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History of Religion in the United States, Influence of Religion

Fundamentalist movement, Volstead Act, Beat movement, easy divorce, Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The beginning of the 20th century saw the development of Fundamentalism, a conservative Protestant movement that crosses many denominational lines and emphasizes a literal interpretation of the Bible. Not as extreme as the Pentecostal movement, it forged a Bible Belt across the nation where Fundamentalism is widely practiced. This Bible Belt stretched from the upper South, through the southern plains, and into parts of California.

One result of the Fundamentalist movement was a series of state laws in the 1920s banning the teaching of the theory of evolution. Fundamentalists saw this theory as contrary to a literal reading of the biblical account of creation. These laws led to the highly publicized Scopes trial in 1925, in which the state of Tennessee prosecuted biology teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution. Scopes was convicted and fined $100 (the state supreme court later reversed the ruling). The negative public response to the creationist point of view helped weaken Fundamentalist influence and promoted a more secular, scientific curriculum in many of the nation’s schools.

Perhaps the high point of religious influence on American society and government came with the prohibition, or temperance, movement that gained popularity in the last half of the 19th century. Church meetings that rallied against the evil effects of drunkenness sometimes led parishioners to march to saloons, which they attempted to close through prayer or violence. The movement led to the formation of the Anti-Saloon League of America, which endorsed political candidates and helped pass state laws banning saloons. In 1919 the league, along with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, succeeded in passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol, and a federal law, the Volstead Act of 1920, to enforce the amendment. Americans eventually became disillusioned with the law because federal enforcement tactics sometimes trampled on civil liberties, and because Prohibition fed the growth of organized crime and political corruption. Additionally, consumption of alcohol did not diminish; among some groups, especially women, consumption actually increased. The amendment was repealed in 1933.

The speakeasies, nightclubs, cocktails, and portable flasks of liquor that had become popular during Prohibition promoted a culture that rejected puritanical ideas. This freethinking culture was made even more glamorous in the early 20th century by the emerging motion picture industry. Although conservative religious groups were able to establish censorship standards in film, the movies and the private lives of movie stars promoted the acceptability of sexual freedom, easy divorce, and self-indulgence.

After World War II, religion was influential in American society in a variety of ways. When the Soviet Union became identified with "godless communism” during the Cold War, many Americans saw the United States as a protector of religion. The phrase, “under God,” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s so that the public would commit themselves at public events to living in “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s drew its leadership from black religious groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Nation of Islam, a black religious group, promoted a more radical black separatist movement. Liberal, white congregations played supporting roles in the drive for racial equality.

Many churches were active in the movement for peace during the Vietnam War (1959-1975), and religious groups took strong positions on whether abortion should be legal. Also during the 1960s, Roman Catholic activists and liberal Protestant groups worked for integration, workers rights, and peace.

During the 1950s the Beat movement sparked an interest in Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Daoism, and Zen Buddhism, that continued into the 1960s. A small number of Americans joined ashrams (religious communities) and other alternative religious groups. Meditation and yoga were widely practiced. These relaxation techniques, as well as acupuncture, have become increasingly valuable parts of modern medical practice.

The influence of socialist ideas among college students in the 1960s promoted antireligious viewpoints and lifestyles vastly different from those extolled by religious conservatives. These students promoted women’s rights, gay rights, legalized contraception and abortion, moderate drug use, and alternative living arrangements. They contributed to advances in many of these movements, although their most radical lifestyle experiments did not survive the early 1970s. In response to the dominance of these secular ideals on college campuses, conservatives organized the Campus Crusade for Christ, which became a training ground for conservative politicians who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, televangelists, Fundamentalist ministers who preach on television shows, began to influence American politics. They were generally opposed to abortion (and sometimes contraception), to sexual freedom and easy divorce, to single parenthood, and to high taxes supporting social programs. They were in favor of traditional family structures and a strong anticommunist foreign policy. Their conservative messages and political endorsements helped elect Republican candidates. Regardless of their efforts, however, by the end of the 20th century, the political influence of religious movements had diminished.

Although religion has been influential, the United States remains a secular society rooted in the rational Enlightenment ideals of tolerance, liberty, and individualism. The media and schools generally steer clear of religious issues, and religious toleration and freedom of expression remain widely held values that transcend the multiplicity of beliefs and values.

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