The variety of religious beliefs in the United States surpasses the nation’s multitude of ethnicities, nationalities, and races, making religion another source of diversity rather than a unifying force. This is true even though the vast majority of Americans—83 percent—identify themselves as Christian. One-third of these self-identified Christians are unaffiliated with any church. Moreover, practicing Christians belong to a wide variety of churches that differ on theology, organization, programs, and policies. The largest number of Christians in the United States belong to one of the many Protestant denominations—groups that vary widely in their beliefs and practices. Roman Catholics constitute the next largest group of American Christians, followed by the Eastern Orthodox.
Most Christians in America are Protestant, but hundreds of Protestant denominations and independent congregations exist. Many of the major denominations, such as Baptists, Lutherans, and Methodists, are splintered into separate groups that have different ideas about theology or church organization. Some Protestant religious movements, including Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, cut across many different Protestant organizations.
Roman Catholics, the next largest religious group in the United States, are far more unified than Protestants. This is due in part to Roman Catholicism’s hierarchical structure and willingness to allow a degree of debate within its ranks, even while insisting on certain core beliefs. The Eastern Orthodox Church, the third major group of Christian churches, is divided by national origin, with the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church being the largest of the branches in the United States.
Among many Protestant denominations, blacks and whites generally maintain distinct organizations and practices, or at least separate congregations. Even among Roman Catholics the residential segregation in American society produces separate parishes and parish schools.
Judaism is the next largest religion in the United States, with about 2 percent of the population in 2001. It is also divided into branches, with the largest being Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative. Other religions practiced in America include Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Islam is among the fastest-growing religious groups; its members were just about 1 percent of the U.S. population in 2001.
Large numbers of Americans do not have a religious view of the world–some 8 percent are nonreligious, secular, or are atheists; that is, they do not believe in a god or gods. Adding these to the nonpracticing Christian population means that slightly more than a quarter of the American population is unaffiliated with any church or denomination. This mixture of multiple religious and secular points of view existed from the beginning of European colonization.
This emphasis on conformity led some members to break away and move to new colonies. Roger Williams, a Puritan clergyman, founded the colony of Rhode Island after being expelled from Massachusetts in 1635 because he disagreed with the colonial government. There he established the principles of separation of church and state, religious toleration for all, and freedom of religious expression. After 1680 Puritans were forced by changes in English law to tolerate other Christian churches in their midst, but taxes still went to the established church. Massachusetts did not achieve separation of church and state until 1833, the last state in the union to do so.
The slaves the southern settlers brought into the colonies were usually non-Christian, although a few had been baptized as Roman Catholic. Colonists felt free to enslave Africans because they were not Christians. For the first century of slavery, from the early 17th century to the early 18th century, most Southern states made it a crime to baptize slaves, because slaveholders feared they would have to free slaves if they became their brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the first half of the 18th century, missionaries from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts were able to baptize some slaves as Anglicans. Many slaves, however, became Baptists or Methodists rather than Anglicans like their owners. Because Baptists and Methodists did not insist on the freeing of slaves, plantation owners were persuaded to change laws forbidding the Christianization of slaves. Special Bibles written for slaves stressed obedience. Slaves created hymns and a theology of freedom, however, to counter the proslavery lessons of white preachers. Over time, separate black religions developed among slaves that combined some elements of African practice with Baptist and Methodist theology.
The wider toleration in the middle colonies promoted the free expression of a variety of religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices, a social order thought to be impossible among Europeans who were used to centuries of religious warfare. This toleration encouraged both ethnic and religious diversity. These colonies provided a model for the later religious tradition of the United States—a slow realization that the freedom to express one’s own faith depended on granting that same liberty to others.
Freedom of religion helped produce religious revivals that transformed the American religious landscape. The First Great Awakening began among the Presbyterians in New Jersey and western Massachusetts, and with the newer denominations of Baptists and Methodists in the 1730s. This period of heightened concern with salvation lasted until the eve of the American Revolution in the 1760s. In individual congregations, in colleges, and in mass outdoor meetings, revivalists preached that all could be born again and saved, and that anyone could preach, not just an educated elite. The Great Awakening was instrumental in converting slaves as well as free people.
The Great Awakening set the stage for the American Revolution by undermining faith in traditional authority, particularly the authority of the Church of England and the king, who was head of the church. In the early days of the movement, working men, women, and African Americans took prominent roles as Bible teachers and prayer group leaders. Working men, in particular, acquired leadership experience that propelled them into political roles during and after the American Revolution.
The atmosphere of free inquiry in the United States allowed new religions to develop. In the wake of the Revolution, American Anglicans broke with the Church of England and founded the Episcopal Church. American Roman Catholics also broke from the control of the vicar apostolic in London, and in 1789 Baltimore became the first diocese in the United States. American Unitarians and Universalists also had their origins in the 18th century, but did not develop denominational structures until the 19th century.
