American Christians are good people

United States

Dirk Laabs

To person

Dirk Laabs is a filmmaker and author, among others for the "Los Angeles Times" and "Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung". He was trained at the Henri Nannen School of Journalism. His TV features and documentaries have already won several awards and broadcast on various television channels. Laabs is the author of the documentary "Mit Gott gegen Alle" and co-author of the book "Fatal Mistakes - the mistakes of the secret services before September 11, 2001".

The Importance of Religion in the United States

"In God We Trust": Americans' belief in God can be read on every dollar bill. Every second person visits a house of prayer at least once a week - churches in Germany can only dream of that. Religion is an important part of public life in the USA: It shaped the identity of society and held the growing nation together with its immigrants from all over the world.

Early fall foliage frames Stowe Community Church in Stowe, Vermont. (& copy AP)

When you start a trip in the USA, for example in New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Las Vegas, religion does not seem to play a role in public life at first glance. No St. Peter's Basilica towers over the skyline, no Notre Dame the city center. Banks and boutiques dominate New York, Las Vegas casinos, small malls and large film studios in Los Angeles. The TV channels are mainly used for advertising and the "Star Spangled Banner" flutters above everything. In this country patriotism, consumption and money seem to be the priorities, religion on the other hand to play a subordinate role. But if you pay for your first coffee and take a closer look at the dollar bills, you will discover the motto "In God We Trust" on the back.

Since the times of the American Civil War in the middle of the 19th century, coins with this slogan began to be minted. In 1957, the US Congress decided not only to print the sentence on every banknote, but also to make it the official national motto. The Soviets should know that higher powers operated for the Americans in the Cold War. However, the phrase is not an empty phrase: in fact, the majority of the people in the United States trust God. In 2008, according to a Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans believed in God, and another 15 percent believed in a "universal spirit." And every second person visits a house of prayer at least once a week - churches in Germany can only dream of that.

Religion as part of US identity

A firm belief has shaped the lives of Americans since the founding of the United States in the 18th century. Many of the first settlers had fled their European home countries because they had been persecuted there because of their religion. That shouldn't be repeated. According to the Bill of Rights 1789, one's own religion must be able to be practiced in the USA under all circumstances without interference from the state. The state has to stay out of religion; There must be no state-controlled churches. But belief was not a purely private matter: It shaped the identity of American society and held the dynamically growing nation together with its immigrants from all over the world.

On a long train journey through America, for example, the sociologist Max Weber met an undertaker in 1904 and asked him why belief was so important to Americans. The businessman replied, "Sir, if it were up to me, anyone could believe or not believe whatever they want. But if I met a farmer or businessman who didn't belong to any church, I wouldn't even trust him, if if it were 50 cents. Why should he pay me if he doesn't believe in anything? "

Belief matters, not direction

The main thing is that you believe, no matter which church you belong to: Because of this creed, no single denomination could prevail in the USA. No US government has ever dared to defy the constitution and found a state church. There is also no religious umbrella organization; the religious scene is fragmented. Over half of Americans are Protestants. But they are spread over many different church communities: There are Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, among others. None of these churches unite more than ten percent of Protestants.

Almost like in the market economy, the churches compete for believers, since no church taxes are levied and they have to live on donations. New churches are constantly emerging. The most successful congregations build "megachurches", large magnificent buildings that can accommodate several thousand believers at once. Changing churches is completely normal in the USA: President George W. Bush did it, Barack Obama did it several times. There is no church in the USA that could claim any kind of moral leadership. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest single church, but only unites a quarter of Americans.

The future US President George W. Bush speaks at a meeting of the Christian-conservative Christian Coalition of America (CCA). (& copy AP)

Over a third of Americans "born again"

When George W. Bush was elected US president in 2000, however, it seemed as if a group of believers would prevail: the evangelicals or "born again" Christians. Over 40 percent of Americans feel they are "born again." So they firmly believe in the Bible and had some kind of conversion or rebirth experience, through which, in their opinion, a personal relationship with Jesus was created. Bush himself is an avowed born again Christian. The evangelicals were his most important group of voters in both elections won: every third Bush voter described himself as evangelical. The majority of born again Christians - approximately 23 percent of the total population - claim that the Bible should be taken literally in society as a whole. In doing so, they are reviving the doctrine of the fundamentalists, who in the late 19th century, as a reaction to the modern age, demanded that social action be derived only from the Bible. The movement received a new boost in response to the sexual revolution and civil rights movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Most of these fundamentalist Christians are against gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research. But these believers do not belong to a single church. The evangelicals make themselves heard through their own television stations, newspapers and radio stations. However, US researchers such as Georgetown politics professor Clyde Wilcox emphasize that the assumed influence of evangelicals on US politics and President Bush is exaggerated. According to Wilcox, a distinction has to be made between rhetoric and political action: "The neoconservatives got the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from Bush. The entrepreneurs also prevailed: taxes were cut several times. The religious conservatives, on the other hand, can hardly show any similar successes Bush initially supported a constitutional initiative to ban gay marriage, but did not speak about it again until two years later - shortly before the next election. Evangelicals as a social movement have been trying to influence our politics for thirty years - compared to other civil rights movements it was spectacularly unsuccessful When it comes to the fight against gay and women's rights, they haven't made up a meter of ground, on the contrary. "