American Culture

Religion

The United States is a secular nation, meaning there is a formal separation between state and religious entities. Society is underpinned by the strong principle of religious freedom that emphasises people’s liberty to worship any religion and to not favour one religion over another. This is evident in the First Amendment which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Ultimately, there is a strong pluralist belief that various religious groups should be allowed to maintain and develop their faith and/or beliefs within the common society. 


While the country is highly religiously diverse, the American national identity and patriotism is often linked to Christianity. Some examples include the public religious rhetoric of ‘God Bless America’ or the statement ‘In God We Trust’ found on the currency. This blend of religion and patriotism may also be observed during major American holidays, such as Fourth of July ceremonies or Thanksgiving.


The United States census does not contain questions about one’s religious affiliation. However, various institutions have conducted surveys to determine the religious demographic of the country. According to the Pew Research Center (2014), Christianity is the largest religious affiliation at 70.6%. Non-Christian religions made up 5.9% of the population, of which 1.9% identified as Jewish, 0.9% identified as Muslim, 0.7% identified as Buddhist and 0.7% identified as Hindu.1 Finally, 22.8% identified as unaffiliated, which includes agnostics (4.0%) and atheists (3.1%).2


Religious Diversity and Pluralism

Religious diversity has been a prominent feature of America’s religious landscape since the precolonial period among Native American religious traditions. There was no national or state religion established during the colonial period (although some individual states adopted official state churches). This religious freedom allowed for the flourishing of different Christian sects, communities and movements during the country’s colonial phase. Indeed, numerous Christian denominations and churches began in the United States, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormonism).


America’s religious diversity is also a product of immigration, such as the waves of Jewish immigrants due to their persecution in the nineteenth century onwards. Many new Americans migrated to the country following the end of the national quotas in the 1960s, introducing new religions and new expressions of Christianity to American society.


The religiously unaffiliated also contribute to the pluralism and diversity of America’s religious landscape. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the number of religiously unaffiliated (including atheists and agnostics) has tripled in size since the early 1990s, accounting for just under a quarter of the population (22.8%).3 America is home to the ‘New Atheism’ movement sparked by atheist writers (e.g. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). The presence of American atheism (especially New Atheists) is largely active on major internet platforms. One of the largest atheist communities is found on Reddit (approximately 2 million followers), which acts as a hub for atheists in America and globally.4


Christianity in the United States

Christianity has been the most prevalent and influential religion in American society since its introduction during the colonial period. For instance, while non-Christian religious groups are growing, they represent less than 6% of the population.5 However, it is important to note that Christianity in America is incredibly diverse. Of the 70.6% of Americans who affiliate with Christianity, 46.6% identify with a Protestant denomination, 20.8% identify as Catholic, 1.6% identify with the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, 0.8% as Jehovah’s Witness, 0.5% identify as Orthodox and 0.4% identify with some other kind of Christianity.6 Protestant denominations are further categorised among those who identify with an ‘Evangelical’ tradition (25.4%), ‘Mainline’ tradition (14.7%) or ‘African-American’ tradition (6.5%).7


There are further subcategories in Christian denominations that often follow ethnic lines (e.g. Korean Presbyterians, Nigerian Catholics, etc.). The crossroads between ethnicity and religion have helped foster a multiplicity of expressions and practices of Christianity and continually transform the religious landscape of America. For instance, as of 2016, almost half of those who identified as Catholic (45%) were Hispanic or non-white (an increase from 13% in 1991).8 


Some of America’s major Christian traditions are regionally concentrated. For instance, 55% of residents in the state of Utah identify as Mormon.9 Meanwhile, just under half of the residents in the southern states of Oklahoma (47%), Arkansas (46%), Alabama (49%), Kentucky (49%) and Tennessee (52%) identify with an Evangelical Protestant tradition.10


Christians in America tend to be more active in their practice, comparative to many other Western countries. When asked whether religion is important in one’s life, 58% of those who identified as Catholic and 70% of those who identified with a Protestant tradition stated ‘very important’.11 Meanwhile, 39% of Catholics and 48% of those affiliated with a Protestant tradition attend religious services at least once a week.12 The vitality of Christianity in America is in part due to its pluralism. In fact, those who leave a congregation are much more likely to join (or sometimes form) a new one, rather than drift away from religion entirely.13 


Judaism in the United States

The United States is host to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. This vibrant Jewish community has been produced by a long history of migration. The majority of Jews are third generation migrants or higher (67%), meaning most of their families have been established in the United States since the postwar period or earlier.14 This reflects the long established presence of Judaism in the United States. In total, the Jewish population forms the largest non-Christian religious affiliation in the United States (1.9%), with most residing in the northeastern states such as New York and New Jersey.15 One can find synagogues, kosher grocery stores and other Jewish-based facilities in cities with large Jewish communities, especially New York City. 


There are various streams of Judaism followed in America, which has fostered diversity amongst the Jewish community. According to the Pew Research Center, 35% identify with the Reform movement, 18% identify with the Conservative movement, 10% identify with the Orthodox tradition, 6% identify with other streams of Judaism, and 30% do not identify with any particular Jewish denomination.16 Many Jews in America tend to live a secular life, with the majority viewing their Jewishness as a matter of ancestry and culture (62%), rather than a religious matter.17 Thus, for some Jews, their Jewish identity is a minor aspect of their personal identity, while others may see Judaism as an all-encompassing way of life. 


