The Structure of Religion in the U.S.

Religion in the U.S.

Due to the First Amendment, which grants freedom of religion, there is a diversity of religious beliefs and practices in the U.S.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the relationship between religion and government in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The First Amendment specifically denies the Federal Government the power to enact any law respecting either an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise, thus protecting any religious organization, institution, or denomination from government interference.
  • European Rationalist and Protestant ideals influenced the development of separation between state and religious affairs.
  • The majority of Americans (76% to 80%) identify themselves as Protestants or Catholics, accounting for 51% and 25% of the population respectively.

Key Terms

  • First Amendment: The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.
  • Religious Organization: Religious activities generally need some infrastructure to be conducted. For this reason, there generally exist religion-supporting organizations, which are some form of organization that manage the upkeep of places of worship, e.g., mosques, prayer rooms, other similar edifices or meeting places, and the payment of salaries to priests, ministers, or religious leaders. In addition, such organizations usually have other responsibilities, such as the formation, nomination, or appointment of religious leaders; the establishment of a corpus of doctrine; the disciplining of priests or other people with respect to religious law; and the determination of qualification for membership.
  • creed: That which is believed; accepted doctrine, especially religious; a particular set of beliefs; any summary of principles or opinions professed or adhered to.

Religion in the United States is characterized by both a diversity of religious beliefs and practices, and by a high adherence level. A wide variety of religious choices have been available to the U.S. population due to the First Amendment of the Constitution, which allows freedom of religion.

Separation of Church and State in the United States

The framers of the Constitution modeled the provisions concerning religion within the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and rejected any religious test for office. The First Amendment specifically denies the Federal Government the power to enact any law respecting either an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise. This amendment protects any religious organization, institution, or denomination from government interference. The decision was mainly influenced by European Rationalist and Protestant ideals, but was also a consequence of the pragmatic concerns of minority religious groups and small states that did not want to be under the power or influence of a national religion that did not represent their beliefs.

Robert N. Bellah has argued that although the separation of church and state is grounded firmly in the Constitution of the United States, this does not mean that there is no religious dimension in the political society of the United States. He used the term “civil religion” to describe the specific relation between politics and religion in the United States. His 1967 article, “Civil religion in America,” analyzes the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. ”

Robert S. Wood has argued that the United States is a model for the world in terms of how a separation of church and state—no state-run or state-established church—is good for both the church and the state, allowing a variety of religions to flourish. Speaking at the Toronto-based Center for New Religions, Wood said that the freedom of conscience and assembly allowed under such a system has led to a “remarkable religiosity” in the United States that isn’t present in other industrialized nations. Wood believes that the United States operates on “a sort of civic religion,” which includes a generally shared belief in a creator who “expects better of us.” Beyond that, individuals are free to decide how they want to believe and fill in their own creeds and express their conscience. He calls this approach the “genius of religious sentiment in the United States. ”

Religious Affiliation in the United States

The majority of Americans (76% to 80%) identify themselves as Protestants or Catholics, accounting for 51% and 25% of the population respectively, according to one survey by Trinity College. Non-Christian religions (including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) collectively make up about 5% of the adult population. Another 15% of the adult population claims no religious affiliation. When asked, about 5.2% said they did not know or refused to reply. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, religious belief varies considerably by region. The lowest rate is in the West, with 59% reporting a belief in God, and the highest rate is in the South (the “Bible Belt”) at 86%.

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Islamic Center: Islamic Center of Washington located at 2551 Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington, D.C.

Religious Diversity

Religion in the United States is characterized by both a wide diversity in religious beliefs and practices and by a high adherence level.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the scope of religious diversity in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • According to the U.S. Census, the most common religions in the United States are Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and unaffiliated religions, including atheists or agnostics.
  • Religious pluralism is an attitude or policy regarding the diversity of religious belief systems co-existing in society.
  • Interfaith dialogue refers to dialogue between members of different religions for the goal of reducing conflicts between their religions and to achieve agreed-upon, mutually desirable goals.
  • Freedom of religion encompasses all religions acts within the law in a particular region.

Key Terms

  • interfaith dialogue: The term interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels. It is distinct from syncretism or alternative religion; this dialogue often promotes understanding between different religions to increase acceptance of others, rather than attempting to synthesize new beliefs.
  • religious pluralism: The peaceful coexistence of multiple religions in a community.
  • freedom of religion: The right of citizens to hold any religious or non-religious beliefs, and to carry out any practices in accordance with those beliefs, so long as they do not interfere with another person’s legal or civil rights, or any reasonable laws, without fear of harm or prosecution.

