The United States is a diverse society, and so is
religious life. Christianity is the dominant religion,
around 70 percent of the population belongs to a Christian
denomination. The first Europeans to settle in the United
States came from Protestant countries. This has influenced
The United States does not have a national religious
community. The Constitution forbids the authorities to
establish a church and to interfere in the religious life of
the citizens. Furthermore, the Constitution prohibits the
requirement of religious affiliation in order to hold public
office. The interpretation of this has changed over time.
The last century has been marked by two trends: a stronger
distinction between state and religion, for example in
public schools, and a marked religious language in public
ceremonies and in politics, for example when a new president
Church and State
a long time, the distinction between church and state was
first and foremost the federal government. The states had
different laws and traditions of religion. In 1947, the
Supreme Court ruled that the divide should also apply at the
state level. This had consequences for several cases. The
Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that states could not require
citizens of public office to have a religious belief. In
1962 and 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools
could not include prayer and Bible reading. This distinction
has been upheld in a number of public school matters and
various levels of government.
At the same time, a general form of Christianity stands
strong in public life. This is often referred to as "civil
religion" and mixes a general religious language with
national symbols such as the Declaration of Independence,
the Constitution and various public holidays. Thanksgiving
has been federal holiday day from 1863, while the first
Christmas day became federal holiday day in 1870. During the
Cold War, a more clearly religiously inspired nationalism
emerged. At that time, many believed religious belief was
the most important way to prevent communism from spreading
in the country.
Countryaah data, about 70 percent of the population belongs to a Christian
denomination. About 38 percent of these are Protestants. The
proportion of Protestants has steadily declined since the
1960s. In the peak year of 1957, 71 percent stated that they
The last decades have also been characterized by the rise
of non-religious. From 1948 to 1967, the proportion was one
or two percent. In 2017, 20 percent stated that they had no
These numbers look fierce because religiousness peaked
during the Cold War. But historically, the number of
non-religious is not that high. In 1776, for example, it is
estimated that around 20 percent of the population belonged
to a church. In the 19th century, the numbers increased
steadily, partly due to revivals. In addition, there is not
necessarily a connection between religious affiliation and
religious activity. Often people over-report how active they
Self-reported religious affiliation (percent)
(Pew Religious Landscape Study 2014)
|No affiliation (atheism, agnosticism or
|Protestant (historically black denomination)
|Other world religions
Race and ethnicity
Race and ethnicity play an important role in religious
life in the United States. African-American Christianity
grew on the side of white Christian movements. Immigrants
brought religious traditions from their home country. Most
denominations lost their ethnic profile over time. One
example is the Norwegian Synod. Reformed Church in America,
on the other hand, still has an overwhelming number of
members with Dutch ancestry. Small groups like Amish have
almost isolated themselves from the wider population and
have maintained traditional ways of living.
At times, national laws have promoted immigration from
predominantly white, Protestant countries into Europe. Three
important laws are:
- 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited most
Chinese from coming to the country. It was repealed in
- 1924: National Origins Act tightens immigration from
countries outside Protestant Western Europe.
- 1965: The Immigration and Nationality Act shifted
its focus from national origin to educational level and
Since 1965, immigrants from Latin America, Africa and
Asia have brought their religious tradition, be it Islam,
Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or something else.
Prior to the colonization of North America, the American
indigenous population consisted of a large number of
different cultures with great variation in religious forms.
- North American Indigenous Peoples - Organization
under State Government
- American Indigenous Religion
- North American Indigenous People - Cultural Types
and Cultural Areas
Traditional religion played an important role as the
indigenous people struggled to take back the lands,
resources and culture they had lost to white settlers in the
19th century. The activists reinterpreted traditional
religion and sought to form a common identity with the Ghost
Dance movement of the 1890s led by Wovoka. The participants
tried to drive away white settlers and to recover the lost
areas. The same happened in the 1960s with the rise of the
Chicano movement, the Mexican-American part of the civil
rights movement. More recently, the American Indian Movement
has passed laws protecting the indigenous people's right to
practice traditional religion.
Protestant Christianity has dominated the history of the
United States, since most who came to the colonies in the
northeast were from Protestant countries such as Sweden, the
Netherlands, and England.
