Religious Diversity in America

American Religions amid Radical Transformations (1924-2001)

Defining a New Hegemony: JudeoChristian Identity in the Context of War and Immigration Restriction (1920s-1965) 

From around 1920 until the 1960s, the American religious landscape experienced transformations that were in large part the result of an increasing native-born population in the wake of restrictive immigration policy. World War I brought on urgent questions of belonging, exclusion, and what constituted American identity. After this, World War II and the decrease of newcomers encouraged a more inclusive yet homogenous sense of American religious identity in the form of Judeo-Christianity. This, partly, allowed for the entry of Jews and Catholics increasingly into the mainstream: by the 1960s, Jews held high level positions in business and academia, for instance, that they would never have dreamed of before, and the first ever Catholic president was elected in 1960. How did people in this period define who was an American? Why might decreased immigration lead to the formation of new American identities? How did wars and geopolitics affect religion’s place in American politics?

Beginning in earnest during World War I, immigrant communities were the subject of "Americanization" efforts. Americanization entailed attempts to erase ethnic difference through enforcing English language instruction, teaching immigrants American customs, and encouraging immigrants to abandon social and cultural customs from their countries of origin. Such efforts echoed earlier ones to censure the practice of American Indian culture in the nineteenth century. This pressure to conform to certain standards of American assimilation accompanied intense anti-German sentiment, as well as a longer tradition that associated radicalism with immigrants and which seemed especially dangerous in the context of World War. In the 1920s and 1930s, the US (and the world) saw the rise of far-right, nativist, and fascist groups that put religion, ethnicity, and race at the forefront of their political and social agendas. In the United States, the Ku Klux Klan saw a resurgence from about 1915-1925.35 Unlike the post-Civil War Klan, this incarnation was widespread in the North and West, as well as in the South. It was also more capacious in its ire, targeting not only African Americans but also Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and liberals. 

Having immigrated in large numbers since the 1870s, Jews throughout the twentieth century asserted outsized influence in America, though they were also targets of repression. The historian David Hollinger has written of the significance of Jewish intellectuals in reducing the Christian influence in academia and in other forms of public and cultural life.36 Jews were the first non-Christian group to attain status and high-ranking positions in the arts, sciences, business, and other areas, although they often faced discrimination for their beliefs and because of damaging stereotypes about Jewish people. For instance, many elite colleges instituted quotas in the 1920s and 1930s, with an aim of excluding Jewish applicants, who had become proportionally overrepresented at these institutions.37 Some prominent Christians espoused anti-Semitic sentiments freely—including famed radio preacher Father Coughlin and Ford Motors founder Henry Ford. This is one indication that these sentiments were fairly mainstream.

Classroom resource 11, titled "US Census and Religion," includes an image from the front page of the 1960 Census.

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Though antisemitism was common, and immigration restriction and racist nativist movements were on the rise, some Americans were emphasizing a different image of American society: in 1924, for instance, (Jewish) philosopher Horace Kallen coined the phrase “cultural pluralism” to emphasize that active celebration, not just tolerance, of difference should define American way of life.38 In many ways, this pluralism was the reality, as ethnic enclaves remained vibrant in big American cities. At the same time, popular culture could have an assimilating effect, as movies and radio (in English) were experienced by Americans of many different backgrounds.39 Oftentimes other marginalized but established religious groups, including Catholic and Jewish organizations, served as important allies for immigrants’ First Amendment rights. 

