Religious Diversity in America



There is no doubt that the United States of America is becoming increasingly more ethnically and religiously diverse. How can we think about American religious diversity?

IS IT JUST DIVERSITY on the ground, or a pluralism where difference is interactive and where groups show mutual respect and value each other’s difference?

It is the task of this brief to rethink the question of American pluralism, indicating the historical moments when diversity came into question, but also to highlight the strategies of managing diversity. In addition to the historical narrative, we present research by experts, special highlighted in-text features with archival materials, websites and resources for teachers, as well a thorough bibliographical tool to help educators present materials to students. We end the document with a section on the contemporary trends in religious pluralism in the United States as questions to probe the interest of students experiencing the ongoing debates and even some of the more detrimental effects of our divisions.

The United States has often oscillated between simple diversity and complex pluralism, sometimes responding harshly to increasing diversity and at other times finding ways to accommodate and weave together a fabric of pluralism. As such, we found that several themes recur, coalescing into a longer story of religious pluralism. Broadly, the core patterns are reflected in the efforts by the government to manage religious difference in many ways and responses by religious majorities and minorities to these state efforts, often in the interest of preserving the integrity of their religious faiths and their position in society. Overall these state society relations have tended towards peaceful cohabitation between religious faiths, with moments of increased tension during wars or immigration into the country. Attempts on the part of the government or the native-born population to preserve the Protestant core of the United States, and later to protect the “JudeoChristian” heritage of the nation, can be understood as a form of nativism. Such nativism or anti-foreign policies led to one form of repression or another, restricting the rights of populations, or in the case of indigenous peoples, attempting forceful assimilation in schools or other institutions. The United States’ history demonstrates a recurrent theme of aversion toward immigration and aggression toward new religions. The origins of American xenophobia could be traced to the early period of Catholic immigration, emerged later with the Asian “exclusion acts,” antisemitism, and contemporary Islamophobia.

The state has recognized the promise and significance of US religious diversity since its founding. Indeed, the management of religious difference has long relied on the acknowledgment and harnessing of religious feeling on the part of the government in order to engage citizens in the national project across religious lines. This took shape in the construction of a meta-narrative using broadly framed religious imagery in the service of national political unity and consequently, framing American goals as transcendent. This has been referred to as American Civil Religion (ACR). Though the term “civil religion” was coined by Rousseau, sociologist Robert Bellah developed the term and refined the notion of a specifically American form of civil religion. ACR relies on a shared national identity and a sense of history, and a connection of these to the transcendent, but does not in itself constitute a formal religion. Instead, figures like Abraham Lincoln or George Washington become semi-divine, and their service to the nation becomes linked to a higher purpose. These forms of ACR are practiced alongside other religious faiths, and are centrally intended to be compatible with a range of belief systems, even if many of its referents are at their base Christian. In this sense, civil religion acts a glue that binds society together, appeasing its Christian roots and allowing spiritual language’s broader inclusion into the American project.

Responses from minority populations to repression and assimilation have varied from being defensive, to proactive and strategic. When defensive, groups have tried to create spaces of self-segregation. When proactive or strategic groups, have tended to engage with the larger community through inclusion and sharing.1 Minority religious groups have employed a variety of strategies in the interest of maintaining their faith, sometimes entrenching difference while at other times strategically adapting to the larger cultural context. The US was never a homogeneous Protestant or Christian nation, though Protestant Christians remain the largest single religious group in the nation. America is a religious country, and thus immigrant groups emphasized their religiosity while adapting their form of worship to American congregational norms.2

In the following text we proceed by highlighting the key moments in the history of religious pluralism in the United States since the founding of the nation, with particular attention to the threats to pluralism and how they were resolved.

  • 1. Elisabeth Becker discusses similar strategies in her work on two European mosques: “Unsettled Islam: Virtuous Contention in European Mosques,” Yale University, May 2018.
  • 2. Stephen Warner cited in Jose Casanova, “Immigration and the New Religious Pluralism: A European Union/United States Comparison,” in Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism, edited by Thomas Banchoff, Oxford : Oxford University Press.