Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Religious History (part one of six)

There has been a lot of debate in recent years as to whether or not the United States is a Christian nation, and what it would mean if that was true. Much of this debate stems from the fact that public education seldom focuses on the influence of Christianity on American history. In part this is because Christianity is only one of many religions now present in America, and to emphasize the Christian roots of American culture and history could exclude non-Christians with the impression that this is not ‘their history.’

Another problem is that in American colleges, teachers are not taught America’s religious history. Because they are not trained to discuss it, it is often considered safer to avoid the issue altogether, which merely perpetuates the cycle. It is not until one begins to dig into the more obscure academic realms (at least compared to public school) that the connections between American history and Christianity really begin to stand out.

From the very start, one of the key motivations to colonize North America was religion. Columbus was interested in a route to India for more reasons than simple economics. To travel to what was reputed to be the edge of the world (when people were still suspicious that one could fall off the edge into space) took more than a hope for easy money. He was fascinated with Asia, but because Europe did not have the will to launch another Crusade, the Muslims were solidly between Europe and Asia. They were likely to stay there, too, so unless someone found a way around them the Muslims would be skimming of the top of any trade across the continents.

Columbus brought an economic case to Ferdinand and Isabella, but it was still largely religiously-motivated. He promised them that he could make them more money than all of their rivals, and wanted them to use that money to bankroll a new Crusade. Then they’d control two routes to Asia, and would have struck a hard historic blow for Christendom in general.

When Catholic Spain took control of South America and Catholic France found a foothold in Canada, England was a bit behind the ball. It took England a while to even figure out where it stood on the whole Protestant Reformation mess that mainland Europe was dealing with. Eventually Elizabeth decided that even though she was Protestant she did not really care what English people as a group believed. She just wanted them worshipping God together. The Anglican Church was created as a compromise.

This did not work for the really staunch Protestants who felt that the Anglican Church was still suspiciously Catholic. They first left for Holland, since they were tolerant enough to permit a marginalized group like the Puritans within their borders. However, the Puritans found that they weren’t the only ones who’d been extended this courtesy. Holland had Jews! Deciding that Holland was too secular for them, they lost faith in Europe to a great extent. They believed that Europe was so corrupt that the only way to keep themselves holy was to retreat and let the rest of the world fall apart.

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