American Religion in the Twenty-first Century

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American Religion in the Twenty-first Century

Essay 3














The Encyclopedia of American Religions has assumed a unique role in American religious studies. When it first appeared in 1979, it filled a vacuum in providing basic information on each and every religious group operating in the United States, the first attempt to do so since the last Census of Religious Bodies in 1936. As it turned out, religious life had entered a significant growth phase, and subsequent editions, simply by documenting that growth, created a record of the major trends undergirding the marked increase in religious affiliation during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the new millennium. This essay attempts to summarize these trends, which have come to the fore since 1979.

If one were examining the state of American religion a century ago, it would, at first glance, appear to be prosperous. The country’s religious groups increased steadily through the nineteenth century, with an additional spurt of growth at the end of the century. Though church membership was still below 50 percent of the American population, the gap was closing.

At the same time, however, voices had arisen with a contrary perspective. New tools of analysis were emerging that offered a different perspective. A set of new thinkers about social processes, most operating in Europe in the context of a single dominant state church, was suggesting that religion was in a severely wounded condition and was prophesying that its decline would be the story of the next century. These voices included some of the most quoted observers of human society—social analyst Karl Marx (1818–1883), pioneering sociologists Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Max Weber (1864–1920), psychotherapist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and biologist Charles Darwin (1809–1882). Through their lifetimes in Europe, the dominant Christian churches had taken a number of palpable hits, and church establishments were being dismantled. The separation of church and state had been instituted in France, and the idea would gain popularity in other countries, though it would be the middle of the twentieth century before most countries would act on it. The most dramatic exception would be Italy, where the Papal States that once dominated the central part of the peninsula were reduced to the miniscule Vatican City as the country unified under a secular head.

Intellectually, numerous scholars abandoned any idea of a continuing significant role for religion in the broad culture. The emergence of a new view of the world from the study of biological evolution (and geological processes) was seen as an attack on the literal understanding of the Bible narrative, especially the book of Genesis. If one destroyed the idea of a literal Garden of Eden, global flood, and Exodus miracles, could the destruction of the whole Christian worldview be far behind? Simultaneously, sociologists suggested that as religion was wrenched from its place of power in the political-social structure, it would lose its relevance and become merely a personal fantasy for the less educated. Freud’s opinion of religion, now that psychotherapy had created a new map of the subconscious, was summarized in his 1927 book, The Future of an Illusion.

Through the twentieth century, especially in the decades since World War II, the children of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber would develop much more nuanced perspectives on secularization, They would move away from a primary concentration on religious membership to issues of separation of religion from official ties to and support by the state, the visibility of religion in the public square, the permeation of the arts by religious language, images, and sentiments and the rise of science as a general authority for societal decision making, However, especially among observers based in Europe, the decline of public support for the older religious institutions remained the foundation for belief in the steady advance of secularizing tendencies, while at the same time religion in America and the rest of the world were looked upon as exceptions.

At the same time that the older state churches were leading an apparent decline of religion across Europe, religion in America continued to grow well ahead of population growth, but found itself embattled. The wealth of European ideas quickly found their way across the ocean into the halls of learning, including the churches’ seminaries. The larger denominations were all, at various levels, struggling with how to respond to the new intellectual currents. One group of professors, slowly gaining the upper hand, advocated a more positive response to the plethora of new ideas. They suggested that the new perspectives could be appropriated and turned to good use by churches. While the new approach to the first books of the Bible altered the way religious people saw biblical history, it did not destroy Christianity. These thinkers suggested that God operated through evolutionary processes to create the world. The early books of the Bible could best be understood as Hebrew myths, stories that possibly lacked literal truth but nevertheless conveyed true ideas about the nature of humanity and its relationship with divine realities.

As they absorbed new understandings of social processes, Christian social thinkers suggested that sociological insights could be used to bring in the kingdom of God on earth, a more just and loving society. Usually their suggestions took the form of socialism. They called this approach the social gospel and launched a new era of religious activism at the legislative level with calls for society to respond to its social problems.

