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Religion in the United States

This guide was written by Francine Carrel, Assistant Editor of Guides.Global (office@guides.global).

It was written on 8 December 2016. The law and practice in the US change all the time. Our guides are updated as frequently as possible - typically every three years - but may be out of date.

Our guides are prepared by professionals from many countries. They are, of necessity, both brief and general and can take no account of your personal circumstances. They are intended to be a good introduction to the subject BUT ARE NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PROPER PROFESSIONAL ADVICE, which our contributors will usually be happy to provide upon request.

The advice and opinions contained in the guides are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Guides.Global.

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The scope of this guide

This guide looks at the demographics of religion in the US, then focuses briefly on the major religious groups in the United States and on religious discrimination.

Introduction

The United States is a predominantly Christian country and, looking at the percentages, people from minority religions may be worried about finding a place of worship.

Whilst that could be a problem in some regions, there are many placed in the US that have diverse religious communities. You just need to do your research before committing to an area.

Statistics of religion in the US

The demographics of religion vary (sometimes quite significantly) from state to state. See our state guides for more information.

Source: Pew Research Center

The history of religion in the US

The US has a short but interesing history!

The United States began with its pilgrims (the first of which arrived in 1620), who were staunchly protestant. In fact, many early settlers saw the US as a religious refuge - Puritans (who believed that all remenants of Catholicism in the Anglican church must be quashed) were under increasing threat in Britain. Small groups of Jews and Catholics also sought refuge in the States, in the country's early years. Protestants, of various denominations, dominate the American religious scene to this day.

America has gone through many peaks and troughs of (Christian-based) religious fervour. The country went through 'great awakenings' in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. These periods saw huge increases in church-goers as populations were swayed by charismatic preachers and some serious religious guilt. The Second Great Awakening was the birth of evangelicalism, which is still prominent in the US today.

The 19th Century also saw two notable groups of Christians emerge - the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah's Witnesses (although the latter didn't go by that name until the 1930s).

Minority religions in the US each have their own history - see below.

Christianity in the US

The United States is a primarily Christian nation (see above).

Although many American Christians feel that Christians are treated badly in the country, it's hard to argue that Christianity is in any way a supressed religion. Politicians and other prominent public figures will happily talk about their Christian faith - often openly basing political decisions on Christian doctrine - and sign off speeches with, "God bless America".

Despite this, the number of Americans who identify as Christian is declining. According to Pew Research, in 2007, 78.4% of American adults said they belonged to one of the Christian churches. This lowered to 70.6% in 2014. This correlates more strongly with the rise of non-believers than it does with growth of minority religions.

Protestantism in the US

Protestant churches are split between 'evangelical' and 'mainline': for instance, Southern Baptist Convention churches are evangelical and the United Methodist Church is mainline.

Evangelical Christians are set apart from the mainline churches by a number of beliefs, among which is the focus on a 'born again' experience - a personal conversion. Many Evangelical churches believe in the rapture: the end of the world, upon which believers will be taken up to Heaven while the rest of the world stays behind.

Mainline protestants have more historical grounding in the United States, with many of them having their roots in early immigrant groups. Mainline churches are generally more liberal and progressive than evangelical churches, and tend to believe that the word of the Bible is open to interpretation.

Baptists make up around 25% of all US churches. Some Baptist churches are evangelical, some mainline.

There are over 300,000 protestant churches in the United States. Although some may not be to your tastes, the odds are high of finding a place of worship where you feel welcome.

See the Wikipedia page (below) for more information.

Protestantism in the United States - Wikipedia

Catholicism in the US

As Protestantism is so split, the Catholic Church is the largest single religious body in the United States, with its members amounting to around 20% of the population (it has the third highest number of parishes, behind Southern Baptists and United Methodists, but Catholic parishes are much bigger).

The US has 15 cardinals and, currently, around 270 active bishops.

Catholicism rose to prominence in the United States after rapid growth in the early- and mid-19th Century (due to the acquisition of Catholic states and high levels of immigration from Catholic countries). This was not a welcome turn of events for many Americans - Catholics were met with open hostility and violence in many areas.

Nowadays, most Catholics in the US arrive from Latin American countries.

