Religion in the United States is diverse with Christianity being the majority religion. Various religious faiths have flourished within the United States. A majority of Americans report that religion plays a very important role in their lives, a proportion unique among developed countries. Freedom of religion in the United States is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Historically, the United States has always been marked by religious pluralism and diversity, beginning with various native beliefs of the pre-colonial time. In colonial times, Anglicans, Catholics and mainline Protestants, as well as Jews, arrived from Europe. Eastern Orthodoxy has been present since the Russian colonization of Alaska. Various dissenting Protestants, who left the Church of England, greatly diversified the religious landscape. The Great Awakenings gave birth to multiple evangelical Protestant denominations; membership in Methodist and Baptist churches increased drastically in the Second Great Awakening. In the 18th century, deism found support among American upper classes and thinkers. The Episcopal Church, splitting from the Church of England, came into being in the American Revolution. New Protestant branches like Adventism emerged; Restorationists and other Christians like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Latter Day Saint movement, Churches of Christ and Church of Christ, Scientist, as well as Unitarian and Universalist communities all spread in the 19th century. Pentecostalism emerged in the early 20th century as a result of the Azusa Street Revival. Scientology emerged in the 1950s. Unitarian Universalism resulted from the merge of Unitarian and Universalist churches in the 20th century. Since the 1990s, the religious share of Christians has decreased, while Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and other religions have spread, mainly from immigration. Protestantism, historically dominant, ceased to be the religious category of the majority in the early 2010s.
Christianity is the largest religion in the United States with the various Protestant Churches having the most adherents. In 2016, Christians represent 73.7% of the total population, 48.9% identifying as Protestants, 23.0% as Catholics, and 1.8% as Mormons, and are followed by people having no religion with 18.2% of the total population. Judaism is the second-largest religion in the U.S., practiced by 2.1% of the population, followed by Islam with 0.8%. Mississippi is the most religious state in the country, with 63% of its adult population described as very religious, saying that religion is important to them and attending religious services almost every week, while New Hampshire, with only 20% of its adult population described as very religious, is the least religious state. The most religious region of the United States is American Samoa (99.3% religious).
From early colonial days, when some English and German settlers moved in search of religious freedom, America has been profoundly influenced by religion. That influence continues in American culture, social life, and politics. Several of the original Thirteen Colonies were established by settlers who wished to practice their own religion within a community of like-minded people: the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by English Puritans (Congregationalists), Pennsylvania by British Quakers, Maryland by English Catholics, and Virginia by English Anglicans. Despite these, and as a result of intervening religious strife and preference in England, the Plantation Act 1740 would set official policy for new immigrants coming to British America until the American Revolution.
The text of the First Amendment to the country’s Constitution states that “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.” It guarantees the free exercise of religion while also preventing the government from establishing a state religion. However, the states were not bound by the provision and as late as the 1830s Massachusetts provided tax money to local Congregational churches. The Supreme Court since the 1940s has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as applying the First Amendment to the state and local governments.
President John Adams and a unanimous Senate endorsed the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797 that stated: “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Expert researchers and authors have referred to the United States as a “Protestant nation” or “founded on Protestant principles,” specifically emphasizing its Calvinist heritage.
The modern official motto of the United States of America, as established in a 1956 law signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is “In God We Trust”. The phrase first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864.
According to a 2002 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly 6 in 10 Americans said that religion plays an important role in their lives, compared to 33% in Great Britain, 27% in Italy, 21% in Germany, 12% in Japan, and 11% in France. The survey report stated that the results showed America having a greater similarity to developing nations (where higher percentages say that religion plays an important role) than to other wealthy nations, where religion plays a minor role.
In 1963, 90% of U.S. adults claimed to be Christians while only 2% professed no religious identity. In 2016, 73.7% identified as Christians while 18.2% claimed no religious affiliation.
The United States federal government was the first national government to have no official state-endorsed religion. However, some states had established religions in some form until the 1830s.
