A newcomer’s guide to religion in America

Religion has profoundly influenced the history, values, and societal norms of the United States, from the historical roots that shape religious freedom to the diversity of faiths celebrated today. Having a clear understanding of America’s history with religion and religious diversity is important for newcomers to the United States, as it can help you integrate successfully into American society, promote mutual respect, and enhance your social and professional interactions.

Religion in American history

Religious motivations, beliefs, and conflicts deeply influenced the founding and development of the United States. Religion in the United States began with the spiritual practices of Native Americans and was later influenced by the arrival of European colonists seeking religious freedom. The 13 original colonies (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) were established by British colonists for a range of reasons, from the pursuit of fortunes, to escape from religious prosecution to the desire to create new forms of government.

Early colonists in the United States, the Puritans, seeking to reform the Established Church of England from within, faced persecution and sought a place to practice their faith freely. This led to the establishment of the Plymouth Colony in 1620 by the Pilgrims, marking a significant Puritan influence on several early American colonies.

Other religious groups also sought refuge in America. William Penn and his fellow Quakers founded Pennsylvania as a haven for Quakers facing persecution in England. Maryland was founded by Cecil Calvert as a refuge for English Catholics. Additionally, Pennsylvania and North Carolina attracted dissidents from Germany and Ireland seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity.

The principle of religious freedom is preserved in the US Constitution, reflecting the diverse religious landscape of the early United States. The First Amendment guaranteed religious liberty, prohibiting Congress from establishing a religion or impeding the free exercise of religion. 

Religious diversity in America

The United States is home to a wide array of religious beliefs. As of the early 21st century, Christianity remains one of the most prominent religions, with Protestantism being the most prevalent form. However, the nation has also seen significant numbers of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and individuals of other faiths, as well as a growing segment of the population identifying as non-religious or “Nones.”

Christianity

Christianity remains the predominant religion in the United States, with a significant majority of Americans identifying as Christian. This includes a variety of denominations, with Protestantism and Catholicism being the most prominent. Protestantism itself is diverse, encompassing numerous denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals. Catholics form a substantial part of the Christian population, reflecting both historical migrations from Catholic-majority countries and ongoing immigration trends. Other Christian groups include Orthodox Christians, Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Judaism

Judaism has a long history in the United States, with Jewish communities contributing significantly to American culture, politics, and society. The Jewish population in the US is diverse, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and other streams of Judaism.

Islam

Islam is practiced by a growing number of Americans, with Muslims representing a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, including African Americans, immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, and converts. The Muslim population in the US is noted for its diversity and includes Sunni, Shia, and other Islamic traditions.

Hinduism and Buddhism

Hinduism and Buddhism, while smaller in comparison to the Abrahamic faiths, have established vibrant communities in the United States. Hinduism has been bolstered by immigration from South Asia, while Buddhism has attracted both Asian immigrants and American converts, reflecting a wide range of traditions within these religions.

Other Religions and the Unaffiliated

The United States is also home to practitioners of Sikhism, Baha’i, and numerous other faiths, reflecting the global nature of religious practice. Additionally, a significant portion of the American population identifies as religiously unaffiliated, including atheists, agnostics, and those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, often referred to as the “Nones,” represents a growing segment of the population.

The role of religion in contemporary American culture

In contemporary America, religion continues to be a vital aspect of cultural identity for many. It influences various facets of life, including politics, education, and community engagement. Religion has been instrumental in shaping American values such as liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. These values are deeply embedded in the nation’s founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The American national identity and patriotism are often linked to Christianity, as seen in public religious rhetoric like “God Bless America” or the statement “In God We Trust” found on currency.

Religion’s role in politics is complex and often contentious. While many Americans see religion as a force for good in society, there is a desire to keep it out of politics. Views on religion’s impact on public life vary significantly between Republicans and Democrats, with Republicans more likely to view religion’s declining influence as regrettable. The political landscape has been influenced by religious beliefs, with evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics often supporting the Republican Party and the Democratic Party attracting a more secular demographic.

Religious organizations play a significant role in community life, often providing social services, support networks, and moral guidance. Examples of religious organizations involved in social services include Catholic Charities USA, Lutheran Services in America, The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity International, and Volunteers of America. These organizations offer various services, from disaster relief to building affordable housing for families in need. Religious beliefs can also influence personal behaviors and ethical decisions, shaping how individuals interact within their communities and resolve conflicts.

Religious freedom and its implications

In the United States, the legal protections for religious freedom are primarily protected in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which includes two clauses that deal with the freedom of religion: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from establishing an official religion, endorsing or favoring one religion over another. It also prevents the government from preferring religion over non-religion or vice versa. This clause is the basis for the principle of separation of church and state, ensuring that the government remains neutral in religious matters.

The Free Exercise Clause protects individuals’ rights to practice their religion as they please, so long as the practice does not run afoul of public morals or a compelling governmental interest. This means that the government cannot penalize or burden individuals because of their religious beliefs and practices unless there is a significant reason to do so, such as protecting public health and safety.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 further protects individuals from discrimination in the workplace based on religion. It requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ religious practices unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. 

Navigating religious diversity

Respecting religious diversity is crucial for newcomers to the United States, given the country’s wide array of faith traditions and the importance of religion in many Americans’ lives. Here are some practical tips focused on understanding basic religious etiquettes and customs, as well as being open to learning about different faiths.

  1. Research major religious observances: Familiarize yourself with the major holidays and observances of different faiths, such as Christmas and Easter (Christianity), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Judaism), Ramadan and Eid (Islam), Diwali (Hinduism), and Vesak (Buddhism). Knowing these can help you show respect for others’ traditions.
  2. Appropriate greetings: Learn the common greetings associated with different religious holidays, such as “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” or “Eid Mubarak.” Using these greetings during the respective holidays can be a simple way to show respect and goodwill.
  3. Dress codes: Be aware of and respect any dress codes when visiting places of worship. For example, covering your head may be required in mosques and Sikh gurdwaras, and modest dress is often expected in churches, synagogues, and temples.
  4. Behavior in places of worship: Understand the basic dos and don’ts when visiting different places of worship. This might include removing your shoes before entering a mosque or Hindu temple, remaining quiet inside a church during services, or standing when prayers are offered.
  5. Food etiquettes: Be mindful of dietary restrictions associated with different religions, such as kosher laws in Judaism, halal guidelines in Islam, and vegetarianism in Hinduism and Buddhism. Showing awareness and consideration for these practices can be a sign of respect.

Many communities host interfaith dialogues, celebrations, and educational events. Participating in these can provide valuable insights into different religious practices and beliefs, fostering a deeper understanding and respect. In addition, many religious communities welcome visitors to their services or offer tours of their places of worship. This can be an excellent opportunity to learn firsthand about a religion’s practices and meet its followers. When in doubt, ask respectful questions. Most people are happy to share information about their religious beliefs and practices. Showing genuine interest and curiosity can lead to meaningful conversations and connections.

Respecting religious diversity involves understanding and appreciating the customs and etiquettes of different faiths and being open to learning about and engaging with various religious traditions. By following these practical tips, newcomers can navigate the religious landscape of the US with sensitivity and respect, contributing to a more inclusive and understanding community.

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