A Second Great Awakening began in New York in the early 1800s and spread north, south, and west before disappearing in the 1840s. Tent meetings that were a part of this revival movement brought together spellbinding preachers and large audiences, who camped for several days to immerse themselves in the heady atmosphere of religion. The movement merged democratic idealism with evangelical Christianity, arguing that America was in need of moral regeneration by dedicated Christians. The men and the large number of women who were attracted to this movement channeled their fervor into a series of reforms designed to eliminate evils in American society, particularly in the industrializing North. These reforms included women’s rights, temperance, educational improvements, humane treatment for the mentally ill, and the abolition of slavery. The growth of an abolitionist movement in the North was one factor leading to the Civil War. Just before the Civil War, many of the denominations in the United States split over the issue of slavery, with Southern congregations supporting slavery and Northern congregations opposing it.
African Americans, finding that segregation and race hatred prevailed among Methodists, formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City early in the 19th century. Both churches established branches throughout the North. Separate African Episcopal, Lutheran, and Baptist churches soon followed.
The United States has been the birthplace of a number of new Christian sects. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, organized in 1830 by Mormon religious leader Joseph Smith, has been successful in creating a lasting denominational presence and in influencing the development of the state of Utah. Others, such as the Millerites, who predicted the end of the world in 1844, have not lasted. Some of Miller’s former followers reinterpreted his doctrines and established the Seventh-day Adventist faith in the mid-19th century. In 1879, Mary Baker Eddy founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, and soon had congregations throughout the country. In the early 20th century, the Pentecostal movement developed. It is a localized, stricter fundamentalist faith that grew out of Baptist and Methodist churches, and is often organized around a charismatic preacher. Americans seeking solutions to spiritual problems have created smaller denominations.
Not all new religions were Christian. The major branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—developed in the United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries in response to the social and political conditions that Jews faced in America. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, known as Madame Blavatsky, help found a spiritualist group in the 1870s called the Theosophical Society. The Nation of Islam, a black Muslim group, was founded in the 1930s in reaction to perceived lingering prejudices of Christianity, and was led for more than 40 years by Elijah Muhammad. It became a political force in the 1960s, rejecting the passive resistance strategy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and advocating a more aggressive assertion of African American equality that did not rule out violence.
One result of the Fundamentalist movement was a series of state laws in the 1920s banning the teaching of the theory of evolution. Fundamentalists saw this theory as contrary to a literal reading of the biblical account of creation. These laws led to the highly publicized Scopes trial in 1925, in which the state of Tennessee prosecuted biology teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution. Scopes was convicted and fined $100 (the state supreme court later reversed the ruling). The negative public response to the creationist point of view helped weaken Fundamentalist influence and promoted a more secular, scientific curriculum in many of the nation’s schools.
Perhaps the high point of religious influence on American society and government came with the prohibition, or temperance, movement that gained popularity in the last half of the 19th century. Church meetings that rallied against the evil effects of drunkenness sometimes led parishioners to march to saloons, which they attempted to close through prayer or violence. The movement led to the formation of the Anti-Saloon League of America, which endorsed political candidates and helped pass state laws banning saloons. In 1919 the league, along with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, succeeded in passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol, and a federal law, the Volstead Act of 1920, to enforce the amendment. Americans eventually became disillusioned with the law because federal enforcement tactics sometimes trampled on civil liberties, and because Prohibition fed the growth of organized crime and political corruption. Additionally, consumption of alcohol did not diminish; among some groups, especially women, consumption actually increased. The amendment was repealed in 1933.
The speakeasies, nightclubs, cocktails, and portable flasks of liquor that had become popular during Prohibition promoted a culture that rejected puritanical ideas. This freethinking culture was made even more glamorous in the early 20th century by the emerging motion picture industry. Although conservative religious groups were able to establish censorship standards in film, the movies and the private lives of movie stars promoted the acceptability of sexual freedom, easy divorce, and self-indulgence.
After World War II, religion was influential in American society in a variety of ways. When the Soviet Union became identified with "godless communism” during the Cold War, many Americans saw the United States as a protector of religion. The phrase, “under God,” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s so that the public would commit themselves at public events to living in “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s drew its leadership from black religious groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Nation of Islam, a black religious group, promoted a more radical black separatist movement. Liberal, white congregations played supporting roles in the drive for racial equality.
Many churches were active in the movement for peace during the Vietnam War (1959-1975), and religious groups took strong positions on whether abortion should be legal. Also during the 1960s, Roman Catholic activists and liberal Protestant groups worked for integration, workers rights, and peace.