Modeling the provisions concerning religion within the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the framers of the Constitution rejected any religious test for office, and the First Amendment specifically denied the federal government any 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. 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 them.
The most popular religion in the U.S. is Christianity, comprising the majority of the population (73.7% of adults in 2016). According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies newsletter published March 2017, based on data from 2010, Christians were the largest religious population in all 3,143 counties in the country. Roughly 48.9% of Americans are Protestants, 23.0% are Catholics, 1.8% are Mormons (the name commonly used to refer to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Christianity was introduced during the period of European colonization.
Historians agree that members of mainline Protestant denominations have played leadership roles in many aspects of American life, including politics, business, science, the arts, and education. They founded most of the country’s leading institutes of higher education. According to Harriet Zuckerman, 72% of American Nobel Prize Laureates between 1901 and 1972, have identified from Protestant background.
While the Puritans were securing their Commonwealth, members of the Catholic church in England were also planning a refuge, “for they too were being persecuted on account of their religion.” Among those interested in providing a refuge for Catholics was the second Lord of Baltimore, George Calvert, who established Maryland, a “Catholic Proprietary,” in 1634, more than sixty years after the founding of the Spanish Florida mission of St. Augustine. Though small in number in the beginning, Catholicism grew over the centuries to become the largest single denomination in the US, primarily through immigration, but also through the acquisition of continental territories under the jurisdiction of French and Spanish Catholic powers. Though the European Catholic and indigenous population of these former territories were small, the material cultures there, the original mission foundations with their canonical Catholic names, are still recognized today (as they were formerly known) in any number of cities in California, New Mexico and Louisiana. (The most recognizable cities of California, for example, are named after Catholic saints.)
As the number of Catholics increased, they built up a vast system of schools (from primary schools to universities) and hospitals. The first US Catholic university, Georgetown University, was founded in 1789. Since then, the Catholic church has founded hundreds of other colleges and universities, along with thousands of primary and secondary schools. Schools like the University of Notre Dame is ranked best in its state (Indiana) as Georgetown University is ranked best in the District of Columbia. 12 Catholic universities are also ranked among the top 100 universities in the US.
Beginning around 1600 European settlers introduced Anglican and Puritan religion, as well as Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Quaker, and Moravian denominations.
Beginning in the 16th century, the Spanish (and later the French and English) introduced Catholicism. From the 19th century to the present, Catholics moved to the US in large numbers due to immigration of Italians, Hispanics, Portuguese, French, Polish, Irish, Highland Scots, Dutch, Flemish, Hungarians, Germans, Lebanese (Maronite), and other ethnic groups.
During the 19th century, two main branches of Eastern Christianity also arrived to America. Eastern Orthodoxy was brought to America by Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, and other immigrant groups, mainly from Eastern Europe. In the same time, several immigrant groups from the Middle East, mainly Armenians, Copts and Syriacs, brought Oriental Orthodoxy to America.
The largest religion, Christianity, has proportionately diminished since 1990. While the absolute number of Christians rose from 1990 to 2008, the percentage of Christians dropped from 86% to 76%. A nationwide telephone interview of 1,002 adults conducted by The Barna Group found that 70% of American adults believe that God is “the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe who still rules it today”, and that 9% of all American adults and 0.5% young adults hold to what the survey defined as a “biblical worldview”.
Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox and United Church of Christ members have the highest number of graduate and post-graduate degrees per capita of all Christian denominations in the United States, as well as the most high-income earners. However, owing to the sheer size or demographic head count of Catholics, more individual Catholics have graduate degrees and are in the highest income brackets than have or are individuals of any other religious community.