Still other thinkers saw the exploration of the human psyche as uncovering truths that spiritual perspectives on the individual had earlier highlighted. New psychological tools could aid the spiritual life, shed new life on spiritual conflict. Pioneers in what would become known as pastoral counseling arose to bring psychological insights into the pastor’s office and make ministers more proficient in responding to the concerns of parishioners.

This modernist approach gained ground in the generation prior to World War I (1914–1918) and became the dominant approach among scholars associated with most of the larger Protestant churches by 1920. But not all agreed. A large group of religious scholars saw the modernist camp as abandoning the tradition. These more conservative thinkers chose to reject the new intellectual trends. In their opinion, the Bible was literally true, the more familiar theological approach was basically sound, and biology and geology were misinterpreting the evidence. The traditional thrust of the church toward individuals rather than society as a whole was still the better option to change the world. Religion was not an illusion, psychology was. These traditionalists took their stand on what they saw as the “fundamentals” of Christian faith and branded the modernists as heretics. In the decades between the world wars, these fundamentalists fought modernists for control of the major denominations. In the 1930s, the fundamentalists lost major battles in the Presbyterian and northern Baptist churches.

The fundamentalists withdrew, and some voiced their anger at being pushed aside and reduced to an increasingly marginalized minority. Not recognized at the time, the more important group, the Evangelicals, formed a coalition of conservatives among the many who stayed in the larger denominations, those who left, and those who had formed conservative denominations in the nineteenth century. This Evangelical coalition began quietly to rebuild all they had lost—the needed seminaries, a fresh leadership, and a means of bypassing the large denominations and reaching the public directly. In 1947 they founded a new seminary in Pasadena, California, Fuller Theological Seminary, named for radio evangelist Charles Fuller (1887–1968). They also found a new leader in evangelist Billy Graham (b. 1918), and discovered the means of reaching the public through radio and television. By the 1970s, they had rebuilt and were ready to reassert their presence in American religion. Some of their new denominations had grown large, and one that never fell into the modernist camp, the Southern Baptist Convention, had become the largest Protestant denomination in America. At the same time, they could also claim the allegiance of significant minorities in many of the large liberal (modernist) Protestant churches.

As late as the 1970s, most social scientists were still emphasizing the secularization story, seeing religious life going on around them as remnant of the past rather than herald of the future. Secularization seemed clearly evident in Europe. In Eastern Europe, the state churches had been dismantled by antireligious governments, and in Western Europe, the state churches were losing public support decade by decade. The European decline seemed to be manifesting in America, where the mainline Protestant churches were facing slowing growth rates, a leveling off, and then an actual decline in membership. The Jewish community remained a 50-50 situation, with only half of the community attached to a synagogue. Evolutionary theory seemed relatively unchallenged, and psychotherapy had developed a massive presence. Few were prepared for what was now about to occur.


Overviews of American religion in the 1970s operated from a depleted data base. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the U.S. Department of Commerce had gathered data on religion, and each decade the department published a summary of the data. The last of these appeared in 1936; future government-sponsored data gathering and reports were stopped in the face of challenges based on separation of church and state. The work of reporting on the development of religious groups then fell to the Federal Council of Churches (soon to be superseded by the National Council of Churches), which put out an expanded council membership handbook as the Yearbook of American Churches in the 1950s. While providing vital information on most (but not all) of the larger American churches, the Yearbook limited its coverage to groups that on the one hand it could approve, and on the other would report to it. Of the more than 450 groups operating in America in the 1930s, it reported on fewer than 150. By the 1970s, the number of groups included in the Yearbook, mostly Christian denominations, had grown to around 200, while in the meantime more than 300 new denominations had formed. While aware of the crisis that was developing in the churches that made up the councils’ membership, the Yearbook largely missed the growth that was taking place in the “other” Christian churches and that was beginning to occur outside of the Christian community.

