How Religion Impacts Life & Politics in the U.S. & Great Britain

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  • 00:00 Paradox of Roles
  • 00:40 Official Status in the UK
  • 2:40 Religion in UK Public Life
  • 3:30 Separation of Church…
  • 4:16 Religion in American…
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

In this lesson, we will compare two countries - one with no official religion and the other with an established state church. You would expect religion to play a larger role in public life in the country with the official religion, right? Let's find out why this isn't true.

Paradox of Roles

Few countries have had religion play such an important role in historical development as the United States and United Kingdom. No small part of the United Kingdom's national identity comes from the fact that it removed itself from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII. In fact, one of the titles of the British Monarch is 'Defender of the Faith.'

In the United States, some of our earliest settlers, the Pilgrims, were religious refugees and a number of colonies were havens to religious outcasts. That said, the status of religion in each country is completely different, despite the fact that the roles of religion in public life don't always mirror their official statuses.

Official Status in the UK

For much of English history, being of a religion other than the Anglican faith, known as the Church of England, was cause for concern, even suspicion of treason. This was because the Church of England was established by King Henry VIII because of challenges to his sovereignty over the laws of England. Specifically, he wanted to get divorced and the Pope wouldn't let him.

This secession upset the Pope, who encouraged other European powers, namely the Spanish, to attack England. Spain and England were already rivals, so this new religious element just made the hatred that much stronger. As a result, the monarch of England adopted the title 'Defender of the Faith' as a way of demonstrating that he or she protected not just the government, but the relationship the English had with God.

Thankfully, those days are long gone, but the Anglican Church still maintains itself as the official religion of England. The monarch is required to be Anglican and a number of members of the House of Lords are also bishops of the Anglican Church. The British Parliament has two houses, but unlike the American system, the House of Commons holds most of the power. The House of Lords that the clergy sit in holds relatively little power, but still can be influential. These are known as the Lords Spiritual. In fact, the Anglican Church plays a very important role in the traditions and ceremonies of the country.

Note that we are talking strictly about the Church of England. The Church of Wales is a quasi-independent unit of the Church of England, while the Church of Scotland is completely different. That said, the monarch is still required to take an oath affirming the rights of the Scottish Church upon becoming king or queen.

As for the members of Parliament themselves, there is no firm religious requirement. However, the Conservative Party has traditionally been seen as protecting the rights of the Church of England, while other parties have a more widely-ranging religious makeup. That said, freedom of religion is guaranteed for British citizens.

Religion in the UK Public Life

With such an emphasis on religion in the public sphere, many are surprisingly not religious. When you exclude Northern Ireland, where religion is very much an important part of identity when compared to the Republic of Ireland, a scant majority of British people are not religious. Eighty percent of the remaining half are Christian, but those individuals often only attend church sporadically.

By far the fastest growing religions in the United Kingdom are Islam and Hinduism, again in no small part due to the immigration of individuals from the United Kingdom's former colonies. Combined, these two make up more than six percent of the British population. Despite that, neither Hindus nor Muslims, nor any bishops from outside of England are permitted to sit as Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. This has been a continuing cause of concern as religious demographics in the United Kingdom change.

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