Catholics are now pretty well integrated into the country. There are more than 20,000 Catholic churches in America, including 193 cathedrals. Visit the embedded Wikipedia page below to look at some notable examples in each state.

List of Catholic churches in the United States - Wikipedia

Judaism in the US

The Jewish population in the United States is mainly descended from Ashkenazi Jews, who came from Central and Eastern Europe at around the same time many Catholics did - although other Jewish groups (Sephardic, Mizrahi, etc) are represented.

People who follow Judaism are likely to be able to find a group who share their values if they research an area with a high Jewish population - whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or somewhere in between.

New York has by far the highest percentage of Jewish inhabitants at 8.91% (2015). Next is New Jersey (5.86%) and the District of Columbia (4.25%). Right at the other end of the scale is South Dakota, which is home to only 250 Jewish Americans (0.03% of the state's population).

There are nearly 4,000 synagogues in the United States. You can see a list of notable places of worship in the embedded page below.

List of synagogues in the United States - Wikipedia

Jewish Americans have had a huge influence on business and culture in the country. They've added to the language (chutzpah, klutz, bagel). They've been prominent in media and entertainment. They've played major roles in the financial and banking sectors. Conspiracy theorists like to hang on to, and extrapolate wildly from, these facts when espousing anti-semetic views (see below).

Islam in the US

Islam, unlike Christianity and Judaism, is a growing religion in the United States and is predicted to grow further.

Total American Muslim population share projected to grow

There are over 2,000 mosques in the United States.

List of mosques in the United States - Wikipedia

Sunni Muslims make up around half of the Muslim population. A further 30-odd percent are unaffiliated. Shia Muslims account for only 1.6% of Muslims in the United States.

Religious discrimination in the US

According to the FBI, there were 7,173 reported incidents of hate crime, 19.7% (1,413) of which were motivated by a bias against religion.

Muslims have not had an easy time of things since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, with Islamophobic sentiments becoming more and more common.

Two Gallup polls from 2010 - notably, before the rise of the so-called Islamic State - showed that Muslims felt discriminated against in the United States (and that people of other religions noticed it too).

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Source: Gallup

Anti-semitism - discrimination against Jewish people - has long been a problem in the United States. Though currently at a historic low, the Anti-Defamation League (an organisation against anti-semitism) often reports on anti-semitic incidents.

The prevailing harmful stereotype in the US is that Jewish people have too much control over financial matters in the country (Wall Street, for example). Absurdly, the conspiracy theory that Jews, and Israel in particular, were responsible for the events of 9/11 still holds merit amongst a certain subset of American society.

Expats' Tips

What are your experiences with religion in the US? Email office@guides.global to share your views and anecdotes.

Conclusion

Freedom of religion is enshrined in the US constitution, and the States - whilst being overwhelmingly Christian - are home to communities of many faiths.

As always, look carefully at the city of region you're hoping to live or work in before making a decision. Will you be able to find somewhere to worship? Are the religious attitudes too conservative for you to be comfortable? Is there a high level of discrimination against your faith?

Other guides of interest

 Description Link 
Country guide for the United States
Useful facts and figures
country guide for the US
Sex, Sexuality and Gender Issues in the US
This guide looks at the age of consent, gender equality, abortion laws, gay rights and transgender rights in the US.
Sex, Sexuality and Gender Issues in the US

You may also want to read:

 Description Link 
FBI 2015 Hate Crime Statistics
Summary and downloadable figures
FBI 2015 Hate Crime Statistics
Pew Research Center - Religion & Public Life
Date, analysis and news about religion in the US
Pew Research Center - Religion & Public Life
The 2010 U.S. Religion Census
"The U.S. Religion Census is your source for religious data at the county level. It reports the number of congregations in every U.S. county equivalent for each of 236 faith groups."
The 2010 U.S. Religion Census

Readers' Comments

 

Further information?

I hope you have found this guide useful. If you need any further help, please contact me.

Francine Carrel

8 December 2016


 

This guide was co-authored by John Howell (Email: John.Howell@Guides.Global or John@jhco.org. Web: www.jhco.org or www.Guides.Global)



 

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