In addition to lower immigration, the global threat of fascism encouraged President Franklin Roosevelt and others to promote the idea of national unity through religious pluralism. In the 1930s, Roosevelt invoked and popularized the phrase “Judeo-Christianity” in response to the antisemitism of the Nazis, and to encourage a unified sense of identity among the nation’s Catholics, Jews, and Protestant Christians. The concept gained some currency with liberal Protestant theologians, and then came into wide use during and after World War II, hitting a high point in the 1950s.40 Sociologist Will Herberg’s best-selling 1955 book Catholic-Protestant-Jew claimed that projections of “cultural pluralism” had not been borne out, as the “American Way of Life” had come to stand in for ethnic difference. He argued that the US was now a three-religion nation, as religion became a more important marker than ethnicity. A plurality of religions, though, had maintained some autonomy. Significantly, Herberg framed the American way of life as a form of civil religion, a set of common transcendent values—including in the political and economic realms—that stood alongside pre-existing religious identities. 

Not every group equally accepted the notion of American pluralism in the form of JudeoChristianity; evangelicals in particular resisted the implication that the US was not a foremost (Protestant) Christian nation, and unsuccessfully sought to enshrine specific recognition for Christians in US law. This was part of a longer history of attempts at a “Christian Amendment,” first begun during the Civil War, to include explicitly Christian language in a constitutional Amendment. In 1954, those in favor of a Christian amendment suggested the following language: “This nation devoutly recognises the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of all nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.”41 This amendment did not pass, but it shows the persistent belief of some groups that America is at its core a Christian nation. 

The emergence of Judeo-Christianity as a concept accompanied two other related historical developments: the 1950s saw both the highest levels of religiosity—including by measures of church attendance and self-identification—and lower levels of exclusive Protestant dominance. Catholics and Jews both experienced upward mobility after World War II, as a result of postwar prosperity, federal assistance granted in part by the passage of the GI bill, and the lessening of barriers in education and politics, to name a few reasons. In addition to the many contributions of American Jews noted above, increasing Catholic visibility and successes made clear the multifaceted nature of the American religious landscape. One debate that highlights the significance of religious identity in this period and the state’s efforts recognize these identities—to make them legible—was the struggle over whether or not to include, for the first time, religious identification as a category on the 1960 census.42

 The 1950s also saw a resurgence in American Civil Religion, which took on special resonance in the context of the Cold War, which was framed as a fight between righteous, religious Americans and the “godless” Communists.43 President Eisenhower welcomed the intense religiosity and embraced an ecumenical stance, in which religion—though not one specific religion, per se—constituted an essential part of American identity. He famously claimed in 1952 that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”44 One concrete example of this shift, for instance, is the addition in 1954 of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.45 It was in the context of Cold War anxieties and high religious affiliation that evangelical preacher Billy Graham got his start; he led the first of his crusades in 1947, and his influence as a preacher grew from the 1950s onward. He is one of the most visible figures in twentieth century evangelical Christianity, having preached to millions of people and had private audience with most sitting US presidents since Truman. Graham’s tremendous popularity and visibility speaks to the increased role of evangelicals in public life in the second half of the twentieth century.

Exploration and Mobilization in the 1960s

Radical social and political change in the 1960s and 1970s altered Americans’ outlook on different forms of religion, as did the arrival of huge numbers of immigrants from non-European countries after 1965. At the same time, the US saw a major surge in the numbers of religious “nones”, i.e. the religiously unaffiliated, such as humanists, agnostics and atheists. In addition, this period saw the wider-scale and more visible interest in Eastern religions, such as Zen Buddhism, Hare Krishna, and transcendental meditation, as many in the counterculture felt the pull of eastern mysticism. What were the major demographic trends in this period? How did religion serve as an important basis for some of the political and social movements in the 1960s?

African American religion flourished, as the Civil Rights Movement demonstrated the longstanding centrality of the black church to social and political organizing, and the language of prophetic religion helped frame the black freedom struggle in universal terms and endow it with transcendent significance. The Civil Rights Movement’s most famous leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a devout Baptist minister. He not only used prophetic language to motivate followers and allies, but he and other activists used African American churches as meeting places, sites to facilitate communication and organization, and as community centers.46 The subsequent Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s inspired interest in pan-African religious practices and traditions. Islam also became an important force in black religious life in the twentieth century, as an alternative to the Black Church.47 Though Islam has existed in America since slaves were first brought to the continent from West Africa, in the twentieth century groups like the Nation of Islam brought new political resonance to the religion in their blend of Muslim theology and radical pro-black politics. Throughout the twentieth century, many African Americans also converted to Islam, and by the 1960s, converts like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were household names, both for their religious proclivities and for their radical calls for black self-determination. Like Christianity, African American Islam has included a capacious set of practices and groups: Malcolm X famously broke with the controversial Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad in 1964 and became a Sunni Muslim. The increasing visibility of the Black Church on the national stage in the 1950s and 1960s and the growth of Islam represented larger shifts in black politics, from Civil Rights to Black Power by the end of the 1960s.48

In contrast to the high religiosity of the 1950s, many Americans moved away from religion in the 1960s and 1970s. This came as a result of both internal struggles in Protestantism and the immense political and social changes that in part caused this schism. The unaffiliated, or “nones,” although bonded by a modern antipathy, indifference or lesser commitment to religion, came from a variety of origins. One major source was former non-evangelical protestants. Mainline and evangelical churches inherited, in some ways, the fundamentalist-modernist debate of the early twentieth century, and harbored growing animosity as major questions of the 1960s—brought on by the civil rights and black power movements, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution—brought them to very different conclusions. Many—though not all—evangelicals doubled down on a commitment to traditionalist conservative values, while the mainline tacked left. Mainline sects hemorrhaged members in the late 1960s and early 1970s, creating a new demographic of “post-Protestants”: those who grew up in mainline Protestant sects but left their churches in the wake of personal and social changes since the 1960s.49 This group, as well as so-called lapsed Catholics and irreligious Jews, greatly increased the number of “nones.” This group is now among the fastest growing religious groups in the nation: according to Pew, fully 24 percent of the nation now identifies itself with the nones, a steep increase over the last 50 years. 

Classroom Resource 19, titled "Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr." includes a picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr."

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Beyond Judeo-Christian America: Immigration from 196550

Both the Civil Rights Movement at home and geopolitical pressures from abroad put pressure on the US government to loosen its restrictive immigration policies in the mid-1960s, and in 1965 congress passed the Nationality and Immigration Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act.51 The act did away with national origin quotas, allowed immigration of family members and specially skilled immigrants, and effectively ended official race-based immigration restriction. Liberal proponents of the bill, like Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, assured congress and the public that the act would have a limited effect on the demographic makeup of the United States; this was a severe miscalculation. The act would in fact trigger one of the largest-scale immigration waves in American history. In 1970s, Asian immigration, which had formerly been very limited, swelled to 40 percent of all immigration to the US. This brought huge numbers of Buddhists and Muslims, as well as many more Christians of non-European descent. 

In the 45 years since Hart-Celler was passed, almost 38 million immigrants have come to the US, with the largest numbers being from Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia.52 When the law was passed, under 10 million people in the U.S. were born elsewhere; today, that number is a record 45 million.53 Immigration since 1965 has actually exceeded, in numbers, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century influx that so reshaped American society. Asians now make up a greater proportion of the population (6 percent ), but Hispanics are by far the biggest single immigrant group. Since the 1980s, immigration from Mexico has grown immensely. Thousands of Mexicans, including many undocumented immigrants, cross the border each year. In the last ten years, however, migration from Mexico has slowed significantly, due to a number of political and economic factors.

The dramatic increase in immigration since 1965 has had a serious impact on the religious landscape of the United States. There is no doubt that Hart-Celler increased the numbers of many religious groups, including Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. New arrivals have also increased the numbers and styles of diverse forms of Christianity.54 Immigrants from Latin America, for instance, lean heavily Catholic and Pentecostal. The Catholic Church in America has a heavy immigrant base, with 28 percent of Catholics identifying as immigrants, and another 15 percent being the children of immigrants.55 One major shift has been the decreased demographic dominance of white Christians who are no longer the majority in this country; as Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, has deemed our current moment the “end of white Christian America” in his 2016 book by that title. We will look at these trends further in the last section of this brief.

Evangelicals and American Politics

While some Americans were moving away from religious organizations, evangelicals and fundamentalists saw their numbers and political power increase significantly in the 1970s and 1980s. Evangelicals, though strong in numbers, had largely stayed out of national and local politics for the better part of the mid-century period. Beginning largely in the 1950s, and continuing through the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, evangelicals built their own counterculture, including parallel educational, publishing, campus-based organizations. This network, a massive swelling in their numbers during the 1970s, and a fraught political and cultural climate set up evangelicals to become a powerful political force.56 Why did evangelicals reenter the political arena in this period, and how did they do so? What political issues motivated them?

Classroom resource 14, titled "Nones," includes an image of Gerry Dantone of NYC Atheists Godless American March on Washington.

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Atheist Political Cartoonist Watson Heston (selections of his comics)*

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Classroom resource 15, titled "Evangelicals and the Law," includes a picture of the 2009 march for life in Washington D.C. by John Stephen Dwyer.

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According to Newsweek Magazine, 1976 was the “year of the evangelical.” In retrospect, this might seem a reasonable nomination: by then, their numbers had skyrocketed, the nation would elect the first born-again president, Jimmy Carter, and evangelical political organization was proceeding at a rapid rate. The late 1970s were indeed a critical time for the politicization of the evangelical movement, specifically in terms of the rise of the religious right. Though they initially showed support, throughout his presidency evangelicals abandoned Carter for his liberal feelings on foreign policy, women’s rights, and race. High profile preachers, most notably Jerry Falwell, were hard at work mobilizing evangelical constituencies for the Republican Party. After expressing ambivalence about the presence of evangelicals in politics in the 1960s, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979. This organization would prove to be of tremendous importance to Ronald Reagan and the continued mobilization of Christian activists. Although evangelicals might have rejected some aspects of modern ‘secular’ culture, they did not reject modern forms of organizing or the harnessing of technology to spread their message. In 1977, the reverend Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network got its own cable channel; its flagship program, the 700 Club, is the longest-running show on television.

While it is clear that since the 1960s most of the concerted, organized energy of the evangelical constituency has been in the service of conservative goals, evangelicals have never been a homogenous group.57 In politics, though, many evangelicals have often proven themselves resistant to change, whether in the case of amending the meaning of marriage, accepting novel gender arrangements, or supporting civil rights legislation. Evangelical conservative mobilization was indispensable for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election to the presidency. Where Carter had won 56 percent of Southern Baptists in the 1976 presidential race, Reagan won that same number against Carter in 1980. The move of so many evangelicals back to the Republican party solidified a trend that had been in the making for decades, and also partly reflects the success of the “Southern Strategy” first attempted by Richard Nixon to wrench, once and for all, the hold of the Democratic party on the south.58 Reagan’s actions and message resonated with his evangelical base, in a reflection of the recent trend of the rise of the religious right, but also relying on the longer history of American Civil Religion. He often used religious imagery in his speeches, and cast the continuing Cold War with the Soviet Union in terms of a divinely sanctioned mission between the God-fearing US and the atheistic communists. He was the first presidential nominee to utter the words “God Bless America,” and the first to close a State of the Union Address in that way. The Christian Right thrived throughout the 1980s, though their influence diminished somewhat during the presidency of Bill Clinton. 

During the presidency of George W. Bush, evangelicals remained a major force on the national political stage, in the context of both domestic and international political shifts. In 2000, white evangelicals voted for Bush in record numbers— about 80 percent —over Al Gore, his Democratic challenger. By this election, the Christian Right represented a major part of the conservative coalition, and Bush’s message of faith-based “compassionate conservatism” resonated with large swaths of evangelicals who assisted his narrow electoral victories. Further, in the wake of the devastating attacks on September 11th, 2001, Bush often framed his responses in biblical or religious terms, such as in a speech given on the day of the attacks in which he quoted Psalm 23: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for You are with me.’59 A few days later, he established September 14 as a National Day of Prayer. These examples echo earlier deployments of American Civil Religion, though many of Bush’s proclamations seem particularly Christian. Still, there is a similarity in the use of religious imagery and language in the service of encouraging national unity. Though in some ways Bush was harkening back to a long tradition of religious language in political discourse, he also faced much criticism from proponents of the separation of church and state, who accused him of allowing religion into the political sphere in inappropriate or unconstitutional ways. Last, it is important to remember that Bush’s religious (or Christian) references post9/11 came in the context of a renewed attention to global Islam. Though Bush himself encouraged the acceptance and support of American Muslims—for instance visiting the Islamic Center in Washington in the days after the attacks—Western anxieties over Islamic terrorism encouraged ideas about the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Though this thesis was first conceived by political scientist Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1997), it gained currency particularly in conservative circles after 9/11.

  • 35. 5 See Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011.
  • 36. See David Sehat, “Political Atheism: The Secularization and Liberalization of American Public Life,” Modern Intellectual History, 2018; David Hollinger, Science, Jews and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Century Intellectual History, Princeton University Press, 1996
  • 37. See Jonathan Cole, The Great American University, PublicAffairs, 2012, p. 524 fn. 32.
  • 38. 8 For more, see: Daniel Greene, The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.
  • 39. See Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • 40. Gene Zubovich, “The Strange, Short Career of Judeo-Christianity”, Aeon, March 22, 2016.
  • 41. ibid.
  • 42. See also K.M. Schultz, “Religion as Identity in Postwar America: The Last Serious Attempt to Put a Question on Religion in the United States Census,” Journal of American History, September 2006.
  • 43. See: Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy. New York: Knopf, 2012, and Rohnit Stahl, Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion & State in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2017).
  • 44. 4 “Quotes,” Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home, https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/all_about_ ike/quotes.html.
  • 45. See also: Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Basic Books, 2015.
  • 46. See also David Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, University of North Carolina Press, 2005; Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • 47. See Michael Gomez, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of Black Muslims in the Americas, Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • 48. For more on this, see Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • 49. See David Hollinger, “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: an Old Drama Still Being Enacted,” in After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • 50. See more: J. Zong et al., “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigration,” Migration Policy Institute, February 8, 2018, https:// www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigran..., “The Religious Affiliation of US Immigrants,” Pew Research Center, May 17, 2013, http:// www.pewforum.org/2013/05/17/the-religious-affiliation-of-us-immigrants/.
  • 51. D.S. Fitzgerald and D. Cook-Martin. “Geopolitical Origins of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965,” Migration Policy Institute, February 5, 2018, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/geopolitical-origins-us-immigrat... .
  • 52. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!, W.W. Norton, 2012, p. 1087
  • 53. "Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065," Pew Research Center, September 28, 2015. http://www.pewhispanic. org/2015/09/28/modern-immigration-wave-brings-59-million-to-us-driving-population-growth-and-change-through-2065/.
  • 54. Numbers and Cohen, eds., Gods in America: Religious Pluralism in the United States, “Introduction,” p. 8. Oxford UP, 2013.
  • 55. “A Closer Look at Catholic America,” Pew Research Center, September 14, 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/facttank/2015/09/14/a-closer-look-at-catholic....
  • 56. 6 For more on evangelicals and political mobilization, see Axel Schäfer, Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicals from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right, Oxford University Press, 2011; Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, Oxford University Press, 2013; John G. Turner, Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America, Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 2008; Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
  • 57. David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in the Age of Conservatism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
  • 58. Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.
  • 59. For this quote and more on faith and the Bush presidency, see Gary Scott Smith, Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush, Oxford University Press, 2006.