in the daily lives of their ancestors.
Over the past few years, Americans have increasingly chosen secularism over faith — a recent Pew Research Center poll showed that the percentage Americans who have absolute certainty in the existence of a higher deity fell to 63 percent in 2014 from 71 percent in 2007. This choice contrasts greatly with the origins of early American communities, which were largely rooted in religion.
The many successes driven by religion, including the founding of the United States, should breed caution; abandoning faith as a society may lead to unintended consequences.
A trend away from faith is shown not only in the Pew Research Center data, but also in modern America’s social and economic practices. Christmas seems to celebrate consumerism and Santa Claus more than Jesus and Mary. Going to church on Sunday has become a place for people to meet up with friends and talk about football, not to worship God. I remember spending my childhood looking through catalogs leading up to a holiday, rather than reflecting on the blessings that have been bestowed upon me.
In some ways, America’s disappearing religiosity seems to have had few consequences. People are still finding jobs, students are still getting educated and the United States continues to be the wealthiest nation on the planet. Nevertheless, this shift from religiosity to secularism has occurred so rapidly that society has forgotten to reflect on the possible implications. The trend toward secularism suggests that religion may eventually be seen as a relic of the past, with people focusing solely on worldly gains and advancements.
The problem that arises is that American tradition was built upon a foundation of religion. There would have been nobody aboard the Mayflower, flocking to the early colonies, if not for religious persecution. The Declaration of Independence, a founding document of the United States, promises “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” which many believed to be a direct answer to that call of religious freedom. As George Washington said, “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of a civil society.” For centuries, America was dominated by religious people. The nation thrived under this communal belief, proven by the varying degrees of religious influence in the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement.
Early Americans recognized the importance of religious tolerance and freedom, perhaps the most noted principles in discussions of freedoms and liberties.
The Founding Fathers borrowed this notion from past societies. Thomas Jefferson had a vast collection of books on ancient Spain in his personal library. Under the Islamic rule of Spain in the seventh and eighth centuries, art, music, science and philosophy all thrived. Jefferson was intrigued by the enactment of coextensia, or an understanding of coexistence, between majority Muslims and minority Christians and Jews on the Iberian Peninsula during the 9th century under Umayyad rule.
Religious freedoms, among other freedoms, help make America so influential in the larger global landscape. When people and their beliefs are respected, acceptance and tolerance will likely be reciprocated. For key aspects of nation building to be formulated, such as economic or governmental practices, mutual respect between people must begin on the societal level.
The implications can be grave in a society where religion plays too small a role. Faith traditions have influenced past figures such as John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein. Teachers, students, businessmen and employees have all felt the effects of faith at one point or another. But as humankind is progressing because of advancements in science and technology, it seems to have forgotten the spirit that moved it to this point in modern history. Humanity rarely reflects upon the true origin of innovations, the origins of which can be found in the conviction of a divine and almighty being in which so many Americans once believed.
Only time will reveal the implications of religion’s continued disappearance from the lives of Americans. The blanket of American identity has clearly felt folds and creases in recent times. Will the rise of secularism change what it means to be an American? Or is the freedom of religious choice given to Americans what makes this nation so great?
Democracy demands freedoms like those of speech and religion. As the model for all other democratic nations across the globe, the United States should adhere to the principles on which our nation was founded. With as much power and influence that America has, the recent rise in secularism compared to religiosity may affect the entire social landscape across the face of the earth for years to come.
Youssef Osman is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Capital Affairs appears online every other Thursday.
A version of this article was previously published Feb. 2. A version of this column appeared in the author’s personal blog in December 2016.