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While some scholars see the United States becoming increasingly secular, others observe a rise in fundamentalism. Compared to other democratic, industrialized countries, the United States is generally perceived to be a fairly religious nation. Whereas 65 percent of U.S. adults in a 2009 Gallup survey said religion was an important part of their daily lives, the numbers were lower in Spain (49 percent), Canada (42 percent), France (30 percent), the United Kingdom (27 percent), and Sweden (17 percent) (Crabtree and Pelham 2009). Secularization interests social observers because it entails a pattern of change in a fundamental social institution.

Thank god for that touchdown: separation of church and state

Imagine three public universities with football games scheduled on Saturday. At University A, a group of students in the stands who share the same faith decide to form a circle amid the spectators to pray for the team. For fifteen minutes, people in the circle share their prayers aloud among their group. At University B, the team ahead at halftime decides to join together in prayer, giving thanks and seeking support from God. This lasts for the first ten minutes of halftime on the sidelines of the field while spectators watch. At University C, the game program includes, among its opening moments, two minutes set aside for the team captain to share a prayer of his choosing with the spectators.

In the tricky area of separation of church and state, which of these actions is allowed and which is forbidden? In our three fictional scenarios, the last example is against the law while the first two situations are perfectly acceptable.

In the United States, a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom (many settlers were escaping religious persecution in Europe), how stringently do we adhere to this ideal? How well do we respect people’s right to practice any belief system of their choosing? The answer just might depend on what religion you practice.

In 2003, for example, a lawsuit escalated in Alabama regarding a monument to the Ten Commandments in a public building. In response, a poll was conducted by USA Today , CNN, and Gallup. Among the findings: 70 percent of people approved of a Christian Ten Commandments monument in public, while only 33 percent approved of a monument to the Islamic Qur’an in the same space. Similarly, survey respondents showed a 64 percent approval of social programs run by Christian organizations, but only 41 percent approved of the same programs run by Muslim groups (Newport 2003).

These statistics suggest that, for most people in the United States, freedom of religion is less important than the religion under discussion. And this is precisely the point made by those who argue for separation of church and state. According to their contention, any state-sanctioned recognition of religion suggests endorsement of one belief system at the expense of all others—contradictory to the idea of freedom of religion.

So what violates separation of church and state and what is acceptable? Myriad lawsuits continue to test the answer. In the case of the three fictional examples above, the issue of spontaneity is key, as is the existence (or lack thereof) of planning on the part of event organizers.

The next time you’re at a state event—political, public school, community—and the topic of religion comes up, consider where it falls in this debate.

Summary

Liberation theology combines Christian principles with political activism to address social injustice, discrimination, and poverty. Megachurches are those with a membership of more than 2,000 regular attendees, and they are a vibrant, growing and highly influential segment of U.S. religious life. Some sociologists believe levels of religiosity in the United States are declining (called secularization), while others observe a rise in fundamentalism.

Short answer

Do you believe the United States is becoming more secularized or more fundamentalist? Comparing your generation to that of your parents or grandparents, what differences do you see in the relationship between religion and society? What would popular media have you believe is the state of religion in the United States today?

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Further research

What is a megachurch and how are they changing the face of religion? Read “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context” at (External Link) .

Curious about the LGBT religious movement? Visit the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) web sites for current news about the growing inclusion of LGBT citizens into their respective religious communities, both in the pews and from the pulpit: (External Link) and (External Link) .

How do Christians feel about gay marriage? How many Mormons are there in the United States? Check out (External Link) , the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a research institute examining U.S. religious trends.

References

Barrick, Audrey. 2011. “Church Trial Set for Lesbian Methodist Minister.” Christian Post , Feb 15. Retrieved January 22, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

Beck, Edward L. 2010. “Are Gay Priests the Problem?” ABC News/ Good Morning America , April 15. Retrieved January 22, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

Bird, Warren, and Scott Thumma. 2011. “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States.” Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Retrieved February 21, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

Bogan, Jesse. 2009. “America’s Biggest Megachurches.” Forbes.com , June 26. Retrieved February 21, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

Crabtree, Steve, and Brett Pelham. 2009. “What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common.” Gallup World , February 9. Retrieved February 21, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

Hartford Institute for Religion Research a. “Database of Megachurches in the US . ” Retrieved February 21, 2012   ( (External Link) ).

Hartford Institute for Religion Research b. “Megachurch Definition.” Retrieved February 21, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

McKenna, Josephine. 2014. "Catholic Bishops Narrowly Reject a Wider Welcome to Gays, Divorced Catholics." Religion News Service . Retrieved Oct. 27, 2014 ( (External Link) ).

Newport, Frank. 2003. “Americans Approve of Displays of Religious Symbols.” Gallup , October 3. Retrieved February 21, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

Pew Research Forum. 2011. “The Future of the Global Muslim Population.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, January 27. Retrieved February 21, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

Ward, Jon. 2011. “Michele Bachman Says Hurricane and Earthquake Are Divine Warnings to Washington.” Huffington Post , August 29. Retrieved February 21, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

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Source:  OpenStax, Introduction to sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Jan 20, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11762/1.6
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