Everyone knows that by any measure Americans are much more religious than Europeans. But have you ever heard anyone discussing how that situation came to be? I think I might have discovered a clue. I have been reading a recent English translation of a book originally written in German about a century ago: Letters of a German American Farmer by Johannes Gillhoff, translated by Richard Lorenz Augus Trost. Link
This is a book adapted from the letters a schoolteacher in the German town of Mecklenburg received from former students who had emigrated to America, mostly to northeastern Iowa. One of the many things that amazed the Germans back home was how involved with the church these new immigrants had become. Most of the poor people in Mecklenburg, including the families from which these immigrants had come, were not very interested in or involved with the church, even though they were forced by law to attend and pay taxes to the church. The reason for that was that the nobility had total control over the hiring and firing of priests and bishops. As a result the church’s theology and social consciousness reflected the needs and desires of the rulers – not the congregation. The result was a quietist version of Christianity that served the interests of the ruling class but did not speak to or for the common folk.
In America the immigrants discovered that there would be no church for their weddings, christenings and funerals unless they built it themselves. Once they built it they discovered they could have total control over how the church was run including the hiring and firing of the ministers. As a result the church, reflecting their interests and needs, became the center of their lives in a way that amazed their relatives back in Germany.
We now hear some American evangelicals talking about the Separation of Church and State as if it were a conspiracy against religion. They seem to think they want a Christian government, like the ones in Europe in the 19th Century, I suppose.
The phrase "Separation of Church and State" was first used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a group of Connecticut Baptist clergy who were worried about state government's persecution of their churches. When that was their concern a complete separation of church and state was exactly what they wanted. Now that they no longer fear persecution by the government they think of that separation as being some sort of attack against them.
Eliminating the Separation of Church and State would be killing the goose that laid the golden egg for American religion.