chapter  4
23 Pages

In God we trust?: religion in American life

The role played by religious thought and practice is of immense importance to a full understanding of American life. As Anthony Giddens has argued, religion is a ‘central part of human experience, influencing how we perceive and react to the environments in which we live’ (Giddens 1993:452). Social surveys suggest how importantly this is reflected in the contemporary United States. In 1994, for instance, 90 per cent of Americans said they were religious, and 93 per cent of those claiming to be religious said they were Christians. Nearly 70 per cent of the population belonged to churches of some kind, and around 40 per cent attended a church service every week. A 1992 survey found that 70 per cent of Americans believed in life after death, compared to 38 per cent of Germans, 44 per cent of Britons and 54 per cent of Italians. Half of the population claim they pray at least once a day. Belief is matched by financial commitment, with contributions to religion estimated at $57 billion a year in the mid-1990s. There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America/wrote de Tocqueville in 1835 (1965:233), but his comment might equally apply to the contemporary republic. What further complicates the picture today, of course, is that Christianity has been joined by a number of other religions to make the American religious mosaic much more varied than it was in the mid-nineteenth century. The great waves of Jewish immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made the United States a major centre of Judaism. In the twentieth century a range of other religions have grown significantly including Islam, and a host of New Age groupings.