After Christianity, Judaism is the next largest religious affiliation in the US, though this identification is not necessarily indicative of religious beliefs or practices. There are between 5.3 and 6.6 million Jews. A significant number of people identify themselves as American Jews on ethnic and cultural grounds, rather than religious ones. For example, 19% of self-identified American Jews do not believe God exists. The 2001 ARIS study projected from its sample that there are about 5.3 million adults in the American Jewish population: 2.83 million adults (1.4% of the U.S. adult population) are estimated to be adherents of Judaism; 1.08 million are estimated to be adherents of no religion; and 1.36 million are estimated to be adherents of a religion other than Judaism. ARIS 2008 estimated about 2.68 million adults (1.2%) in the country identify Judaism as their faith. According to a 2017 study, Judaism is the religion of approximately 2% of the American population.
According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies newsletter published March, 2017, based on data from 2010, Jews were the largest minority religion in 231 counties out of the 3143 counties in the country. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, 1.7% of adults in the U.S. identify Judaism as their religion. Among those surveyed, 44% said they were Reform Jews, 22% said they were Conservative Jews, and 14% said they were Orthodox Jews. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, 38% of Jews were affiliated with the Reform tradition, 35% were Conservative, 6% were Orthodox, 1% were Reconstructionists, 10% linked themselves to some other tradition, and 10% said they are “just Jewish”.
According to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, 4.3 million American Jewish adults have some sort of strong connection to the Jewish community, whether religious or cultural. Jewishness is generally considered an ethnic identity as well as a religious one. Among the 4.3 million American Jews described as “strongly connected” to Judaism, over 80% have some sort of active engagement with Judaism, ranging from attendance at daily prayer services on one end of the spectrum to attending Passover Seders or lighting Hanukkah candles on the other. The survey also discovered that Jews in the Northeast and Midwest are generally more observant than Jews in the South or West.
The Jewish American community has higher household incomes than average, and is one of the best educated religious communities in the United States.
Islam is probably the third largest religion in numbers in the United States, after Christianity and Judaism, followed, according to Gallup, by 0.8% of the population in 2016. Hinduism and Buddhism follow it closely in numbers (in 2014 the large scale Religious Life Survey found Islam with 0.9% and the other two with 0.7% each). According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies newsletter published in March 2017, based on data from 2010, Muslims were the largest minority religion in 392 counties out of the 3143 counties in the country. According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in 2018, there are approximately 3.45 million Muslims living in the United States, with 2.05 million adults, and the rest being children. Across faith groups, ISPU found in 2017 that Muslims were most likely to be born outside of the US (50%), with 36% having undergone naturalization. American Muslims are also America’s most diverse religious community with 25% identifying as black or African American, 24% identifying as white, 18% identifying as Asian/Chinese/Japanese, 18% identifying as Arab, and 5% identifying as Hispanic. In addition to diversity, Americans Muslims are most likely to report being low income, and among those who identify as middle class, the majority are Muslim women, not men. Although American Muslim education levels are similar to other religious communities, namely Christians, within the Muslim American population, Muslim women surpass Muslim men in education, with 31% of Muslim women having graduated from a four-year university. 90% of Muslim Americans identify as straight.
Islam in America effectively began with the arrival of African slaves. It is estimated that about 10% of African slaves transported to the United States were Muslim. Most, however, became Christians, and the United States did not have a significant Muslim population until the arrival of immigrants from Arab and East Asian Muslim areas. According to some experts, Islam later gained a higher profile through the Nation of Islam, a religious group that appealed to black Americans after the 1940s; its prominent converts included Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
The United States has perhaps the second largest Bahá’í community in the world. First mention of the faith in the U.S. was at the inaugural Parliament of World Religions, which was held at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In 1894, Ibrahim George Kheiralla, a Syrian Bahá’í immigrant, established a community in the U.S. He later left the main group and founded a rival movement. According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies newsletter published March, 2017, based on data from 2010, Bahá’ís were the largest minority religion in 80 counties out of the 3143 counties in the country.
Rastafarians began migrating to the United States in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s from the religion’s 1930s birthplace, Jamaica. Marcus Garvey, who is considered a prophet by many Rastafarians, rose to prominence and cultivated many of his ideas in the United States.
