Religion in the United States

Freedom of religion is enshrined in the US constitution, and the States - whilst being overwhelmingly Christian - are home to communities of many faiths.

As always, look carefully at the city of region you're hoping to live or work in before making a decision. Will you be able to find somewhere to worship? Are the religious attitudes too conservative for you to be comfortable? Is there a high level of discrimination against your faith?

The United States is a predominantly Christian country and, looking at the percentages, people from minority religions may be worried about finding a place of worship.

Whilst that could be a problem in some regions, there are many placed in the US that have diverse religious communities. You just need to do your research before committing to an area.

Statistics of religion in the US

The demographics of religion vary (sometimes quite significantly) from state to state, so do some more focused research before committing.

The source for the graphs below is the extremely helpful Pew Research Centre.

Religious demographics of the US

Religious demographics within US Christianity

Religious demographics within other faiths in the US

Demographics of people with no religious affiliation in the US


The history of religion in the US

The US has a short but very interesting history!

The United States’ history begins with its pilgrims (the first of which arrived in 1620), who were staunchly protestant. In fact, many early settlers saw the US as a religious refuge – Puritans (who believed that all remnants of Catholicism in the Anglican church must be quashed) were under increasing threat in Britain. Small groups of Jews and Catholics also sought refuge in the States in the country’s early years. Protestants, of various denominations, dominate the American religious scene to this day.

America has gone through many peaks and troughs of (Christian-based) religious fervour. The country went through ‘great awakenings’ in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. These periods saw huge increases in church-goers as populations were swayed by charismatic preachers and some serious religious guilt. The Second Great Awakening was the birth of evangelicalism, which is still prominent in the US today.

The 19th Century also saw two notable groups of Christians emerge – the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (although the latter didn’t go by that name until the 1930s).

Minority religions in the US each have their own history – see below.

Christianity in the US

The United States is a primarily Christian nation (see above).

Although many American Christians feel that Christians are treated badly in the country, it’s hard to argue sensibly that Christianity is a suppressed religion. Politicians and other prominent public figures will happily talk about their Christian faith – often openly basing political decisions on Christian doctrine – and sign off speeches with, “God bless America”.

Despite this, the number of Americans who identify as Christian is declining. According to Pew Research, in 2007, 78.4% of American adults said they belonged to one of the Christian churches. This lowered to 70.6% in 2014. This correlates more strongly with the rise of non-believers than it does with growth of minority religions.

Protestantism in the US

Protestant churches are split between ‘evangelical’ and ‘mainline’: for instance, Southern Baptist Convention churches are evangelical and the United Methodist Church is mainline.

Evangelical Christians are set apart from the mainline churches by a number of beliefs, among which is the focus on a ‘born again’ experience – a personal conversion. Many Evangelical churches believe in the rapture: the end of the world, upon which believers will be taken up to Heaven while the rest of the world stays behind.

Mainline protestants have more historical grounding in the United States, with many of them having their roots in early immigrant groups. Mainline churches are generally more liberal and progressive than evangelical churches, and tend to believe that the word of the Bible is open to interpretation.

Baptists make up around 25% of all US churches. Some Baptist churches are evangelical, some mainline.

There are over 300,000 protestant churches in the United States. Although some may not be to your tastes, the odds are high of finding a place of worship where you feel welcome.

Catholicism in the US

As Protestantism is so split, the Catholic Church is the largest single religious body in the United States, with its members amounting to around 20% of the population (it has the third highest number of parishes, behind Southern Baptists and United Methodists, but Catholic parishes are much bigger).

The US has 15 cardinals and, currently, around 270 active bishops.

Catholicism rose to prominence in the United States after rapid growth in the early- and mid-19th Century (due to the acquisition of Catholic states and high levels of immigration from Catholic countries). This was not a welcome turn of events for many Americans – Catholics were met with open hostility and violence in many areas.

Nowadays, most Catholics in the US arrive from Latin American countries.

Catholics are now pretty well integrated into the country. There are more than 20,000 Catholic churches in America, including 193 cathedrals.

Judaism in the US

The Jewish population in the United States is mainly descended from Ashkenazi Jews, who came from Central and Eastern Europe at around the same time many Catholics did – although other Jewish groups (Sephardic, Mizrahi, etc) are represented.

People who follow Judaism are likely to be able to find a group who share their values if they research an area with a high Jewish population – whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or somewhere in between.

New York has by far the highest percentage of Jewish inhabitants at 8.91% (2015). Next is New Jersey (5.86%) and the District of Columbia (4.25%). Right at the other end of the scale is South Dakota, which is home to only 250 Jewish Americans (0.03% of the state’s population).

There are nearly 4,000 synagogues in the United States.

Jewish Americans have had a huge influence on business and culture in the country. They’ve added to the language (chutzpah, klutz, bagel). They’ve been prominent in media and entertainment. They’ve played major roles in the financial and banking sectors. Conspiracy theorists like to hang on to, and extrapolate wildly from, these facts when espousing anti-Semitic views (see below).

Islam in the US

Islam, unlike Christianity and Judaism, is a growing religion in the United States and is predicted to grow further. Islam has existed in the US for a long time  – 10-30% of the slaves taken to the US from Africa are estimated to have been Muslim – but the religion was violently suppressed in those early days.

There are over 2,000 mosques in the United States. Sunni Muslims make up around half of the Muslim population. A further 30-odd percent are unaffiliated. Shia Muslims account for only 1.6% of Muslims in the United States. Demographically, American Muslims are varied: they have no majority race, and about 50% of Muslims in America were born there.

Religious discrimination in the US

According to the FBI, there were 7,173 reported incidents of hate crime in 2015, 19.7% (1,413) of which were motivated by a bias against religion.

Muslims have not had an easy time of things since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, with Islamophobic sentiments becoming more and more common.

Two Gallup polls from 2010 – notably, before the rise of the so-called Islamic State – showed that Muslims felt discriminated against in the United States (and that people of other religions noticed it too).

Anti-semitism – discrimination against Jewish people – has long been a problem in the United States. Though currently at a historic low, the Anti-Defamation League (an organisation against anti-semitism) often reports on anti-semitic incidents.

The prevailing harmful stereotype in the US is that Jewish people have too much control over financial matters in the country (Wall Street, for example). Absurdly, the conspiracy theory that Jews, and Israel in particular, were responsible for the events of 9/11 still holds merit amongst a certain subset of American society.

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