Religion in the United States is characterized by both a wide diversity in religious beliefs and practices and by a high adherence level. A majority of Americans report that religion plays a “very important” role in their lives, a proportion unique among developed nations. Many faiths have flourished in the United States, including those spanning the country’s multicultural immigrant heritage, as well as those founded within the country; these have led the United States to become one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world.

The U.S. Census does not ask about religion. Various groups have conducted surveys to determine approximate percentages of those affiliated with each religious group. Some surveys ask people to self-identify, while others calculate church memberships. According to the census, religion in the United States is comprised of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the unaffiliated, including atheists or agnostics.

The largest religion in the United States is Christianity, practiced by the majority of the population. Due to its large population and history, the United States has numerically more Christians (and more Protestants) than any other country in the world. After Christianity and no-religion, Judaism is the third-largest religious affiliation in the United States, though this identification is not necessarily indicative of religious beliefs or practices. A significant number of people identify themselves as American Jews on ethnic and cultural grounds, rather than religious ones. On the other hand, American Islam effectively began with the arrival of African slaves. It is estimated that about 10% of African slaves transported to the United States were Muslim. Research indicates that Muslims in the United States are generally more assimilated and prosperous than Muslims in Europe.

Religious pluralism is an attitude or policy regarding the diversity of religious belief systems co-existing in society. Religious pluralism is sometimes used as a synonym for interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue refers to dialogue between members of different religions for the goal of reducing conflicts between their religions and to achieve agreed upon mutually desirable goals. Freedom of religion encompasses all religions acting within the law in a particular region, whether or not an individual religion accepts that other religions are legitimate or that freedom of religious choice and religious plurality, in general, are good things.

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Religious Diversity: Religious symbols represented in this picture reflect the religious diversity in the United States. Among the symbols one can recognize Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism.

Widespread Belief

Christianity is the largest religion in the United States, with around 77% of the population identifying itself as Christian.

Learning Objectives

Identify the most common and popular religions in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Christian denominations in the U.S. are usually divided into three large groups: Evangelical, Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic.
  • The mainline Protestant Christian denominations were brought to the U.S. by its historic immigrant groups; for this reason they are sometimes referred to as heritage churches.
  • Other parts of the world have different widespread beliefs. Islam, for example, dominates the Middle East.

Key Terms

  • Roman Catholicism: The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world’s largest Christian church, with more than one billion members worldwide.
  • Mainline Protestantism: Mainline Protestant (also sometimes called “mainstream American Protestant”) are certain Protestant churches in the United States that comprised a majority of Americans from the colonial era until the early 20th century.
  • evangelicalism: Protestant movement basing its theology almost entirely on Scripture, which is held to be inerrant.

It is common for many societies to be dominated by a single widespread belief. For example, Christianity is the largest and most popular religion in the United States, with around 77% of those polled identifying themselves as Christian as of 2009. Protestant denominations accounted for 51.3%, while Roman Catholicism, at 23.9%, was the largest individual denomination. One study categorizes white evangelicals, 26.3% of the population, as the country’s largest religious cohort, while another study estimates evangelicals of all races at 30–35%. Christianity was introduced to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries by European colonization.

Today, most Christian denominations in the United States are divided into three large groups: Evangelicalism, Mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Christian denominations that do not fall within either of these groups are mostly associated with ethnic minorities, i.e. the various denominations of Eastern Orthodoxy. Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement. In typical usage, the term mainline is contrasted with evangelical. Most adherents consider its key characteristics to be:

  • a belief in the need for personal conversion (or being “born again”)
  • some expression of the gospel
  • a high regard for Biblical authority
  • an emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Other parts of the world have different widespread beliefs. Islam, for example, dominates the Middle East, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Niger having 90% or more of their population identifying as Muslim. Islam is also the state religion in areas of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

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Worldwide Muslim Population: As the map shows, certain regions are dominated by widespread beliefs.

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Christian Flag at Covenant Presbyterian Church: The Christian flag displayed with the flag of the USA; note the finials on the flag poles. This is next to the pulpit and baptismal font in Covenant Presbyterian Church, Long Beach, California, USA;

Ecumenism

Ecumenism mainly refers to initiatives aimed at creating greater Christian unity or cooperation.

Learning Objectives

Define ecumenism and its central features

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ecumenism contrasts with interfaith dialogue, which aims at unity, respect, and cooperation among diverse religions, under the auspices of a shared sense of spirituality.
  • Despite many disagreements over ecumenism and how to approach interfaith dialogue, there exists a sizable group of Orthodox Christians who are vehemently opposed to any kind of interfaith dialogue.
  • The general understanding of the ecumenical movement is that it came from the Roman Catholic Church ‘s attempts to reconcile with Christians who had become separated over theological issues.