Buddhism entered the US during the 19th century with the arrival of the first immigrants from East Asia. The first Buddhist temple was established in San Francisco in 1853 by Chinese Americans.The first prominent US citizen to publicly convert to Buddhism was Henry Steel Olcott in 1880 who is still honored in Sri Lanka for these efforts. An event that contributed to the strengthening of Buddhism in the US was the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, which was attended by many Buddhist delegates sent from India, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
During the late 19th century Buddhist missionaries from Japan traveled to the US. During the same time period, US intellectuals started to take interest in Buddhism.
The early 20th century was characterized by a continuation of tendencies that had their roots in the 19th century. The second half, by contrast, saw the emergence of new approaches, and the move of Buddhism into the mainstream and making itself a mass and social religious phenomenon.
According to a 2016 study, Buddhists are approximately 1% of the American population. According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies newsletter published March, 2017, based on data from 2010, Buddhists were the largest minority religion in 186 counties out of the 3143 counties in the country.
Hinduism is the fourth largest faith in the United States, representing approximately 1% of the population in 2016. In 2001, there were an estimated 766,000 Hindus in the US, about 0.2% of the total population.
According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies newsletter published March, 2017, based on data from 2010, Hindus were the largest minority religion in 92 counties out of the 3143 counties in the country.
American Hindus have one of the highest rates of educational attainment and household income among all religious communities, and tend to have lower divorce rates. Hindus also have higher acceptance towards homosexuality(71%), which is higher than the general public (62%).
Adherents of Jainism first arrived in the United States in the 20th century. The most significant time of Jain immigration was in the early 1970s. The United States has since become a center of the Jain Diaspora. The Federation of Jain Associations in North America is an umbrella organization of local American and Canadian Jain congregations to preserve, practice, and promote Jainism and the Jain way of life.
Sikhism is a religion originating from the Indian subcontinent which was introduced into the United States when, around the turn of the 20th century, Sikhs started emigrating to the United States in significant numbers to work on farms in California. They were the first community to come from India to the US in large numbers. The first Sikh Gurdwara in America was built in Stockton, California, in 1912. In 2007, there were estimated to be between 250,000 and 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, with the largest populations living on the East and West Coasts, with additional populations in Detroit, Chicago, and Austin.
The United States also has a number of non-Punjabi converts to Sikhism.
In 2004 there were an estimated 56,000 Taoists in the US. Taoism was popularized throughout the world through the writings and teachings of Lao Tzu and other Taoists as well as the practice of Qigong, Tai Chi Chuan and other Chinese martial arts.
In 2016, approximately 18.2% of the Americans declared to be not religiously affiliated.
A 2001 survey directed by Dr. Ariela Keysar for the City University of New York indicated that, amongst the more than 100 categories of response, “no religious identification” had the greatest increase in population in both absolute and percentage terms. This category included atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others with no stated religious preferences. Figures are up from 14.3 million in 1990 to 34.2 million in 2008, representing an increase from 8% of the total population in 1990 to 15% in 2008. A nationwide Pew Research study published in 2008 put the figure of unaffiliated persons at 16.1%, while another Pew study published in 2012 was described as placing the proportion at about 20% overall and roughly 33% for the 18–29-year-old demographic.
In a 2006 nationwide poll, University of Minnesota researchers found that despite an increasing acceptance of religious diversity, atheists were generally distrusted by other Americans, who trusted them less than Muslims, recent immigrants and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society”. They also associated atheists with undesirable attributes such as amorality, criminal behavior, rampant materialism and cultural elitism. However, the same study also reported that “The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation – with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Midwestern counterparts.” Some surveys have indicated that doubts about the existence of the divine were growing quickly among Americans under 30.
On 24 March 2012, American atheists sponsored the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., followed by the American Atheist Convention in Bethesda, Maryland. Organizers called the estimated crowd of 8,000–10,000 the largest-ever US gathering of atheists in one place.
