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 American culture.
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 is inaugurated.
Church and State
For 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.
According to 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 were Protestants.
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 religious affiliation.
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 are.
Self-reported religious affiliation (percent)
(Pew Religious Landscape Study 2014)
|No affiliation (atheism, agnosticism or otherwise)
|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 1943.
- 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 family reunification.
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 common.
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 1830s.
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 of Methodism.
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 Philadelphia.
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” Christianity.
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 non-white Americans.
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 worship.
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 percent, 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 decades.
According to thesciencetutor, 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 percent. 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 obedient.
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 history.
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 Pentecostal churches.
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 Democratic Party.
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 Christians.
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 percent 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 1975.
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 in Arabic.
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 states.
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 countries.
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 immigrants.
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 2003.
- Visit abbreviationfinder.org for business, geography, history, politics, and society of United States. Also find most commonly used abbreviations and acronyms about this country.
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.