England colonized the territories of the East Coast of
the United States from about 1600. Jamestown, Virginia was
formed in 1607 with a desire for financial gain, but
missionary activities on behalf of the Anglican Church were
Other colonies were formed with a conscious religious
purpose. English pilgrims arrived in the Massachusetts Bay
area in 1620. These wanted to form a community where the
church and faith were central and wanted to start a clean
church beyond the control of the Anglican Church. The
Puritans arrived from 1628. The Pilgrims and Puritans formed
close ties between church and state that lasted until the
Other colonies emphasized religious freedom from the
start. Rhode Island was formed after founder Roger Williams
was forced out of Puritan Massachusetts Bay. Another example
was English Quakers, who founded Pennsylvania and emphasized
freedom of belief for all.
American Protestant Christianity has been characterized
by revivals since the 18th century, that is, movements where
people have been convinced that they must repent to God in
order to be saved. Jonathan Edwards, who started the first
great revival from 1734, promoted Calvinist teachings about
predestination. Another important figure was John Wesley. He
broke with Calvinism and is considered one of the founders
Deism was another important direction during this period.
The Deists thought God created the world, but then withdrew.
God would not intervene in history as most Protestants
believed. Some of the most important leaders in the fight
for US independence were deists, including Thomas Jefferson
and Benjamin Franklin.
The second great revival wave began in the early 1800s,
often among the new settlements that moved westward in the
country. Outdoor meetings (camp meetings) attracted
thousands of believers who listened to traveling
evangelists. During this period, Methodist and Baptist
churches experienced great growth. In the wake of the
revival, a number of new faiths arose in the United States,
such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
Jehovah's Witnesses, Adventists, and Christian Science. The
Holiness Movement became popular towards the end of the 19th
century. Frances Willard was one of several feminists based
on the holiness movement.
Around the turn of the century, Protestantism was split
between groups that accepted the new Bible criticism and
those who rejected it. They also disagreed about how
important it was for a Christian to undergo a personal
conversion and often had different political views. The term
" evangelical " had a broader meaning in the past, while it
was now used by Protestants who rejected the
historical-critical method, emphasized the importance of
repentance, and stood for conservative political issues. The
more liberal second group was named "mainline". The split
between these groups was an important contribution to the
monkey process in the 1920s.
The evangelical movement experienced strong growth in the
20th century. Many evangelical Christians belong to more
traditional theological groups, such as Baptists, Methodists
or Lutherans. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest
Protestant denomination in the United States with 15 million
members in 2017. New movements also arose. The Pentecostal
movement grew out of a revival in Azusa Street in Los
Angeles in 1906. At the same time, fundamentalism grew in
urban centers in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and
Evangelical Protestantism has had a flexible and
market-oriented structure and used modern cultural means.
This has led to a distinct celebrity culture driven by mass
media. Stars have attracted thousands of stadium fans, sold
millions of books and formed radio and television stations
to promote their cause. After World War II, Billy Graham
became the most famous evangelical in the world. Graham
represented what was referred to as "evangelical"
Part of the evangelical movement has been characterized
by the theology of progress that claims that financial
prosperity and good health are a sign of God's blessing.
Kenneth Hagin has been an important representative of this.
Unlike many other Christian leaders, Hagin and other
progressive theologians have a relatively large group of
White evangelical Christians are mainly politically
conservative, although a minority of them belong to the
political left. From the 1970s, evangelical Christians
became an important constituency for the Republican Party.
The fighting cases have included resistance to abortion, the
welfare state and communism, as well as support for the
military and demands to reintroduce prayer and Bible reading
in the public school. The Moral Majority group played an
important role in convincing conservative Christians to vote
for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Many also followed the advice of
Catholic Phyllis Schlafly. In 2016, 81 percent of white
evangelical voters voted for President Donald J. Trump.
Churches such as United Methodist Church, United Church
of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, and Evangelical Lutheran
Church of America are considered the "mainline". Many
Liberal Protestants are affiliated with the National Council
of Churches and have worked internationally through the
World Council of Churches. Christian Century
magazine has been a leader in liberal Protestantism. Liberal
Protestants have largely retained a traditional form of
From the end of the 19th century, many were inspired by
Walter Rauschenbusch's "social gospel" (the social gospel).
Theology originated in a time of high immigration,
industrialization and urbanization, and focused on social
and political reforms to promote social justice.
In the mid-1900s, Reinhold Niebuhr was an important
mediator of liberal Protestant values. Some white liberal
Protestants were active in the civil rights movement in the
1950s and 1960s. Liberal Protestants have promoted abortion
rights, sex education in school, the United Nations, the
welfare state, feminism and gay rights.