Although the liberal Protestant community was experiencing a decline, and the Jewish community remained stable, the more conservative elements of Christianity were developing new and innovative theologies based in spirituality (Pentecostalism, new forms of devotion), a new public image based in televangelism, and a new, more-positive assessment and appreciation of secular culture. Evangelical leaders replaced previous simplistic dismissals of the evil culture with attempts to discover God’s presence and action in the world quite apart from the church. Then, due in large part to a change in immigration law, the miniscule Asian and Middle Eastern religious communities, which included the whole spectrum of the world’s religions from Advaita Hinduism to Zoroastrianism, began to grow at an unprecedented rate. This growth initially impacted the West Coast and several large metropolitan areas (New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston), but by the 1990s it was evident across the United States. In addition, integrating itself into multiple social openings was the older “occult” community, which experienced a monumental revival in the 1980s in the form of the New Age movement, a diverse decentralized movement that swept millions into what was being recast as the Western esoteric tradition.

Growth on every front reshaped American religion. The country had now become home to all of the world’s major religious traditions, each of which was able to form one or more national associations or centers. The major traditions were able to organize pandenominational associations that moved to normalize the tradition’s presence in the secular culture and the political community. By the end of the twentieth century, even smaller, newer religious groups, such as the neopagan and Wiccan community, could project a future of participation in the religious world as a substantive minority voice.

The spectacular rise of different religious groups—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being an additional notable success story—could easily suggest to some operating from within those groups the imminent arrival of a new religious establishment, one that would displace the dominant role of mainstream Christianity. Such visions were at best premature, for even as the world’s religions were establishing their beachheads, the Christian community continued to grow. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious body in the country, for a period grew beyond its ability to recruit a sufficient number of priests. The second largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, enjoyed significant growth for several decades as it expanded from its base in the Deep South to become a national denomination. Over all, Christian growth in the last decades of the twentieth century was greater than that of all the other religions combined. The development of the world religions on American soil did not occur at the expense of the Christian community, but of the religiously unaffiliated community.

The single most significant trend in American religion from 1900 to the present has been the steady and spectacular decline in the percentage of religiously unaffiliated people in the American population.


The decline in the numbers of religiously unaffiliated and the parallel growth of American religion through the twentieth century to the present leads to several observations. The emergence of hundreds of never-before-seen religious groups, marked initially by the growing number of Christian denominations, revealed an increasingly mobile religious public. Religious movement is somewhat correlated with family mobility, with most nuclear families moving several times over the course of their life, and high divorce rates, with family units being the major focus of many groups. That being the case, Americans have increasingly shown a willingness to leave older denominations and join new ones both as a group and individually. To a lesser extent, Americans have been willing to leave Christianity for non-Christian religions. At the same time, the older churches, even those showing net membership losses, have received new members both from sister churches and from the larger religious culture. From another perspective, the willingness of individuals and families to change religions means that the boundaries between religious groups have become increasingly porous.


The 1960s, in the wake of the founding of the World Council of Churches (1948) and the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), saw the Christian community experience a massive wave of ecumenical enthusiasm. During the era of good feeling that grew from the very real accomplishments of Catholic-Protestant dialogue, a forward-looking group of theologians envisioned a united Christian church or, at the very least, a united Protestant church. Prophetic voices declared the issues that had divided Christendom to have been overcome, and argued that the new challenges facing the churches demanded a united front reoriented around present priorities. Denominations were obsolete, and Christians should welcome the new postdenominational era.

Plans for church mergers proliferated, and significant mergers culminated in, for example, the creation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Meanwhile, a more ambitious project, the Consultation on Church Union, sought to unite Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians into a model united Protestant church. A generation of negotiations crashed against the reality of denominational life, however, and church leaders set aside the more utopian vision of ecumenism.

