The American Experience


Of the many nations founded in modern times, few have had as strongly religious a heritage as the United States of America.

OF THE MANY NATIONS founded in modern times, few have had as strongly religious a heritage as the United States of America. As every schoolchild knows, many of the early settlers of the continent were fervent Christians seeking freedom to worship according to conscience — not only the Puritans of New England, but also the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Catholics of Maryland, and a number of other groups. Since the earliest settlements of North America were also made during a very intensely religious period in Western history, virtually all the settlers were believing and practicing Christians. Most of the Atlantic seaboard was settled by English Protestants. French Catholics settled the Mississippi Valley and Spanish Catholics Florida, the Southwest, and California. By the time of the American Revolution, virtually all the colonies on the continent had at least a quasi-official church.

But the American Revolution occurred at the climax of the Enlightenment, and Enlightenment ideas greatly influenced the founding of the new nation.

The nation was originally the largely Protestant colonies of the Eastern seaboard; only later were predominantly Catholic areas admitted to the Union. But by 1775, much of the Protestant elite of those Eastern colonies had ceased to be orthodox Christians in the way their ancestors had been. This was especially true of the gentlemen planters of Virginia, who played a major role in the establishment of the new nation. Some, notably Thomas Jefferson, seem to have been Deists.

They believed in a Supreme Being and a moral law based on reason, but not in divine revelation. Others, like George Washington, were nominal Anglicans according to the familiar English pattern of the time. They maintained at least a loose affiliation with the church but did not seem to make religion an important part of their lives. In the North, the stern Puritanism of the seventeenth century had been modified to the point where many leading New Englanders could be called Deists.

There were thus certain paradoxes in the spirit of the new nation. The Declaration of Independence forthrightly acknowledged dependence on God; the Constitution did not mention him. America was in some ways a very religious nation, but, especially among its leaders, this religion was often ambiguous.

Most of the Founding Fathers, to one degree or another, were fearful of the possibility of religious conflict, intolerance, and persecution. There had been instances of these in colonial America. The examples from Europe were more numerous and more disturbing. These founders hit upon a radical new experiment — a nation whose basic structure guaranteed freedom of worship for all inhabitants and forbade any union of church and state. (The First Amendment to the Constitution reads in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”) This was a great benefit for the people of the new nation. Virtually nowhere in the world at the time was complete freedom of worship permitted and nowhere were citizens free from the obligation to support a church whose teachings they might find unacceptable.

There were certain ambiguities. Not only did the Founding Fathers desire to protect freedom and to allow all faiths to flourish; some of them were also motivated by a suspicion of all religion. This was especially true of Jefferson, who placed his stamp on so much early American thought. In many ways Jefferson's outlook was not appreciably different from Voltaire's, except that he was less outspoken in his anti-religious sentiments. He wanted to confine religion to narrow spheres of largely private life, out of a fear that public manifestations of religion would lead to strife and possible bloodshed. Some of the Founding Fathers, again Jefferson for one, simply believed the teachings of traditional Christianity to be false except where they coincided with Enlightenment ideas. They tolerated the various' sects, as they called them, but did not respect these groups nor regard their existence as particularly beneficial to the nation.

Thus from the beginning of the United States there has been a fundamental ambiguity with regard to official attitudes toward religion, ambiguities which only began to cause serious problems after World War II.

If the elite group of Founding Fathers had been representative of public opinion in 1789, America would have developed as a secular nation. There was, however, a fairly wide gap between them and the masses of the people; Enlightenment ideas usually spread only among a small minority. As nearly as can be determined, formal church membership was fairly low at the time, perhaps proportionately lower than it is now. But most historians think Americans of the time were religious even if unchurched. Earlier in the century there had begun in New England the Great Awakening. Great numbers of people responded to fervent preaching, repented of their sins, and resolved to live a new life. Early in the next century, there took place a Second Great Awakening, this one embracing the frontier as well. Smaller local manifestations of the same piety were common.

By about 1820, the spirit of the Enlightenment had waned in America, as it had in Europe. Later generations of leaders were more likely to be professing Christians than Deists. The Enlightenment influence did remain in certain respects and had significant long-term effects, but the public spirit of the nation was definitely religious.

