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The American way of Religion

and how it is changing

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A learner's guide to discovering the United States

In God we trust

Although the United States is, and always has been, a secular state, and the establishment of any official state religion is specifically forbidden under the First
In god we trust
"In God we trust"... the motto appears on US currency notes and some coins.
Amendment of the Constitution,  religion plays a major part in American life, and "God" is still a major player in American politics.
To this day, religion still plays a (much) larger part in American life than it does in the life of other developed nations. A 2009 international Gallup Poll suggested that 65% of Americans considered religion to be an important part of their life - a far larger percentage than in most countries of Western Europe or Japan.  Even so, American's attitude to religion and to "God" is changing, and is doing so fast.
    While the "Christian" right continues to exercise considerable influence over American politics, most particularly over the Republican Party, this influence is declining inexorably as less and less Americans view religion as an important part of their life.

The changing religious scene

    Just a generation ago, back in the 1990s, people from Europe were frequently surprised to see how important religion was to friends and family in the United States. In most parts of Europe attachment to formal religion had been in serious decline since the 1960s, with church attendance plummeting and an increasing share of the population claming to be atheist or agnostic (Note: an atheist belives that there is no such thing as God; an agnostic believes that is impossible to know whether God exists or not).
    By the early twenties, although religion still plays a much larger part in life in the United States than in Europe, the general importance attached by Americans to religion - particularly Christianity - was falling, to the point where -  according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center - less than half the US population may be defining  themselves as "Christian" by the middle of the century. In 2020, research by the Pew Center estimated thet the number of Americans defining themselves as Christian had fallen to 64%, down from 84% in 1995.
    It is not that Americans are turning in large numbers to other religions; it is that a growing proportion of Americans, like Europeans and people around the world, are no longer identifying with any religion, neither Christianity nor Islam nor Buddhism nor anything else.
    However the number of Muslims in the USA continues to grow, essentially due to immigration from Muslim countries. The Pew Research center estimates that the number of Muslims in the USA will reach 8.2 Million by 2050... a large increase on the 3.5 million recorded in 2020 but by no means an explosion, and still only 2.1% of the US population. Furthermore Pew Research also shows that Muslims in America are liable to move away from religion in the same way as people of other faiths. It is not any particular religion that is losing its appeal in the USA as in other developed countries, it is religion itself.

    While the U.S. Census is forbidden to ask about religion,  "it's very human to wonder, 'How  big is my tribe?' " says Egon Mayer, one of two lead investigators for an independent organisation — the American Religious Identification Survey   (ARIS) – that does just that.
     "You can't understand America's national makeup and political decision-making without  understanding its religious diversity," says Barry Kosmin, Mayer's partner in the study conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
     Kosmin was co-director of the first survey in 1990, which asked 113,723 adults in the  continental USA to state their religious identity. It found two streams diverging from the channels of traditional faith — the trends to solo spirituality and church-shopping consumerism. Those streams, says Kosmin, are rivers now.
    The report also concluded that in an age of "interfaith" contact, when people of different religions or of different branches of the same religion are in daily contact with people of other backgrounds, fewer and fewer Americans care about the differences between faiths.

Religion in American history

    One of the reasons that drove the first European emigrants in the 16th century to risk their lives in a perilous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, was to escape from religious persecution at home. Among the first colonists, the "Pilgrim Fathers" came  to America from England specifically in order to gain religious freedom, as did later settlers from the British Isles and from continental Europe.
    Even so, in the early days of the North American colonies, religious tolerance did not usually extend to Catholics or "Papists". The colonies were Protestant, and in 1685 were a natural destination for 15,000 Protestant Huguenots who fled to North America after Protestantism was outlawed in France. By the time of the American Revolution, only about 1% of the population was Catholic.
. The colonisation of North America by Europeans was thus motivated by both economic and religious reasons, and when the United States declared Independence in 1776, the men who drew up the Declaration made sure that it did not mention of any form of official religion. Indeed this would have been difficult, since among the 56 signatories, though all were Christians and over half were Anglicans, there were also 13 Congregationalists, 12  Scottish Presbyterians, two Unitarians, two Quakers and even one Catholic.
    Fifteen years later, in 1791, when the "Bill of Rights" was added to the new US Constitution, the First Amendment specifically forbade the establishment of any official religion in the United States.
    One well known example of the results of historic religious freedom in the USA is the story of the Mormon Church - officially the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. This church began life as the invention of an American preacher called Joseph Smith who claimed that God had shown him an ancient book written on golden tablets, and that he had translated them  into English as "the Book of Mormon". And though nobody ever saw the golden tablets or the original book, Smith convinced thousands of people that he was a new prophet, encouraging them to move with him and set up a new colony in Illinois. A lot of other Americans considered Smith to be a complete impostor, and in 1844 he was killed by the local militia.
    Following Smith's death, a new leader, Brigham Young, convinced all the Mormons to follow him further west, and eventually, after one of the great treks of the 19th century, they reached an area called Utah, where they settled. To this day, the state of Utah is still largely controlled by Mormons, and Mormonism is one of the five largest religious denominations in the USA.... as well as being a very rich organisation. Furthermore, a Pew Research survey in 2011 found that 91% of Mormons "believe that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets and translated by Joseph Smith."
    Some of the consequences of this were perhaps not foreseen by the men who drew up the Bill of Rights. In particular, the Bill effectively gave legal protection to anyone, even charlatans, to establish their own religion. To this day, some 200 different Christian denominations can be found in the USA, from the biggest, the Catholics and the Baptists , down to some tiny churches with no more than a few thousand members. In addition, the USA is home to several thousand very small religious cults, some of which have made the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

    Until the middle of the twentieth century, virtually all immigrants coming into the USA  were Christians of one sort or another. After the Irish potato famine of 1847, large numbers of Catholics had emigrated to the USA from Ireland, swelling the Catholic population which was later increased through immigration from Germany and Eastern Europe.
    Since the late twentieth century, immigration to the USA has changed, significantly increasing the proportion of people in the USA following a religion other than Christianity, in particular Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.

For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises.

For California, discover About-California.com, a short guide for visitors.

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Photo top of page: American churches  often use sophisticated communications and showbiz technology to bring in people to their congregations.

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