Religious Beliefs and Spirituality in The United StatesReligion in the United States is characterized by both a wide diversity in religious beliefs and practices and by a high level of adherence. Throughout the history of the United States, a history that is relatively brief as compared to other countries, many religious faiths have burgeoned, and many more have gradually died off. As a multicultural country of immigrants, with people of hundreds of different ethnic backgrounds, the United States has now become one of the most religiously diverse nations on the globe. What’s more, according to census data, the majority of Americans admit that religion plays an extremely important role in their lives, a proportion that is very rare these days among developed nations.
In the following article we will take a closer look at some of the statistics with regard to religion in the United States, including some information on the country’s religious history and a breakdown of the various religious faiths practiced here. We will also delve into some of the recent religious trends in the country—religious ideas and spiritual experiences—and discuss how they continue to help shape the lives of Americans.
History of Religion in the United StatesThe notion of religious freedom has played a crucial role in the history of the United States, just as it has in the rest of North America. The first colonists and early settlers in the U.S. were Europeans, many of whom came to America to escape the religious stronghold of their specific country and the forced beliefs imposed on them by state-run churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. Because of this civil unrest with regard to religion, the American forefathers believed strongly in the idea of organizing the country in a way in which the separation of church and state was guaranteed. That guarantee was made official in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which in full reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Among other things, the First Amendment to the Constitution certified, and continues to guarantee, the inalienable rights of all American citizens to follow any religious or non-religious belief system, and to carry out any practices associated with their 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 persecution.
In the course of America’s brief history, the splintering of Christianity over time has resulted in more than 900 denominations of that faith—a faith adhered to by the vast majority of U.S. citizens. America was the first western nation to be founded predominantly by Protestants, rather than Roman Catholics. These statistics clearly illuminate America’s enthusiasm to experiment with novel ideas in religion and to defy tradition. Among other things, the religious history in the United States includes the emergence of utopian experiments, religious fanaticism, and a welcoming of foreign and exotic religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. Such has been the rollercoaster of religious evolution in the United States of America.
Native Americans and Religion
The earliest known religions in what is now the United States were that of the Native Americans. Throughout the country, Indian tribes such as the Sioux, Iroquois and Algonquians rejoiced in the bounty provided to them by the Great Spirit, a Spirit found in animals as well as inanimate idols. These religions were celebrated with ornate and elaborate rituals that included dances such as the Round, Snake, Ghost, Crow and Sundance. The rituals were created and overseen by some of the greatest leaders of the various tribes, with names such as Wovoka, Black Elk, Big Foot and Sitting Bull. As the white colonists drove the natives west onto reservations, and as Christian missionaries tried to make inroads that would influence their spirituality, the fervency of the Indians’ religious practices and beliefs only grew, and continues to thrive among many of these groups even today.
Religious Splintering in America
In the 16 century, due largely to a series of disagreements with regard to papal authority in the Catholic Church, King Henry VIII of England founded the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. In later attempts to achieve freedom from the rules and principles imposed by this state-run church, denominations such as the Reformed-Presbyterian churches and the European Free Church emerged.
These early Protestant denominations gave birth to the next wave of Christian movements, including Puritanism. Reforms were brought by the Puritans to the American colonies in the 17 century; reforms that sought to “purify” the Anglican Church. The Puritan movement would later splinter further into the Baptists and Congregationalists, followed by the emergence of the Methodists, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists and Adventists, with each successive faith showing a shrinking resemblance to the original Anglican Church.
The Origins and Branching of the Evangelical Movement
Throughout America’s history, from colonial times to the present, Evangelism has played a significant role. During colonial times, the Puritans attempted to spread the “Good News,” via books of the same name, printed on Boston’s first printing press, which was brought over in 1638. In the 1740s, the Great Awakening movement emerged, where white Protestant evangelists preached to the black Americans. Perhaps the most successful evangelists were the Methodists, who preached about a God that was “near rather than distant,” as well as self-help and the liberation of sin through conversion. They spread their message with lively singing and preaching at camp revivals, and during the 19 century, they even brought their message to the frontier states, holding camp meetings for those that settled there.
Protestant Denominations in Early America
Christianity, particularly Protestantism, spread quickly throughout the country during the first half of its history. Hundreds of specific Protestant denominations were formed during this time, some of which have flourished until today and many more that have now vanished completely. Below we have listed just a few of the major Protestant denominations, with a brief description of each:
- Puritanism. The Puritans came to the New England colonies to escape religious persecution. Their faith was based on the teachings of John Calvin and the New Testament, and their numbers grew as high as 100,000+ towards the dawn of the 18 century. Among other contributions, the Puritans established the first American college, Harvard College, in Cambridge Massachusetts.
- Methodism. The roots of the Methodist faith can be traced back to a group of Oxford University students, led by brothers John and Charles Wesley. When the evangelist Francis Asbury arrived in America in 1771, Methodism comprised only 1,200 members. However, Asbury promoted the idea of holding religious rivals throughout the country, and by the time of his death in 1816, membership in the Methodist Church had grown to 214,000.
- Lutheranism. Lutheranism was the only Christian denomination in America in which ethnic origin played a role. Membership was initially limited to those who had come to America from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway. Lutherans settled on the East Coast and in the Midwest and celebrated worship services in their native tongues. In the late 19 century, they began to loosen their rules, as the Americanization process eliminated the language barriers that had previously kept them separate. In 1988, many Lutheran bodies came together to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which now accounts for more than half of the Lutheran membership in the U.S.