Key Terms

  • Orthodox Christians: The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church and commonly referred to as the Orthodox Church, is the second largest Christian church in the world, with an estimated 300 million adherents mainly in the countries of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Cyprus, all of which — except Bosnia — are majority Eastern Orthodox. It teaches that it is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ and his Apostles almost 2,000 years ago.
  • interfaith dialogue: The term interfaith dialogue refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels. It is distinct from syncretism or alternative religion; this dialogue often promotes understanding between different religions to increase acceptance of others, rather than attempting to synthesize new beliefs.
  • ecumenism: Ecumenism mainly refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation.

Ecumenism refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation. As a term, it usually only refers to predominantly Christian denominations and churches separated by doctrine, history, and practice. Within this particular context, ecumenism refers to the idea that Christians should literally unify under a single Christian church. Ecumenism contrasts with the practice of interfaith dialogue, which is aimed at unity, respect, and cooperation among diverse religions. Interfaith dialogue, also known as interfaith pluralism, refers to “religious unity” not in the sense of a single church, but instead by the advocacy of a greater sense of shared spirituality.

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Ecumenism Symbol: Ecumenism mainly refers to initiatives aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation.

The ecumenical movement is understood to have emerged from the Roman Catholic Church’s attempts reconcile with other Christians who had separated over theological issues. Although this is not the case with all Catholics, most ecumenical Catholics have the goal of reconciling all those with a Christian faith in a single, visible organization, through a union with the Roman Catholic Church. For some Protestants, spiritual unity, and unity in how a church teaches central issues, sufficiently represents this general movement.

The Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches are two distinct bodies of local churches. Within each body, the churches share full communion, although there is not official communion between the two bodies. Many theologians of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxies engage in theological dialogue with each other and with some Western churches, but this stops short of full communion.

Members of the Anglican Communion, in the United Kingdom, have generally embraced the Ecumenical Movement, and actively participate in organizations like the World Council of Churches and the NCCC. Within the Anglican Communion, each member church is allowed to make its own decision with regard to intercommunion.

Despite many disagreements over ecumenism and how to approach interfaith dialogue, there exists a sizable group of Orthodox Christians who are vehemently opposed to any kind of interfaith dialogue, whether with other Christian denominations or with religions outside Christianity. In the Eastern Orthodox world, the monastic community of Mount Athos has voiced its concerns regarding the ecumenist movement. They do not want the Orthodox church to play a part in this more general movement.

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Taize Prayer: Ecumenical worship service at the monastery of Taizé

Characteristics of Members of Different Religions

Religion plays a “very important” role in the lives of most Americans; a proportion unique among developed nations.

Learning Objectives

Identify the characteristics and defining features of members belonging to different religions in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The most prevalent religion in the U.S. is Christianity. Northern European peoples introduced Protestantism, while the Spanish, French, and English introduced Catholicism.
  • The Jewish community in the United States is composed predominantly of Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as their U.S.-born descendants.
  • American Islam effectively began with the arrival of African slaves. Research indicates that Muslims in the U.S. are generally more assimilated and prosperous than Muslims in Europe.
  • Buddhism entered the U.S. during the 19th century with the arrival of the first immigrants from Eastern Asia.
  • Sikhs have been a part of the American populace for more than 130 years.
  • Buddhism entered the U.S. during the 19th century with the arrival of the first immigrants from Eastern Asia.
  • The first time Hinduism entered the U.S. is not clearly identifiable.
  • Sikhs have been a part of the American populace for more than 130 years.

Key Terms

  • American Islam: From the 1880s to 1914, several thousand Muslims immigrated to the United States from the Ottoman Empire and from parts of South Asia; they did not form distinctive settlements, and probably mostly assimilated into the wider society.
  • Protestantism: Protestantism is one of the major groupings within Christianity. It has been defined as “any of several church denominations denying the universal authority of the Pope and affirming the Reformation principles of justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth. ” More broadly, it means Christianity outside “of a Catholic or Eastern church. “
  • Judaism: A world religion tracing its origin to the Hebrew people of the ancient Middle-East, as documented in religious writings known as the Torah or Old Testament.

Religion plays a “very important” role in the lives of most Americans, a proportion unique among developed nations. Many faiths have flourished in the United States, including later imports spanning the country’s multicultural immigrant heritage and those founded within the country, These disparate faiths have led the U.S. to become one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world.

The largest religion in the U.S. is Christianity, practiced by the majority of the population. From those queried, roughly 51.3% of Americans are Protestants, 25% are Catholics, 1.7% are Mormons, and 1.7% are of various other Christian denominations. Northern European peoples introduced Protestantism. Among Protestants, Anglicans, Baptists, Puritans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Quaker, and Moravians were the first to settle to the U.S. The Spanish, French and English introduced Catholicism. The religion came with the arrival of Hispanics/Latinos, Irish, Highland Scots, Italians, Dutch, Flemish, Polish, French, Hungarians, German, and Lebanese immigrants.