In the United States, Enlightenment philosophy (which itself was heavily inspired by deist ideals) played a major role in creating the principle of religious freedom, expressed in Thomas Jefferson’s letters and included in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. American Founding Fathers, or Framers of the Constitution, who were especially noted for being influenced by such philosophy of deism include Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, and Hugh Williamson. Their political speeches show distinct deistic influence. Other notable Founding Fathers may have been more directly deist. These include Thomas Paine, James Madison, possibly Alexander Hamilton, and Ethan Allen.
“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) is self-identified stance of spirituality that takes issue with organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Spirituality places an emphasis upon the wellbeing of the “mind-body-spirit,” so holistic activities such as tai chi, reiki, and yoga are common within the SBNR movement. In contrast to religion, spirituality has often been associated with the interior life of the individual.
One fifth of the US public and a third of adults under the age of 30 are reportedly unaffiliated with any religion, however they identify as being spiritual in some way. Of these religiously unaffiliated Americans, 37% classify themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Native American religions historically exhibited much diversity, and are often characterized by animism or panentheism. The membership of Native American religions in the 21st century comprises about 9,000 people.
Neopaganism in the United States is represented by widely different movements and organizations. The largest Neopagan religion is Wicca, followed by Neo-Druidism. Other neopagan movements include Germanic Neopaganism, Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionism, and Semitic neopaganism.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), there are approximately 30,000 druids in the United States. Modern Druidism arrived in North America first in the form of fraternal Druidic organizations in the nineteenth century, and orders such as the Ancient Order of Druids in America were founded as distinct American groups as early as 1912. In 1963, the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) was founded by students at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. They adopted elements of Neopaganism into their practices, for instance celebrating the festivals of the Wheel of the Year.
Wicca advanced in North America in the 1960s by Raymond Buckland, an expatriate Briton who visited Gardner’s Isle of Man coven to gain initiation. Universal Eclectic Wicca was popularized in 1969 for a diverse membership drawing from both Dianic and British Traditional Wiccan backgrounds.
Nordic Paganism is the umbrella term for polytheistic followers of the Proto-Norse period religions involving the Nordic pantheon of gods. This pantheon includes gods such as the Æsir; Odin, Thor, Loki, Sif, Heimdallr, Baldr, and Týr, as well as goddesses that include Vanir; Freyja, Freyr, Njörðr, and Nerthus. The followers of Nordic Paganism include Odinists, Tyrists, Lokians, Asatru, and practitioners of Seiðr, among other varying followers. Nordic Pagans follow the teachings of the Hávamál. This old text, along with the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, gives the basis for Norse mythology, stories, legends, and beliefs.
Norse mythology is portrayed in popular culture and Nordic symbols and teachings are also used by many white supremacy groups. This use has prompted some prisons to ban the wearing of these symbols, such as Mjölnir, by inmates due to their gang affiliation.
A group of churches which started in the 1830s in the United States is known under the banner of “New Thought”. These churches share a spiritual, metaphysical and mystical predisposition and understanding of the Bible and were strongly influenced by the Transcendentalist movement, particularly the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Another antecedent of this movement was Swedenborgianism, founded on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg in 1787. The New Thought concept was named by Emma Curtis Hopkins (“teacher of teachers”) after Hopkins broke off from Mary Baker Eddy’s Church of Christ, Scientist. The movement had been previously known as the Mental Sciences or the Christian Sciences. The three major branches are Religious Science, Unity Church and Divine Science.
Unitarian Universalists (UUs) are among the most liberal of all religious denominations in America. The shared creed includes beliefs in inherent dignity, a common search for truth, respect for beliefs of others, compassion, and social action. They are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the understanding that an individual’s theology is a result of that search and not obedience to an authoritarian requirement. UUs have historical ties to anti-war, civil rights, and LGBT rights movements, as well as providing inclusive church services for the broad spectrum of liberal Christians, liberal Jews, secular humanists, LGBT, Jewish-Christian parents and partners, Earth-centered/Wicca, and Buddhist meditation adherents.