By the 1990s, it had become evident that successful church mergers continued the pattern of mergers from the previous century. They were limited to church bodies that already shared close family attraction. Mergers were possible among denominations from what in this encyclopedia are termed family groups—churches that share the same history, that are united in theology, and that have a similar polity. Members of merging groups must also possess a strong belief that the merger, with its loss of prior denominational identity, will produce very real and positive gains.

Second, the attempts to unite across family lines demonstrated that the older denominational issues were still very much alive. Although a variety of resolutions to differences in theology and polity were available, negotiators showed an inability to avoid, or in some cases understand, the larger, often unspoken, implications of the doctrinal and organizational differences. Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians share a sixteenth-century Protestant doctrinal heritage with a high degree of consensus. Methodist bishops resemble Episcopal bishops, and Methodist conferences act very much like presbyteries. However, the seemingly slight differences of emphasis signal very different ways of structuring the Christian life. They provide a different feel to Sunday worship, signal different ways of reacting to problem situations, and represent different values relative to such key concerns as liturgy, piety, and managing a local parish.

Thus, while denominations fell out of favor in some circles, they persisted as the single stable structure amid all the changes of the last decades of the twentieth century. Denominations remained important in that they are the way that religious life is shaped in a free society. Denominations provide different ways to give form to a larger religious tradition. One cannot, for example, form simply a “Christian” church (or Islamic mosque, or Hindu temple, or Jewish synagogue). A Christian congregation, or association of congregations, has to make a host of decisions that ground it in the particularity of a Christian life (just as a synagogue or mosque must make basic decisions about Jewish or Islamic life). In Christianity, crucial decisions must, for example, be made about the sacraments. How shall one baptize (immersion, pouring, or sprinkling) and who will one baptize (adults only or infants)? How many sacraments will one have—seven, two, none? Who will be admitted to the sacraments—only adult believers, all baptized Christians, anyone? While every group is free to decide among the options, it is not free to avoid making a decision. It is also the case that in making some of these decisions, the group is also making a set of additional decisions about the nature of the Christian life and how the church relates to society as a whole. Similarly, one must decide about leadership. Will there be bishops? Will they have an apostolic lineage? Will they have real power? Will they be permitted to marry? Each decision one makes about episcopal leadership is a simple decision about organization, but carries with it a set of implications about how members think about the church and its role in the world. Anyone opening a new synagogue or mosque must make similar decisions about the variety of ways one could structure Jewish or Islamic life.

Every church must make decisions about its beliefs and practices that set it within a denominational tradition or, on rare occasions, make it the pioneer of a new denominational family. The older denominational groups persist in that they have found workable ways to structure the Christian life and have already experimented with many options that have proved less workable. They have also developed efficient methods of serving parishioners and supplying them with a means to express their faith. Thus, while within a free society many different denominations can arise, no one has yet found a better way to provide for the week-in, week-out communal life of religious people. They may call “denominations” by different names (pagan traditions, Buddhist sects, esoteric currents), but denominations are the persistent reality of contemporary religion wherever a high degree of religious freedom prevails.


Given the persistence of denominations, the subsequent major reality of American religious life has been its ever-increasing pluralism. The United States was founded with fewer than 20 different religious communities, all Christian except for the small Jewish community. By 1900, that number had grown to more than 300, mostly Christian, denominations. By the end of the twentieth century, there were more than 2,000 denominations in the United States; by that time, however, only about half were Christian. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam had minimally made their presence felt. In the last half of the twentieth century, the number of Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic options in America represented most forms of the world’s religions that were present globally in any strength. In addition, there was a host of new, uniquely American, variations.

The pluralistic scene means that almost every American, especially any urban dweller, now has almost the full spectrum of the world’s religions from which to choose, and one can pursue that faith at any level of commitment, from participating in a full-time ordered community to making casual visits on important holidays. The immediate presence of a community that more closely conforms to one’s religious wants and needs further increases the likelihood that one will actually join a new religious group.

