Two realities that still stand out for me, when I think about the violent invasion of the US Capitol on January 6th , are the aggressive Christian nationalism and the hateful antisemitism of the demonstrators. When I mentioned this to an American friend, he commented “ok but we are and always have been a Christian country and should remain that way.” I had no desire to get into an argument with my friend but I started thinking about contemporary religious identity and the religious history of the United States..
Contrary to what my friend believes, religion in the United States is quite diverse. And it always has been. Many of the “Founding Fathers” – and mothers – were not Christians. Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe were Deists. English deism had an important influence on the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the principles of religious freedom asserted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Some debate whether or not George Washington was a Deist. In any event he was not antisemitic. In August 1790, prior to visiting them with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, President Washington wrote his brief but famous “Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island.” Therein he stressed: that religious toleration should give way to religious liberty: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” [Back then the word “demean” meant “conduct oneself in a particular way.” JAD]
Historically, a variety of religious faiths have flourished in what became the United States. Religions pluralism and diversity began with the various native beliefs in pre-colonial times.
In colonial times, Anglicans, Quakers, and other mainline Protestants arrived from Northwestern Europe. (My paternal ancestors, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1684, were Quakers from Cheshire, England.) In the mid to late 19th and 20th century, an unprecedented number of Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian immigrants arrived in the United States. There were of course Catholics present in small numbers early in the history of the United States, both in Maryland and in the former French and Spanish colonies that were eventually absorbed into the US. Jewish people have been present since the 17th century; and the Muslim presence in what is now the United States began with the arrival of African slaves. About 10% of African slaves transported to what is now the United States were Muslim.
Since the 1990s, the number of US Christians has decreased, while Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and other religions have spread, mainly due to immigration. In the decade starting in 2010, Protestantism ceased being the majority religion due primarily to an increase of Americans professing no religious affiliation.
So today the USA religious landscape looks about like this: 65% of the total adult population is Christian with 43% identifying as Protestants, 20% as Catholics, and 2% as Mormons. People with no formal religious identity account for 26% of the total population. Judaism is the second-largest religion in the US, practiced by 2% of the population, followed by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, each with 1% of the population.
Some summary observations about the American way of religion: The United States is not a Christian country. It is a religiously pluralistic country. Freedom of religion means freedom for all Americans. Inter-religious respect and dialogue means respect and dialogue for all Americans. The US Federal Government was the world’s first national government without state-endorsed religion, and the framers of the US Constitution rejected any religious test for office.
Religious ignorance and collective delusions are not new. The American way of religion offers a number of challenges for today and for tomorrow. Better education for sure. Perhaps the biggest challenge is really believing in “one nation, under God, with liberty, and justice for all.”