Liberal churches have experienced great losses in
membership since the 1970s. In the mid-1950s, about half the
population of the United States was affiliated with a
"mainline" denomination. In 2014, the national figure was
14.7 per cent, and there were some regional variations. Some
historians have pointed out that although liberal
Protestantism has lost influence over church life in the
United States, liberal Protestant ideas have come to the
fore politically, such as gender equality, gay rights and
the United Nations.
The Catholic Church has a long history in the area that
is now the United States. During the colonization of North
America, Catholic missionaries were active. From the 1580s,
Franciscan monks from Spain built mission stations in
today's Florida. Spaniards formed mission stations in areas
such as Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. English Catholics
formed Maryland in 1632. In addition, some of the slaves
were probably Catholics.
The number of Catholics in the United States increased in
the mid-1800s due to immigration from Italy and Ireland.
From the 1840s Irish Catholics arrived, and from the 1880s a
large number of Italian Catholics arrived. Many Protestants
feared The Catholic Church would try to take over the
country through immigration. This characterized the
relationship between Catholics and Protestants for a long
time. The 1920s Ku Klux Klan acted against those they
regarded as the Catholic father. In 1960, the United States
got its first Catholic president, Democrat John F. Kennedy.
He had to make it publicly clear that he would not be
governed by the Pope if he became president. The divide
between Catholics and Protestants has narrowed in recent
American Catholics have had different political views.
From the 1960s, Mexican-American civil rights defender Cesar
Chavez represented the left, while Phyllis Schlafly
represented the Conservatives.
The Catholic Church has undergone a demographic shift in
recent decades. According to a survey published by the
Public Religion Research Institute in 2017, 87 percent of
Catholics were white in the early 1990s. In 2016, the
proportion of whites was 55 per cent. This is partly due to
immigration from mainly Catholic countries in Latin America.
In addition, there has been an increase in the number of
Catholic African Americans.
The African-American Christian tradition is diverse in
different directions. Slavery has historically played an
important role in shaping African-American Christianity.
Some of the slaves who arrived in today's United States were
Catholics, while others belonged to Islam and local
religions. Many slave owners tried to convert their slaves
to Christianity, some hoping it would make the slaves more
The slaves formed their own religious groups in hiding.
The story of the Jews' departure from Egypt in Exodus was
given a special role as a model for how to fight oppression.
Some were inspired to revolt. In 1831, preacher Nat Turner
led the most famous and deadliest slave revolt in US
In 1816, former slave Richard Allen formed the first
independent church community for African-American
Christians, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Together with six other
denominations, AME forms the so-called "historic black
church". Just over half (53 percent) of all Americans
reported in 2014 that they belonged to one of these
churches. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were important in the
civil rights movement with Baptist pastor Martin Luther King
as one of the most important front figures.
Many African-Americans belong to the Pentecostal
movement. African-American preacher William J. Seymour, son
of former slaves, played an important role in the revival of
Azuza Street in Los Angeles. Later, the Pentecostal movement
was split between black and white churches, but in recent
times, it has become more common with multicultural
From the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of
African-Americans moved from southern states to
industrialized cities in the north and west. Several
religious figures moved away from the historic church and
offered new forms of religiousness. Some of the migrants
joined the Catholic Church. By 1940, the number of
African-American Catholics was 300,000. By 1975, the number
had more than tripled to over one million. In 2017, the
number was around three million. More recently, popular
Christian African-American Christian leaders have included
progress theologians Creflo Dollar and Thomas Dexter ("TD")
Jakes, who reach a huge audience through mass media.
The majority of African-American Christians support the
The first Orthodox Christians arrived in North America in
1794 when Russian Orthodox missionaries came to what is now
Alaska. Still, Alaska is the state with the most Orthodox
Christians, representing five percent of the population in
2014. Other states had one percent or fewer Orthodox
Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe and Central
Europe arrived in the United States from the 1890s until
1924. They included Greek, Serbian, Romanian and Russian
immigrants who mostly settled in industrialized cities.
Since the 1990s, several Orthodox Christians have come from
the former Soviet Union. In 2014, 40 percent of Orthodox
Christians were first-generation immigrants. 23 per cent
were second generation immigrants. The remaining 36 percent
were at least third-generation immigrants. 81 percent were
white, eight percent African-American, six percent Hispanic,
three percent Asian, and two percent other. 56 percent of
Orthodox Christians in 2014 were men, which breaks with the
usual pattern of religious traditions.