Foreign visitors, like the perceptive Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, remarked on the frequency with which God, divine providence, the Bible, and other religious themes were invoked in public. This sometimes gave rise to suspicions that politicians, for example, were using religion for their own ends But whatever the abuses, religion was taken very seriously in America. Many Americans believed their nation the recipient of a special divine mandate.

Clearly, America had always been a nation of immigrants. At the time of its founding in 1789, the Atlantic seaboard was mainly Protestant and of British extraction. Culturally it looked to England. From the 1830s until at least the First World War, however, America was transformed almost beyond recognition by countless waves of immigrants from Europe. Some of these were “Free Thinkers,” a nineteenth-century term roughly equivalent to “Secular Humanist.” Most, however, were at least nominally religious, and many were a great deal more than nominal. Although economic privation was probably the chief motive for immigration, many had experienced either discrimination or persecution on account of their faith and were looking for an atmosphere of freedom. They treasured their religious beliefs and practices, and, if anything, the experience of the New World made them more devout.

By the time of the Civil War, religious influence in American life was pervasive. This went well beyond Fourth of July rhetoric (important though that rhetoric was for symbolic purposes). For one thing, religion provided the motive and the justification for most public expressions of morality. The anti-slavery movement, to take the chief example, had very religious roots. On the other side, the slave-owners justified their practice by appeals to the Bible and divine law. Although cynics might say that Christianity encouraged such irreconcilable divisions, the controversy over slavery showed the great seriousness with which religion was taken. Seemingly few Americans could tolerate living in a way they thought contrary to divine law. They at least had to rationalize their conduct.

After the Civil War, American society was transformed in profound and lasting ways by the completion of the Industrial Revolution begun several decades earlier. Although it was not until about 1920 that a majority of Americans could be classified as city-dwellers, the shift to the cities was already marked by the 1870s. Along with urbanization came everything that it implied, including a factory system which provided the principal employment. The successive waves of immigrants were absorbed into an expanding industrial system.

The American experience of the century after the Civil War belies the most widely accepted sociological explanation of secularization as a result of technological change and industrialization. According to this theory, religion is associated with older, more stable, predominantly agricultural ways of life. It is part of the inheritance of that way of life and not much questioned. It is further argued that the farmer, utterly dependent on the vagaries of nature, has a strong sense of his necessary reliance on God. Urbanization and industrialization disrupted this age-old pattern of living. Uprooted people belong to no clear community and experience no social pressure to conform. Finally, technology leads man to believe that the solutions to all problems lie within his grasp; all he needs is to work harder and become yet more ingenious.

This theory of secularization does seem to apply to large areas of the Old World. To a great extent the working classes of Western Europe fell away from religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, this likely had less to do with industrialization than with the rigidity of traditional social organization; workers tended to identify religion with a state church and the aristocracy. Social and economic discontent thus tended to lead to a rejection of religion.

In the United States, ultimately the greatest industrial nation in the world, this did not happen. By and large, the working classes in America remained at least as religious as any other group, and more than some. A high proportion of immigrants prior to World War I were Catholics, and the Catholic Church was remarkably successful in ministering to them. In some ways, Catholics in America were more devout than they had been in Europe. A concrete proof of this devotion was the ability of a generally poor community to found and maintain a huge school system, from kindergartens to universities. On the Protestant side, the phenomenon of the revival was especially important. Evangelism of all kinds, some of it through the churches, was a major feature of popular culture in America. Possibly millions of people were led to religion, or strengthened in it, by this means. It was a phenomenon for which there was scant parallel anywhere else in the world.

America also proved itself religious in that it was fertile ground for new faiths. The number of new churches founded in the United States since the early nineteenth century is literally uncountable. By 1970, several thousand distinct Christian denominations could be identified, most of them quite small. But America has also produced some major and enduring religious movements like Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and the entire pentecostalist movement.

From before the Civil War until World War II, the broad religious outline of American life could be sketched fairly easily. America was a society in which a majority of people were at least formally affiliated with a church and many were active. Christian morality was almost universally accepted in principle and was taken as the appropriate guide to conduct. Even most non-church members believed in God and were respectful of the Bible and other kinds of religious authority. Church membership tended to ebb and flow, and religious leaders worried from time to time about the secularization of society, but at almost any time down to 1945 religion appeared to be in a healthy state.

