The History of Religious Conflicts in America
Throughout its history, the United States has characteristically remained a country of two things: a country of immigrants, and a country of unmatched religious diversity. And yet when compared with the rest of the world – where these two very factors alone have so often engendered horrible religious wars and decades of enduring conflict – the history of religious conflict in the United States seems almost nonexistent.
That is not to say the United States has been immune to its share of conflict explicitly rooted in religion. This paper explores the various manifestations of religious conflict throughout the history of the United States, from the Revolutionary War to the attacks of September 11th and their fallout. A distinction is drawn between religious intolerance, which is not the focus of this paper, and outright religious persecution or violence. Similarly, the paper reflects efforts made to de-conflate religious conflict from ethnic and racial conflict, which has been much more prominent throughout the history of the United States. In examining the history of religious violence, intolerance, discrimination, and persecution in the United States, we arrive at some possible explanations for why the United States has seen such minimal religious conflict despite being so religiously diverse.
It has been said that the United States is a nation founded on religious conflict. The colonies were settled by those escaping religious persecution in Europe. There is even some evidence that religion played a major role in the American Revolution and that revolutionaries believed it was willed by God for the Americans to wage war against the British.
As the Church of England was striving to establish one, uniform religion across the kingdom, colonial America was divided, each of the colonies being dominated by their own brand of Christianity. Due to the distance from England and the room in the colonies, many religions were able to establish themselves in America, colony by colony. For example, Anglicans, who conformed to the Church of England, populated Virginia. Massachusetts was home to the Puritans. Pennsylvania was full of Quakers. Baptists ruled in Rhode Island. And Roman Catholics found a haven in Maryland, where they could establish themselves amid the other colonists’ protestant majority. Each of these colonies maintained a distinct religious character and favored one religious denomination’s power.
The American colonists saw the revolution not only as a war for political independence, but to protect the religious diversity of the thirteen colonies. Put in other terms, it was a war for religious independence and freedom. To sever ties with Mother England would be to ensure that the various Christian denominations could co-exist on the American continent. The conflict was, in part, a conflict that pitted the various American religious denominations against the...