- Presbyterian. Having little similarity to the liturgy, organization, and rituals associated with the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian churches share a common origin in the teachings of John Calvin and the 16th century Swiss Reformation. Presbyterianism is rooted in an active, representational leadership style for both ministers and church members. Presbyterians primarily originate from England, Scotland, and Ireland. With an elected body of elders, known as “presbyters,” who work with the congregation’s ordained minister, their belief composition and celebrations are anchored around the Bible and “the sovereignty of God.” Presbyterians make up one of the largest branches of Protestant Christianity today.
- Quakers. The Quaker religion was founded in 1647 by the English preacher George Fox. Members are known as the “Society of Friends” and they stress a direct relationship with God as the root of their belief system. The basis for the Quaker religion was based on the writings of William Penn. His writings with regard to freedom of conscience (while imprisoned in England) served as the basis of religious understanding for Quakers around the world. Among other contributions, Penn and the Church established what would later be called Pennsylvania, an American religious sanctuary in the late 17th century.
Breakdown of Religious Faiths in AmericaAccording to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “major shifts are taking place in the U.S. religious landscape.” Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey finds that religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.
Before we discuss some of the key findings of that survey, let’s first take a look at the breakdown of the major religious traditions in the United States:
Major Religious Traditions in the U.S.
Among all American adults, 78.4 percent self identify as Christians. Of course, within the Christian faith there are hundreds of denominations, some of which are listed below, along with the percentage of Americans that adhere to them:
|Protestantism (Many Denominations)||51.3%|
|Historical Black Churches||6.9%|
In addition to these Christian denominations, people in the United States also adhere to many non-Christian faiths (4.7%), and some have no religious affiliation whatsoever (16.1%). Below is a breakdown of some of these numbers:
|Other (non-Christian religions)||4.7%|
|Unaffiliated (no religion)||16.1%|
|Nothing in particular||12.1%|
|Don’t Know/Refused to Answer||0.8%|
As you can see, Christianity is far and away the most practiced religious faith in America, with nearly 80 percent of people self-identifying as Christians. While Protestantism is the largest faith group in the U.S., accounting for about 50 percent of all believers, no single denomination within that faith boasts the amount of followers of the Roman Catholic Church (24%)—the single most-practiced “denomination” in the United States. These numbers also show that a large percentage of the population has no religious affiliation whatsoever (16.1%), although only a small percentage of these self identifies as either Agnostic (2.6%) or Atheist (1.6%).
Religious Trends in the United States
According to some recently released statistics, more than 25% of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion—or no religion at all. Moreover, if you include changes made from one Protestant denomination to another, 44% of American adults have switched faiths. These trends seem to mirror what we saw from the early settlers, when Protestantism was consistently splintering and people regularly switched affiliations seeking a faith with which they felt the most comfortable.
The number of people claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Additionally, among U.S. adults ages 18-29, one in four of them, or 25%, say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion. Based on these numbers, we can conclude that the importance of religion in the lives of some Americans diminishes as they become adults, and in younger adults, religion is playing a decreasing role in their lives in present day society.
Although nearly all of the colonists and early settlers in the United States adhered to one of the Protestant faiths, the Pew Forum’s Landscape Survey shows that America is now on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country (the percentage of people who self-identify as Protestants is down to 51%). Many sociologists blame this trend on the fragmentation of the Protestant Church, a church that is characterized by significant internal diversity and splintering, encompassing hundreds of different denominations loosely grouped around three rather distinct religious traditions—evangelical Protestant churches (26.3% of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1%) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9%).
Like in most developed countries today, the fastest growing category in terms of America’s religious groups is actually the “unaffiliated category”—people who are atheist, agnostic or simply don’t belong to or practice a particular religion. In terms of churches that are dwindling in membership—churches incurring the most net losses of members—that title goes to the Roman Catholic Church. Surveys show that while nearly one in three American children (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today less than one-quarter (24%) self-identify as Catholic. Experts believe these net losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration, particularly from countries such as Mexico and many of the South American countries, where Roman Catholicism serves as the national religion.
Last but not lease, the survey also shows us that even some of the smaller religions in the United States are wrought with fragmentation. The Jewish religion, for example, accounting for 1.7% of the population (approximately 5.3 million people), is broken down into three major groups: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. In much the same way, America’s Buddhists (0.7 percent of the population), also belong to one of three major groups: Zen, Theravada or Tibetan Buddhists. Finally, the next largest non-Christian faith, Islam (0.6% of the adult population), is typically divided into two primary groups: the Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Because of this splintering (and other factors), religion in America is becoming a very competitive marketplace, with almost all of the major religious groups constantly gaining and losing adherents. Studies show that those groups that are gaining in membership are just losing members at a lower rate, while those dwindling in membership are experiencing the opposite trend. What’s most alarming to some of the major religious groups is the rapidly growing number of non-affiliated individuals. What that means exactly in terms of the future of religion in the United States is not yet known. However, if these generational patterns persist, with declines in the number of young adults in the various religious groups and the growth in the size of the unaffiliated population, these numbers may continue to trend in this direction for some time to come.