During the 1950s the Beat movement sparked an interest in Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Daoism, and Zen Buddhism, that continued into the 1960s. A small number of Americans joined ashrams (religious communities) and other alternative religious groups. Meditation and yoga were widely practiced. These relaxation techniques, as well as acupuncture, have become increasingly valuable parts of modern medical practice.
The influence of socialist ideas among college students in the 1960s promoted antireligious viewpoints and lifestyles vastly different from those extolled by religious conservatives. These students promoted women’s rights, gay rights, legalized contraception and abortion, moderate drug use, and alternative living arrangements. They contributed to advances in many of these movements, although their most radical lifestyle experiments did not survive the early 1970s. In response to the dominance of these secular ideals on college campuses, conservatives organized the Campus Crusade for Christ, which became a training ground for conservative politicians who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, televangelists, Fundamentalist ministers who preach on television shows, began to influence American politics. They were generally opposed to abortion (and sometimes contraception), to sexual freedom and easy divorce, to single parenthood, and to high taxes supporting social programs. They were in favor of traditional family structures and a strong anticommunist foreign policy. Their conservative messages and political endorsements helped elect Republican candidates. Regardless of their efforts, however, by the end of the 20th century, the political influence of religious movements had diminished.
Although religion has been influential, the United States remains a secular society rooted in the rational Enlightenment ideals of tolerance, liberty, and individualism. The media and schools generally steer clear of religious issues, and religious toleration and freedom of expression remain widely held values that transcend the multiplicity of beliefs and values.
European immigrants also sometimes faced religious intolerance. Roman Catholics suffered from popular prejudice, which turned violent in the 1830s and lasted through the 1850s. Americans feared that the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church was incompatible with democracy. Many felt that separate parochial schools meant that Roman Catholics did not want to become Americans. Irish Catholics were thought to be lazy and prone to heavy drinking. At its peak, the nativist movement—which opposed foreigners in the United States—called for an end to Catholic immigration, opposed citizenship for Catholic residents, and insisted that Catholic students be required to read the Protestant Bible in public schools. The nativist American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothings because of the secrecy of its members, won a number of local elections in the early 1850s, but disbanded as antislavery issues came to dominate Northern politics.
In the early part of the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan sought a Protestant, all-white America. The Klan was a white supremacist organization first formed in the 1860s. It was reorganized by racists in imitation of the popular movie The Birth of a Nation (1915), which romanticized Klansmen as the protectors of pure, white womanhood. The Klan preached an antiblack, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic message and sometimes used violence to enforce it. Burning crosses, setting fires, and beating, raping, and murdering innocent people were among the tactics used. Many Protestant congregations in the South and in the Midwest supported the Klan. The Klan attracted primarily farmers and residents of small towns who feared the diversity of the nation’s large cities. Anti-Catholic feelings reappeared during the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Alfred E. Smith in 1928 and in the 1960 presidential campaign, in which John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president.
Jews were subjected to anti-Semitic attacks and discriminatory legislation and practices from the late 19th century into the 1960s. The Ku Klux Klan promoted anti-Semitic beliefs, there was an anti-Semitic strain in the isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s, and the popular radio sermons of Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, spread paranoid fears of Jewish conspiracies against Christians. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the target of anti-Semitic attacks, despite the fact that he was not a Jew. Both the fight against fascism during World War II and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s helped to diminish anti-Semitism in the United States. Court decisions and civil rights legislation removed the last anti-Jewish quotas on college admissions, ended discrimination in corporate hiring, and banned restrictive covenants on real estate purchases. Far right-wing movements at the end of the 20th century have revived irrational fears of Jewish plots and promoted anti-Semitic statements, as have some African American separatist groups. However, right-wing militias and Klan groups have paid less attention to American Jews than to African Americans, homosexuals, and conspiracies allegedly funded by the federal government.
In the 1990s, the demise of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” (as President Ronald Reagan named it in 1983) left a void in American political life that has been partially filled by a sporadic antagonism towards certain Muslim nations. Foreign policy crises have coincided with an influx of Muslims into the United States and popular revulsion at the antiwhite rhetoric of the American Nation of Islam. An oil crisis created in the 1970s when Arab oil-producing nations raised prices astronomically triggered anti-Arab, anti-Muslim diatribes in the United States. International crises in the Middle East during the 1980s continued these sentiments. There were outbursts of anti-Muslim feeling during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), and many Muslims felt the war was an attack on Islam rather than a dispute with the government of Iraq. This sense that U.S. policy was attacking the Islamic faith was a factor when the World Trade Center in New York City was bombed in 1993 and destroyed in 2001.
American ideals of religious toleration and freedom of conscience have not always been endorsed in particular cases and in certain periods of American history, but the goal of inclusiveness and liberty remains an important theme in the development of the United States.