Sociological theory would suggest that after the war there would be a decline in religious belief and practice, as often happens. Again America proved an exception. Perhaps partly because the war was viewed almost universally as morally justified and partly because of the material privations Americans had been suffering since 1929 (first the Great Depression, then the War itself), the country in 1945 seemed determined to build a stable society on solid values. The post-war world, down to about 1965, was very family-oriented. There was much concern with proper moral values, not only with respect to private morality, but also to long-standing social evils like segregation. The Civil Rights Movement was strongly religious in inspiration and leadership. Appeals to religious principles proved by far the most effective way of persuading people to reexamine their prejudices.

Adlai Stevenson, twice an unsuccessful candidate for the Presidency in the 1950s, once quipped, “I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.” The reference was to the popular preacher Norman Vincent Peale, who had endorsed Stevenson's opponent. Stevenson's comment may have been unfair, but it did indicate a problem with the official piety of the post-war era. In retrospect, it carried the seeds of its own destruction. Norman Vincent Peale achieved fame with books like The Power of Positive Thinking. Essentially he preached a faith which was happy, optimistic, and forward-looking. There was not much emphasis on sin or the need for repentance and almost no indication of the inner religious struggle that has characterized virtually every great figure in the history of Christianity. Peale, echoed by preachers all over America, in essence told people how to use religion to be happy.

Orthodox Christianity was by no means dead in the 1950s. But often unrecognized, subtle distortions of the Christian message were creeping even into churches which had been traditionally rather conservative. Religion was represented as a good thing, but often with no clear idea why. Billboards exhorted people to “attend church this week,” with no indication of which church or why. Politicians in their speeches regularly invoked God and affirmed that America was a God-fearing nation, but it was not always clear that they or their hearers fully understood what was necessary to be God-fearing.

The period 1945-1965 was a morally conservative time in American life. Traditional values were publicly honored and to a considerable extent lived by. (For example, after a predictable increase immediately after the War, the divorce rate actually began to decline.) This helped provide a stable environment, based on a broad moral consensus. It was a good time in which to raise children.

The less happy side of this moral conservatism was that it was often unthinking, merely habitual, and based on social custom. When social customs began to change in the 1960s, many people found that they had no personal basis for continuing to live in accordance with their stated principles. They merely drifted with the tide. Furthermore, religion and traditional morality were closely identified with what came to be called “the establishment.” When an anti-establishment mood hit the country, religious and moral values were among its first targets. Religion was viewed by many people not as something eternally true, to be adhered to through every vicissitude. It was merely a part of one's “life-style,” perhaps appropriate to the 1950s but not to a changed society.

America after 1965 was indeed a changed society. Within a few years, it had probably changed as radically as it ever had in its long history. But it was the kind of change that was difficult to measure, and it was not as dramatic as the political and economic upheavals which interest historians. In essence, it was a transformation in the personal values and beliefs of countless Americans.

Perhaps surprisingly, the major cause of this change may well have been prosperity. From 1945 to at least 1975 most Americans experienced a constantly and perceptibly rising standard of living. Each year, almost every class of people, from the poor to the rich, found themselves at least a little better off then they had been the previous year. (Toward the end of the 1970s there were signs of a reversal of this trend, but the reversal was not yet dramatic. Most people were still better off than their parents had been.) The connection between prosperity and religious and moral decline ought not to be surprising to Christians. It has always been a Judaeo-Christian commonplace that when men prosper they tend to forget God. The Old Testament in particular makes this abundantly clear.

One of the weaknesses of the prevalent religiosity of the 1950s was the ease with which it accepted material prosperity. Relatively little thought was given to helping Christians cope with an economic success that might corrupt. Some preachers even equated prosperity with divine favor, a recurring temptation in the history of the church. For a long time there appeared no basic incompatibility between prosperity and fidelity. If anything, prosperity was seen as a way for devout Christians to give more money to the church or to charity.