Islam in the United States

The Pew Research Center (2017) estimates there are roughly 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States, making up about 1.1% of the total population.18 Of those who identify as Muslim, approximately 55% identify as Sunni, 16% identify as Shi’ite and 14% do not identify with a specific denomination of Islam.19 Religion plays a prominent role in the daily lives of most Muslims in America. For example, 69% of Muslims pray at least once a day and 64% consider religion to be very important in their life.20 Mosques in America often act as community centres, allowing Muslims to meet outside of worship contexts for social and cultural occasions. 


America’s Muslim population has largely been formed through recent migration. For example, while 42% were born in the country, 20% were born in South Asia, 14% from the Middle East or North Africa, 13% from other parts of Asia or the Pacific, 5% from Sub-Saharan Africa and 6% from some other region.21 As such, local Muslim communities are often highly diverse, including people of many different cultural backgrounds and interpretations of Islam. 


Muslims in the United States face unique circumstances both in American society and within their communities. For instance, the events of the 2001 September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have profoundly changed the experiences of Muslims in America and around the globe. Though American Muslims have found ways to voice their concerns and problems, some continue to face misunderstanding, prejudice and discrimination.


Asian Religions in the United States

Hinduism

The Hindu community in the United States is relatively small, with 0.7% of the population identifying as Hindu. Most of America’s Hindus are immigrants (87%) and the overwhelming majority identify as Asian (91%).22 Historically, temple building was one of the primary means that Hindu communities sought to express their presence in America’s religious landscape and to create cultural hubs. Today, there are approximately 450 Hindu temples around the country that help cater to the needs of America’s Hindu population. Some temples are Pan-Indian (meaning they incorporate various Hindu traditions), some are dedicated to a particular branch of Hinduism, while others are regional-specific temples that emphasise language and rituals from a particular region.


Apart from popular and regional Hindu traditions, America is also home to guru-led movements and renunciate traditions. Indeed, some temples are sectarian and promote the teachings of a particular guru. For instance, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, also known as the Hare Krishnas) has maintained a significant presence since its founding in America in the 1960s. Another legacy of the guru-led movements is the immense popularity of yoga, which despite primarily being a fitness and health-focused industry, is seen by 63% of the American population as ‘spiritual’.23


Buddhism

The Buddhist population in the United States is also relatively small, with 0.7% of the population identifying as Buddhist. America’s Buddhist communities include a range of ethnic or racial backgrounds, including white (44%), Asian (33%), Latino (12%), other or mixed (8%) and African American (3%).24 However, it is common for individual Buddhist temples and meditation groups to be composed of a single ethnic group. 


Most forms of Buddhism have some representation in America, though their numbers and presence varies. For instance, Theravada Buddhism is primarily followed by Sri Lankan, Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao immigrants and their descendants. However, the Vipassana movement (also known as Insight Meditation) is particularly popular among white Americans. 


Mahayana Buddhism also has a large presence, with one of its most recognisable forms being the Chan/Zen tradition. Chinese Chan and its Korean (Son) and Vietnamese (Thien) versions are mostly practised by Asian Americans, Japanese Zen Buddhism has been popular among non-Asian Americans since the 1950s. The broad distinction between Asian Buddhists and white American Buddhists reflects differences in the practices emphasised (particularly meditation for the latter) and organisational structures.


Native American Worldviews

The United States is home to a diversity of Native American religious and spiritual traditions, practices and beliefs. Native American worldviews largely vary due to differing geographic locations, languages and the material cultures of each nation. There is also significant syncretism between some Native American traditions and Christianity (e.g. Native American Church, also known as Peyotism). 


Native American traditions often express a holistic worldview whereby religious or spiritual matters are intertwined with daily life. For example, one commonly shared feature is the deep connection between myths, symbolic objects and rituals to specific geographic locations and landscapes. Religious practices are often localised and traditional knowledge about origins and memories of inhabitants are passed down from earlier generations through an oral tradition. Native American worldviews also often acknowledge sacred powers that are part of the natural world and its elements (e.g. sky, water, land, flora and fauna). In turn, people of the nation attend to these powers to help maintain the balance or amend imbalance in the sacred world.


1 Pew Research Center, 2014

Pew Research Center, 2014

Cox & Jones, 2016

Chalfant, 2018

Cox & Jones, 2016

Pew Research Center, 2014

Pew Research Center, 2014

Cox & Jones, 2016

Pew Research Center, 2014

10 Pew Research Center, 2014

11 Pew Research Center, 2014

12 Pew Research Center, 2014

13 Norris & Inglehart, 2011

14 Pew Research Center, 2014

15 Pew Research Center, 2014

16 Pew Research Center, 2013

17 Pew Research Center, 2013

18 Mohamed, 2018

19 Pew Research Center, 2017

20 Pew Research Center, 2014

21 Pew Research Center, 2017

22 Pew Research Center, 2014

23 Ipsos Public Affairs, 2016

24 Pew Research Center, 2014

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