The larger Christian denominations in the United States include (membership figures have been rounded off to the nearest 100,000):

Roman Catholic Church67,200,000
Southern Baptist Convention16,400,000
United Methodist Church8,200,000
Church of God in Christ5,400,000
National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.5,000,000
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America4,900,000
National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.3,500,000
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)3,200,000
Assemblies of God2,700,000
African Methodist Episcopal Church2,500,000
National Missionary Baptist Convention of America2,500,000
Progressive National Baptist Convention2,500,000
Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod2,400,000
Episcopal Church2,300,000
Churches of Christ1,500,000
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America1,500,000
Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc.1,500,000
American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.1,400,000
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church1,400,000
United Church of Christ1,200,000
Baptist Bible Fellowship International1,200,000
Christian Churches and Churches of Christ1,000,000
Orthodox Church in America1,000,000

Together, these 23 denominations include half of all religiously affiliated people in the United States. They represent the primary traditions of Christianity, inclusive of the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox communities, and range from the most conservative (the Baptist Bible Fellowship International) to the most liberal (the United Church of Christ). While differing on a host of issues, they share some common understandings of the Christian symbols and some boundaries defining who is inside and who is outside the Christian community. Together they carry the mainstream of the Christian heritage in America.

In the 1950s, sociologist Will Herberg (1901–1977), out of his observations of postwar American religion, suggested that a new framework for understanding could be constructed around three foci: the Protestant, the Catholic, and the Jewish communities. At the time, he could not perceive the Eastern Orthodox community, then keeping a very low profile, nor could he foresee the changes about to transform America’s religious world through the last decades of the twentieth century (from the rise of African Americans and Pentecostals to the emergence of other Middle Eastern and Asian religions). His thesis did, however, point to the important role that a few groups have above and beyond the Roman Catholic Church and the several larger Protestant denominations.

Herberg would probably not, for example, have made some of the distinctions that are found within the Christian community. Together, the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches recognize each other, to a large degree, as sharing a single Christian tradition. Some post-Protestant groups are deemed by these same Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches as having, to some degree, stepped outside the mainstream of that tradition. (The term post-Protestant refers to groups that have their beginnings in the larger Protestant community, from which they take a great deal, but that have adopted elements of belief and behavior that have alienated them from the larger Protestant community. Though continuing to utilize the major Christian symbols, post-Protestant groups would not be recognized as fellow believers by Protestant churches.) Several of these post-Protestant groups have grown quite large and now play an important role in shaping the culture, most notably:

Jehovah’s Witnesses2,230,000
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints5,770,000

While to an outside observer like Herberg, both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Latter-day Saints might appear to be simply additional Christian variations, neither have been accepted into ecumenical relationships within the larger Christian community, and both groups (along with numerous small post-Protestant groups) are continually having to redefine and reassert their vision of their place relative to Christianity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the largest dissenting groups on the edge of the dominant Christian establishment in the United States.

Because of Judaism’s role as the parent religion to Christianity, it holds a special place in American religion. The Jewish faith, though having only around 4.5 million adherents in the United States, is the religious tradition with the second largest number of adherents. (An uncounted number of people who would be defined as of Jewish ethnicity now follow one of the many non-Jewish religions operating in the United States; both the Hindu and Buddhist communities, for example, include prominent leaders who were born and raised in Jewish homes.) In the American context, three forms of Judaism have emerged, each gaining a sizeable following. A product of a century of Jewish-Christian dialogue, the Jewish community has now attained a meaningful place as part of the American religious establishment.

Conservative Judaism1,500,000
Orthodox Judaism1,000,000
Reform Judaism1,500,000

An estimate of the size of the Orthodox Jewish community is difficult because it is a splintered community with many divisions, including over a dozen Hasidic groups. The figure presented above is limited to the estimated number of adherents of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, by far the largest of the several Orthodox groups. Another half million believers would be attached to Reconstructionist Judaism and various smaller Orthodox (including Hasidic) groups.

