America is many things to many people – but the role of religion in its political agenda can often leave people on this side of the Atlantic bemused.
From every presidential candidate needing to openly demonstrate a deep religious zeal – to its influence on the huge swathe of states in which abortion is now illegal.
But did that bedrock of faith in God in American society originate – in part at least – as a consequence of men and women from Kent?
Because a number from Canterbury were among those who would later become known as the Pilgrim Fathers. Those who boarded – or at least co-ordinated – the hire of the Mayflower upon which they set sail from England to America.
They endured a horrific journey, were almost wiped out within weeks of arriving and survived only by forging friendships with the Native Americans who occupied the lands on which they arrived.
Which begs the question: did the arrival of these fiercely religious people in 1620 – more than 400 years ago – provide the bedrock of the fervour which still exists today?
“Something like 35 million people can trace their descendants back to those on the Mayflower – so I think you can say that,” explains Kent historian Martin Crowther, who casually mentions a former US president being among them.
“What they carried over there was a very particular sort of Puritan religion. There are probably lots of reasons why America is a much more religious country today than, say the UK, but there’s no doubt it played a part in that.”
Perhaps it is fitting that many people who made the journey came from the very heart of the Church of England – Canterbury.
The city has even made a – potentially rather dubious – claim of being where the deal to secure the famous vessel was signed.
So why did they make such a journey in the first place to an emerging nation so far away?
A very quick history lesson first. A little over 100 years earlier, in a fit of pique over the Pope not allowing him to annul one of his marriages, Henry VIII decided to split from the Catholic Church.
He created the Church of England and instead of the Pope being at its head he found someone much better suited – himself.
This was, of course, an era where religion was all-powerful and restrictive. Not all shared the way in which it was delivered.
Among them were the Puritans – members of a religious reform movement who were disgruntled over the way the Church of England operated. Among its gripes were the hierarchy it had of bishops and archbishops – and of many of the ceremonies which it had carried over from the Roman Catholic traditions.
The Puritans felt all people in the eyes of God were equal and that they should follow the words of the Bible more closely.
But this was not an era where dissent of the Church was tolerated. The Church of England was a powerful and domineering force. Everyone was expected to follow its teachings and attend church services. Failure to do so could see you arrested.
But not everyone agreed with the direction in which it was headling.
Robert Cushman was one of them. He fell foul of the authorities on several occasions for distributing pamphlets – many of which he posted on the doors of the city’s churches – highlighting his concerns. Historical records show he was hauled before the courts as a consequence on a number of occasions and at one stage imprisoned in the city's Westgate Towers.
Born in Rolvenden, near Ashford, he moved to work in Canterbury as an apprentice to a tallow (rendered animal fat) candle maker.
He felt the Church of England was, among other things, “wanting and defective”.
He became a major player in the necessarily-secretive world of the Puritans.
Mr Crowther says: “They were looking to get away from the very restricted religious opportunities in this country.
“There was clearly a very strong community of Puritans in Canterbury at the time. It makes me think they were more persecuted – perhaps because its right on the doorstep of the mother church of the Church of England.”
Finding themselves increasingly forced to go underground, a number of the Puritans from the city moved to Sandwich around 1600 while they sought a vessel to take them to Holland where they hoped for more tolerance.
Within ten years, Cushman, his wife and children and a number of others headed to Leiden – just north of Rotterdam.
But there he lost his wife and two children and had grown somewhat disillusioned with life in the Netherlands. By 1617 he was back in Canterbury – this time planning to set sail to the New World.
At the time, the country had a number of settlers of various nationalities dotted around its vast mainland.
Cushman struck a deal to both be allowed to settle and help colonise the east coast of America for the British, but also agreed to hire boats to get them there.
It is claimed he signed the deal for the Mayflower and another vessel, the Speedwell, at a property in Palace Street – where Cafe Chambers now stands. A picture of the Mayflower is still displayed on the outside of the building.
Mr Crowther, however, is rather unconvinced by the claim.
He explains: “It was a huge undertaking arranging these ships and the permissions needed and Cushman was central to that.
“It is claimed he signed the deal to hire the Mayflower in Palace Street but there’s no proof whatsoever.
“I’ve spoken to lots of people and there’s simply no evidence of that. If you were going to hire a vessel it would be done in London or Southampton.”
Instead, he suggests, the legend may have been created in the 1970s by the owner of the cafe which once stood on the site as it was “good for custom”.
Regardless, when the vessels set sail from Plymouth, the Speedwell was on course to create history. But, 300 miles in, it was considered unseaworthy and returned to port.
The Mayflower, now rammed with more than 100 people after having to take on the Speedwell passengers too, took more than two months to make the crossing. Battered by storms, a number died en-route. Cushman, however, was absent. He had been on the Speedwell but become ill and was too sick to travel on the Mayflower.
Rather than arriving at their aimed for destination of the River Hudson in what is today New York, they instead were blown further north – touching down on what is now Cape Cod.
With fertile land, they decide there was as good as any.
Teenager Mary Chilton, daughter of Canterbury couple James (who at 64 was the oldest of the Pilgrims) and Susannah, was the first, legend has it, to touch foot on American soil on what is now known as Plymouth Rock.
However, they had plenty of challenges. They had arrived during the winter and the conditions were harsh. The women and children were forced to continue living on the boat as the men – who formed relationships with the Native Americans on whom they relied to help them build shelters and grow crops – established the settlement.
Disease and ill health also killed many – including both Mary’s parents – within months of arriving.
Cushman arrived in 1621 with his son Thomas, who he left with the settlers. He returned to England where he continued to play a vital role.
Mr Crowther adds: “The settlers were still very short of money and supplies for quite a number of years, so he came back to London to raise money and persuade others to join them, all in the hope it would be a great success.”
But as Cushman planned a return to the colony he died in 1625. He was 48 and was buried in Benenden.
Mary Chilton lived until she was 71. Her descendants are believed to include both George and George W Bush – both presidents.
Philippe de Lanoy, born in Holland, was a teenager when his family left with the Puritans to live in Canterbury before boarding the Speedwell.
He would go on to change his name to Philip Delano and marry into the Cooke family – another who had spent time in Canterbury.
They would be the root of what would become one of America’s foremost families. Future generations would include US presidents Franklin D (for Delano) Roosevelt, Ulysses S Grant and Calvin Coolidge.
Yet despite all the challenges those Puritan settlers faced, their colony would become a success. Their numbers grew as did they influence on the region. All supported by a strong religious backbone.
After their first harvest they celebrated by holding a special Thanksgiving ceremony – the traditional which continues to this day in the US.
Concludes Mr Crowther: “The Pilgrims wanted religious freedom and freedom in general and that view continues today in America. Whether you call it healthy or unhealthy today, there remains a very strong disregard and suspicion for authority in America today.”