In the countries from which the American colonists emigrated, the dominant values of the nation were often supported by an organized national church. American Protestants made certain that no organized national church would exist in their young country.
Americans, however, have developed a number of informal practices that combine national patriotism with religion. A number of scholars have referred to these practices as the "national religion" of the United States. The main function of this national religion is to provide support for the dominant values of the nation. Thus, it does in an informal and less organized way what nationally organized churches did for European nations in earlier times.
The informal national religion in the United States mixes patriotism with religious ideas in songs and in ceremonies that proclaim God's blessing on America, its basic values, and its actions as a nation. The national religion can be observed on many occasions when Americans gather together — on national holidays, at political conventions, and especially at sports events. Before a ball game, the players and fans stand up for the national anthem, and sometimes a religious leader will offer a prayer. This practice is taken so seriously that in 1996, the National Basketball Association (NBA) actually suspended a professional basketball player who refused to stand during the national anthem.
The NBA stated that he could not play in games unless he agreed to follow their rule requiring players to stand in a respectful manner during the national anthem.
Patriotic songs such as "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful," and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" are as well known to most Americans as their national anthem. These songs are sung frequently on public occasions and may also be sung at Protestant worship services, expressing the idea that the United States has received God's special blessing. Expressions of the national religion can also be seen when the United States sends military forces overseas; the Gulf War provided good examples of the mixing of prayer and patriotism.
Some observers of American society believe that the various practices that are called the national religion can have harmful effects. Sometimes these practices can help to create a climate in
which disagreement with current national practices is discouraged or not tolerated. In the 1960s, for example, some citizens considered the young people who protested against the war in Vietnam to be "un-American." They told the young protesters, "America — love it or leave it." This phrase became a slogan that illustrated their excessive patriotism.
When the national religion helps to create a climate that encourages excessive conformity with prevailing national practices, it can have a harmful effect. However, it usually serves a different function: to express the belief of most Americans that it is important to be a nation of people who believe in God and are loved and protected by God.
The earliest Protestant settlers believed that by coming to America, they were carrying out God's plan. This belief gave them confidence that they would succeed. Today, Americans still need to believe that their nation will continue to succeed, and the national religion helps to answer this need by reminding them of their religious heritage. It is a means of maintaining their national self-confidence in a rapidly changing world.
America's Protestant heritage seems to have encouraged certain basic values that members of many diverse non-Protestant faiths find easy to accept. This has helped to unite many different religious groups in the United States without requiring any to abandon their faiths. Cultural and religious pluralism has also created a context of tolerance that further strengthens the American reality of many different religions living peacefully within a single nation.