American Jews are citizens of the Jewish faith or ethnicity. The Jewish community in the U.S. is composed predominantly of Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as their U.S.-born descendants. Depending on religious definitions and varying population data, the U.S. is home to the largest or second largest Jewish community in the world, after Israel. In 2007, the population of American adherents of Judaism was estimated to be approximately 5,128,000, or 1.7% of the total population.

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Hayley Fields at the Beth Israel Torah Dedication Ceremony: Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, volunteers with an Israeli charity rescued seven Torah scrolls from the synagogue.

American Islam effectively began with the arrival of African slaves. It is estimated that about 10% of African slaves transported to the U.S. were Muslim. Research indicates that Muslims in the U.S. are generally more assimilated and prosperous than Muslims in Europe. Like other subcultural and religious communities, the Islamic community has generated its own political organizations and charity organizations.

Buddhism entered the U.S. during the 19th century with the arrival of the first immigrants from Eastern Asia. The first Buddhist temple was established in San Francisco in 1853 by Chinese Americans. The first time Hinduism entered the U.S. is not clearly identifiable. During the 1960s and 1970s, Hinduism exercised a fascination that contributed to the development of New Age thought. Sikhs have been a part of the American populace for more than 130 years. Around 1900, the state of Punjab of British India was hit hard by British practices of mercantilism. Many Sikhs emigrated to the United States, and began working on farms in California.

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Baltimore Cornerstone: John Carroll, bishop of Baltimore, lays the cornerstone for the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore, the first cathedral in the United States.

Secularism and the Future of Religion

Most modern Western societies are recognized as secular because they enjoy near-complete freedom of religion.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the rise of secularism and its response in the West

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The secularization of a society refers to the process it undergoes when it shifts away from closely identifying with religious values and institutions towards affiliating with nonreligious values and institutions.
  • The term secularization was coined by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851 and is most closely associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe.
  • In a political context, secularization is the separation of the state from the church.
  • When speaking of social structures, secularization refers to the increasing division of labor and occupational specialization in society (differentiation).
  • Evidence suggests that “no religion ” is becoming an increasingly prevalent religious status in the United States.

Key Terms

  • Age of Enlightenment: A period of time ranging from part of the 17th Century through much of the 18th Century, characterized particularly by the importance of logic and reason.
  • separation of church and state: The separation of church and state is the distance in the relationship between organized religion and the nation state.

In studies of religion, modern Western societies are generally recognized as secular. This is due to the near-complete freedom of religion, the fact that beliefs on religion generally are not subject to legal or social sanctions. Some societies become increasingly secular as the result of social processes, rather than through the actions of a dedicated secular movement; this process is known as secularization. Secularization is the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies “progress,” particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance.

Secularism

Coined by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851, secularism is often associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and it now plays a major role in Western society. In political terms, secularism is a movement towards the separation of church and state. This can refer to reducing ties between a government and a state religion, replacing laws based on scripture with civil laws, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion. This is said to add to democracy by protecting the rights of religious minorities. Due in part to the belief in the separation of church and state, secularists tend to prefer that politicians make decisions for secular rather than religious reasons. In this respect, policy decisions pertaining to topics like abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, same- sex marriage, and sex education are the prominent issues many secularist organizations focus on.

Secularization in Different Realms

When discussing social structures, secularization can refer to differentiation. Differentiation refers to the increasing division of labor and occupational specialization in society. When discussing institutions, secularization can refer to the transformation of an institution that had once been considered religious in character into something not thought of as religious. When discussing activities, secularization refers to the transfer of activities from institutions of a religious nature to others without that character. Finally, when discussing religion, secularization can only be used unambiguously to refer to religion in a generic sense. For example, a reference to Christianity is not clear unless one specifies exactly which denominations of Christianity are being discussed.

Responses to Secularization

Because religion continues to be recognized in Western thought as a universal impulse, many religious practitioners have aimed to band together in interfaith dialogue, cooperation, and religious peace-building. Recent interfaith initiatives include “A Common Word,” launched in 2007, which is focused on bringing Muslim and Christian leaders together, the “C1 World Dialogue,” the “Common Ground” initiative between Islam and Buddhism, and a United Nations sponsored “World Interfaith Harmony Week. ”

Some evidence suggests that the fastest growing religious status in the United States is “no religion” Irreligion is the absence of religion, an indifference towards religion, a rejection of religion, or hostility towards religion. When characterized as the rejection of religious belief, it includes atheism and secular humanism. When characterized as hostility towards religion, it includes antitheism, anticlericalism and antireligion.

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Sacred and Secular: The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies “progress,” particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance.