Religious Diversity in America

Contemporary Religious Landscape

Contemporary Religious Landscape

THE CONTEMPORARY RELIGIOUS landscape in the United States is, of course, the product of a long and complex history. Although continuities with the past are clear, today we see several realities of the American religious landscape that would be surprising if not unimaginable to Americans just a couple generations ago. The main theme that runs throughout is the increasing diversity—ethnic and religious—of the United States. This has prompted changes at several levels: structural, cultural, and political. One dramatic outcome has been the end of the White Protestant majority in the US. This has been largely attributed to, and has resulted in, an increase in the religiously unaffiliated and the increasing ethnic diversity of American Christianity. Though not all of these changes have been welcomed by everyone, as we see in instances of Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, for example, it is clear that the profile of America will continue to diversify. 

The Decline of the White Christian Majority in the US

In his 2016 book, The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute makes a convincing case for the end of demographic dominance by the United States’ historical majority. Though Christians overall still represent a majority of Americans their numbers have fallen significantly even just in the last 10 or so years, from 78 percent in 2007 to about 70 percent in 2014. Protestantism has lost especially significant numbers: while 63 percent of Americans in 1974 identified as Protestants, that number is 47 percent as of 2014. Strikingly, this decline has been mostly attributable to the shrinkage of white Protestants as a percentage of the US population. While for the entire twentieth century, over half of the nation identified as white Protestants, that group today represents a dramatically smaller 32 percent . On the other hand, percentages of African American Protestants have generally held steady, and Protestant Hispanics have made modest but proportionately significant numeric gains.60 Overall, the story of the drastically declining membership of mainline Protestant denominations is familiar, as it has been happening since the 1960s. What has been more startling to researchers is the smaller and more recent decline in membership among predominantly white evangelical congregations. This seems to indicate a larger shift of white Americans away from Protestantism to non-belief or non-affiliation. Catholics have also seen their numbers slightly shrink, from about 24 percent to about 21 percent of the population. Perhaps one factor in the relative steadiness of the Catholics is that Catholics today are more likely than any other group61 to be immigrants or the children of immigrants.

In sum, two main causes of the end of the demographic majority of white Protestants are: the increasing ethnic, thus religious, diversity of the United States as a whole and the rising number of people, in particular young people, who are leaving the churches of their youth becoming unaffiliated. It is in this context as well that issues of Islamophobia and Antisemitism have become more salient.

This infographic, titled "Changing US Religious Landscape" shows a diagram of the percent of change for different reglions between 2007 and 2014.

Ethnic Diversity of American Christianity

The United States is becoming more diverse. Pew predicts62 that by 2055, there will be no ethnic or racial majority in the US. Since the Hart-Celler Act reformed immigration in 1965, the number of immigrants living in the United states has tripled, rapidly and dramatically increasing the diversity of the US as many immigrants from Asia, as well as Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, have arrived. This has had an immense impact not only on religious diversity, as more Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists have joined the American fold, but it has also importantly shaped the profile of American Christianity. While non-Hispanic whites have declined as a percent of American Christians (see above), Hispanics have increased63 as a percentage of mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants, and Catholics.

But while American Christianity as a whole is becoming more diverse, individual churches have remained fairly homogenous. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America, suggesting the complex knot of racial and religious identity that has defined the American experience. Since the turn of the century in particular, many historically white congregations like the Southern Baptist Convention have espoused a desire to put racial animus in the past, and to move forward with the integration of churches. It seems that some positive changes have followed: according to one study64 from 2012, one-in-five Americans say that they worship in a congregation where no ethnic or racial group predominates. While there is still a large degree of racial segregation along religious lines, it seems that this might be changing as a norm in the US.65

This infographic, titled "Catholics more likely than other Americans to be Hispanic, Immigrants," includes a chart comparing different races and generations to their religions affiliation.

Rise of the Nones

Another huge factor affecting the changing religious landscape in the U.S. has been the rise of “nones,” or the unaffiliated. Nones now make up nearly a quarter of the population (22.8 percent according to Pew66 in 2014). Their numbers are not just rising dramatically, but quickly: in 2007, only about 16 percent of Americans identified as unaffiliated. There is some debate about whether these numbers reflect a genuine shift, or is the result of changing attitudes around affiliation. Pew found67, for instance, that the youth (millennials born after 1980) is much more likely to identify as atheist or unaffiliated than older people who report similar levels of religious observance, which seems to reflect a broader acceptance of irreligiosity. At the same time, however, it is true that the number of American adults who report low religiosity has itself risen, from 14 percent in 2007 to 19 percent in 2014. The increase in “nones” has had a direct impact on American religion, as 78 percent of nones reported68 that they were raised in a religious tradition that they chose to leave, which corresponds to the declining membership in Christian denominations. According to the Huffington Post and the New York Times, not only are younger Americans more comfortable self-identifying as nones, but they are also more visibly troubled by the harmful effects of religious polarization and the rise of outright religious politics. It is interesting that young evangelicals are also moving away from their parents’ generation of politicized evangelicalism, citing a more 

This infographic, titled "Half of 'nones' left childhood faith over lack of belief, one-in-five cite dislike of organized religion," includes a chart for reasons for disaffiliating among those who were raised in a religion and what they are currently.

tolerant attitude towards diversity whether social or cultural.69 Although it is clear that some of the stigma around nonbelief has eroded, nones remain strikingly underrepresented, especially in national politics. For instance, according to the Pew70 center, there is only one unaffiliated congressperson. That means that, in congress, nones compose .2 percent , as opposed to 24 percent of the general public. Christians in general are overrepresented as a proportion of the population: about 90 percent of congress identifies as Christian, as opposed to around 70 percent of the population. Jewish congress people are also more common than Jewish people in general, composing over 5 percent of congress as opposed to 2 percent of the general population. The lack of nones, or at least those publicly self-identifying as such, speaks to the continued value of religious faith in public sphere, despite America’s theoretical and practical commitment to the separation of church and state.

This infographic, titled "In US, one-in-five raised with mixed religious background," shows religious outcomes of different religious mixings of households.

The increased visibility of Muslims/ increased Islamophobia

Although Islam came to America as early as the 16th century because of the slave trade from West Africa, and has been part of the American consciousness ever since, the 21st century is marked with increased animosity and stereotyping of the Muslim community. As discussed above, the number of Muslims in the US remained negligible for much of the twentieth century, until immigration reform opened the door for more Muslim immigrants. Even so, Muslims represent only 3-4 percent of the US population, though they loom large in American political discourse.

America’s longest war continues to be waged in the Middle East. Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the relationship between Muslims and the America has been fraught as Muslims are now portrayed through geopolitical issues rather than on their own merit. As such, they are seen as fundamentalist, terrorist, un-American and “otherized.” This reaction towards 9/11 has promoted not only the overtly deleterious generalization about Islam and its adherents, but it has also led to the racialization of Muslims. That is, Muslims are now seen and profiled as a people, with a particular phenotype, dark skin, speaking unknown languages and being different. But Islam in America is tremendously diverse since it incorporates peoples from Africa (especially west Africa), South Asia, the Middle East, Arab countries, and Iran to say the least. Furthermore, with the stigmatization of Islam, Muslim African Americans are at risk of further discrimination and prejudice along racial and religious lines. 

The (false) association of Islam and political violence / radicalism has continued to plague American politics, as commentators on the right in particular have emphasized violence perpetrated in the name of Islam as a foremost threat to Americans and American life.

In parallel to the rise of anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments, it is important to note that the political persecution of Islam and the fixation on religious extremism have occurred in the context of the shrinking demographic and political dominance of white Christians. At the same time, an anti-Muslim crusade perpetuated by many white Christians is accompanied with increasing anti-Semitism in America. At local levels, the attack on both communities is bringing Jewish and Muslim worshippers closer together, perhaps the only salutary outcome of such religious animus.71

Rise in Anti-Semitism

There has been a disturbing recent uptick in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the United States. The visibility of the so-called “Alt-Right”, a right-wing movement known for white nationalism and Nazi symbolism, fueled by anti-Jewish and Islamophobic attitudes, has made clear that right wing hate speech remains a significant threat to the public good and to political discourse in the United States. In addition to hateful rhetoric, statistics show that there has been a very real increase in violence against and harassment of Jews. According to the Anti-Defamation League72, 2017 saw a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the United States, from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986 in 2017. According to the ADL, the largest numbers of attacks occurred in states like California, New York, and New Jersey, suggesting that the number of incidents correlates to large Jewish populations. The ADL divided up the incidents into three main categories: harassment (verbal or written), vandalism (property damage), and assault (bodily injury). They found that incidents of vandalism most sharply increased (up 86 percent from 2016.) 

Increased polarization / Increased tolerance

On a more hopeful note, some studies suggest that Americans are becoming more tolerant of religions other than their own, and of practitioners of those religions. In their 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us, social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue that two of the defining trends in the American religious landscape are: first, an increase in polarization in terms of degree of religiosity, and second, an overall increased tolerance of people of other faith. The commonality they found most striking was not within denominations or even larger religions, but between those with a similar degree of religious faith across traditions. In other words, they found that highly religious Catholics were more likely to agree with highly religious Muslims, and that likewise those with lower levels of religious commitment were more likely to have things in common across faith backgrounds than they were with highly religious people in their same tradition. Overall, this indicates that America has become more polarized in terms of religiosity, if not in terms of tribal distinctions between faiths.

At the same time, Putnam and Campbell also found that people were overall more tolerant of people in different religious groups. This second argument is consistent with the first—if highly religious people of different background have more in common than they do with the less religious in their own group, it follows that they would come to have more respect for those in other faiths. Putnam and Campbell argue that the striking coexistence of religious pluralism and religious polarity is the immense fluidity of religion in America. This fluidity means that people move more easily between different religions, and are more likely to form networks with those outside of their own religious tradition. Family ties, for instance, are a significant indicator of religious tolerance: when people have family members of different faiths, through marriage or conversion, they are more likely to have warm feelings toward that group. Interfaith marriage is especially common in the US. Pew found73, for example, that one-in-five Americans grew up in an interfaith home. At the same time, Putnam and Campbell argue that while the presence in interfaith coalitions and other evidence show hopeful signs for religious tolerance, that this tolerance has not thus far extended proportionally to the nones, or non-religious, who remain a stigmatized group.