For mange ble Nation of Islam en måte å ta avstand fra et
USA dominert av den hvite befolkningen. De mente
kristendommen var de hvites religion og et virkemiddel i
undertrykkelsen av afrikansk-amerikanerne. Her applauderer
en folkemengde med om lag 10 000 amerikanske muslimer
lederen Elijah Muhammad under et arrangement i Chicago i
Estevanico of Azamor arrived in Florida in 1527 as a
slave in a Spanish expedition, and is often considered the
first Muslim in today's United States. Slavery brought more
Muslims to the country. Historians estimate that between 15
and 20 percent of slaves who arrived between 1619 and 1808
were Muslims, but they disagree on the extent to which
Muslim practice survived slavery. Many Muslim slaves were
well educated and could read and write Arabic, for example
the slave Omar Ibn Said, who in 1831 wrote an autobiography
From the 1870s, Muslim immigrants arrived from countries
such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. These were mainly from
the poor working class. After the 1924 legislative reform
tightened on immigration from countries outside Europe, the
number of Muslim immigrants declined.
From the 1930s, the Nation of Islam flourished in the
African-American population in urban areas in the northern
After the enactment of the immigration laws of 1965,
Muslims arrived mainly from Asia and Africa. These were
often highly educated in disciplines such as medicine and
engineering. Many also came via family reunion.
Americans' views on Islam have been complicated at times.
Some historians have pointed out the similarities between
anti-Catholic currents from the past and today's anti-Muslim
movements. The Iranian revolution of 1979 made the fear of
Islam an important part of the political conversation.
Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy on November
4, 1979, holding US diplomats captive for 444 days. After
the Cold War, many have considered Islam one of America's
most important enemies. The terrorist attacks of September
11, 2011, built up during this thinking. President Donald J.
Trump has tried to restrict immigration from Muslim
Jewish history in the United States dates back to the
mid-17th century. In 2014, 1.9 percent of Americans were
Jews, while in the states of New Jersey and New York, there
were six and seven percent, respectively. The city of New
York has a large Jewish population, especially in Brooklyn,
where there is a large group of Orthodox Jews.
Chinese immigrants brought Buddhism to the west coast of
the United States in the 1840s. Many of them settled in San
Francisco. From the 1880s, several Japanese arrived in the
United States to build railways. Several of them were
Buddhists. The number of Buddhist immigrants went down after
1882. At the same time, many in Transcendentalism were
preoccupied with Buddhism.
After 1965, the number of Buddhist immigrants increased
again. In 2014, 26 percent of American Buddhists were
first-generation immigrants and 22 percent second-generation
In 2014, around 0.7 percent of Americans belonged to
Buddhism, while in the state of Hawaii, eight percent of the
population were Buddhists. One reason for this is the large
proportion of Japanese ancestors. Most Buddhists in the
United States live in major cities.
Hinduism is primarily related to immigration after 1965.
In 2014, 0.7 percent of Americans were Hindus. 87 percent of
them were first-generation immigrants. Most of them live in
larger cities and have higher education. Many Hindus work as
doctors, nurses and engineers. From the 1960s, Hare Krishna
has seen some growth in the United States also among
Americans without Indian background.
However, Hinduism has characterized the history of the
United States in the past. Towards the end of the 19th
century, many transcendentalists were preoccupied with
Hinduism. Hindu mystic Svami Vivekananda visited the United
States in 1893 during the Parliament of the World Religions
and introduced Hinduism to a wider audience.
The White House has marked the Divali festival since
Some historians believe that religious traditions that
originated in the 19th century, such as Jehovah's Witnesses,
can be regarded as neo-religious movements since they
founded and presented new versions of Christian tradition.
Others define neo-religiousness as movements that emerged
towards the end of the 19th century in contrast or
alternatives to Western traditions and which were often
based on occultism and Eastern traditions.
Renal religiosity became a mass phenomenon from the 1960s
and 1970s when there was a growing interest in new
religions. The interest had different expressions. Some
participated in a more diffuse neo-religiousness where
astrology, occultism and novelty were part of various
combinations. Others joined organized movements, such as:
- transcendental meditation
- Children of God
- Hare the Krishna movement
- People's Temple
- Esalen Institute
Parts of the neo-religious movement from the 1980s took
the form of the New Age movement.