But a subtle psychological process was taking place. More and more people were becoming accustomed to all their “needs” being met. At first these needs were really that. The Depression of the 1930s and the privations of the war years left many people close to poverty. But gradually “needs” came to be indistinguishable from “wants.” Not only did people expect to have a car, they needed two, and then three. The annual vacation had to be taken at a comfortable resort. Every household had to get every new and expensive technological device, from kitchen equipment to large-screen televisions. Clothes were discarded merely because they were a bit out of style.

So long as this expectation of desire-fulfillment was confined to material goods it was dangerous to faith but not lethal. The graver troubles began when it was transferred to the spiritual and psychological planes as well. Put simply, Americans proved less and less able to accept any form of self-denial. They could not say no to themselves, and did not want others to say no to them either. Just as they took it as their birthright that they would eventually obtain all the goods they desired, so they began to take it as their birthright that they could do virtually anything they wanted with their lives.

The implications of this for personal morality were devastating. Spouses divorced, sometimes after years of marriage, because one or both parties found someone else who was more attractive and exciting. Pregnancies were aborted because they came at inconvenient times. People of all ages made free use of drugs merely to experience something new and thrilling.

This seemingly endless prosperity may also have inculcated in people a confidence in their own powers that was ultimately inimical to religion. Prosperity was the most tangible sign that “the system” was working. It was also experienced as a direct result of one's own hard work, talent, and dedication. The thought began to impress itself on people's minds that they could eventually get anything they wanted if only they wanted it badly enough, worked for it hard enough, and used their ingenuity.

The world was experienced as man's own creation. This left little room for God. Prosperous Americans of the 1 960s and l970s might continue to believe in God in some general way. They might even continue to call themselves Christians. But God's existence made little or no difference in their lives. They had little sense of sin and felt little need for redemption. God's commandments were regarded as, at best, guidelines, with each person devising his own morality in accordance with his conscience. People who thought they could obtain whatever they wanted through their own efforts saw little reason to pray and experienced little dependence on God. They had become Secular Humanists in practice, whatever they might call themselves.

This new secularity was also closely linked to social mobility, the opportunity to find a new place for oneself in society with greater prestige and material rewards. America has always been a country with great social mobility. It has no firmly established class system. It gives ample opportunity to men of talent and ambition. Throughout American history people have consistently found it possible to improve their lot by moving. Not only was this true in the days of the frontier, it is true today in a different way. For many people, advancement in a career involves willingness to move, and to move frequently.

Rapid, and even dramatic, upward mobility was a close corollary to the prosperity of the post-war period. Before the war, college graduates were still a rather rare minority. After the war, the proportion of high-school graduates attending college rapidly increased, until it reached nearly half in the early 1970s During most of that period a college degree was practically a guarantee of economic opportunity. Millions of Americans who attended college were able to pursue goals which for their parents would have been utterly unrealistic.

This mobility reinforced the sense of self-reliance already alluded to. It also inculcated in people a sense of the necessity of “hanging loose,” ready to move in whatever direction opportunity might call. American industry after World War II practiced a system of “planned obsolescence,” whereby consumer products, machinery, styles, and many other things were expected to be discarded after a few years, to be replaced by something new. People became used to expecting that they would discard their old possessions periodically and replace them with models that were brighter and more modern.

Both things together — social mobility and planned obsolescence — created a mentality in which fixed beliefs, unchanging fidelities, and eternal truths came to seem like liabilities restricting movement and change. The person with the fewest commitments — marital, religious, moral, institutional, intellectual — was the person best able to take advantage of all the opportunities which society offered.

If America was still a predominantly religious society in the early 1 960s, it went through a secularization process which was amazingly rapid. The process is not complete by any means. In some ways America remains a very religious nation. But common attitudes, and especially the kinds of attitudes which are regarded as respectable, underwent a swift change between 1965 and 1970. Although it was perhaps only a minority who were most affected, they were the trend-setters. They either had little interest in religion or were hostile to it. They either rejected traditional morality or were willing to compromise it endlessly. They contrived to place traditional religious belief on the permanent defensive.


Hitchcock, James. "The American Experience." Chapter 4 in What is Secular Humanism. (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1982), 49-60.

Reprinted by permission of the author.


James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is a member of the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1982 Servant Books

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