Together, the 28 religious bodies mentioned above (along with some 70 additional Christian churches that have as many as 100,000 members) constitute the American religious establishment, in the sense that together they largely control the religious environment in which most Americans operate. At the same time, other religious groups must, to some degree, react to and adjust to the environment these larger groups have created and maintain. The approximately 900 smaller Christian denominations and Jewish synagogue associations have dissented from these groups on one or more issues.

Their very size and connectedness means that every community of any size in America will have a representative congregation of these few groups, and, while admitting of regional differences, these congregations will offer much the same religious atmosphere to congregants as found in like congregations elsewhere in the country. These denominations set the backdrop for emergent theologies and new approaches to the spiritual life. Their members form the public to be organized for interdenominational social movements, and to be wooed and won as controversies swell. And while theologies, spiritualities, movements, and controversies come and go, these denominations and their congregations persist, awaiting the emergence of the next theologies, spiritualities, movements, and controversies.


Many commentators on religion see Pentecostalism as the most definitive movement of the twentieth century. Founded in 1901, it experienced a sudden national and even international expansion during the years of the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles (1906–1909). Denounced for decades as a realm of overemotional, primitive religious experiences attracting the mentally unstable, Pentecostalism nevertheless grew through the first half of the twentieth century and took its initial steps toward acceptance by the larger Christian community when several of its denominational structures joined the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). A variety of psychological studies in the 1960s and 1970s dispelled any suggestion of a connection between Pentecostal spirituality and mental disorders (the case appearing to be quite the opposite). Meanwhile, the continued acceptance of Pentecostals in the NAE has led to their dominance of the organization. Like Evangelicals in general, Pentecostals found in religious broadcasting a major tool that greatly assisted the movement’s growth during the last half of the twentieth century.

In the 1960s, the Pentecostal experience of speaking in tongues and the other charismatic gifts of the spirit (described in I Corinthians 12), especially spiritual healing, moved anew into the larger churches. Through the 1970s, almost all non-Pentecostal Christian denominations of any size developed a charismatic movement. Collectively, the charismatic community quickly spread through the denominations internationally. During the last decades of the twentieth century, Pentecostal churches developed as large international bodies, though their growth was small relative to the spread of the charismatic movement within otherwise non-Pentecostal denominations. This latter spread has made Pentecostalism an international movement with which to be reckoned.

The growth of Pentecostalism in the United States is seen in the addition of three Pentecostal churches among the 23 largest churches in the United States. Among the more noteworthy religious discoveries of the 1990s was that the Church of God in Christ, an African-American church that had previously never done a membership count, was among the five largest churches in America. As the older Pentecostal churches have grown, the charismatic movement has continued and a third-wave, neo-charismatic movement has made its presence felt. The charismatic movement, which has become the dominant face of Pentecostalism in most countries, peaked in North America in the 1980s as each of the major denominations took positions of mild opposition. Church leaders opposed the charismatics’ tendency to treat their noncharismatic fellow members as second-class Christians, and a set of new charismatic denominations were formed by people disappointed at the larger churches reluctance to embrace the charismatic renewal.

The neo-charismatic movement, which finds its historical base in the Latter Rain movement of the 1940s and which has taken charismatics in a different direction through its apostolic and prophetic leadership, developed in North America but has found its major success in South America and Africa. Because of an uneven level of leadership in the neo-charismatic movement, the possibility of straying into questionable areas doctrinally (as with the positive confession movement), and the competition neo-charismatic groups offer to older Pentecostal denominations, the third-wave groups have been marginalized in North America, though a few have developed strong national organizations.


Even as the civil rights movement was taking the lead in changing American behavior relative to race, 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, when most congregations meet for worship, was described as the most segregated hour in American life. Since the Civil War (1861–1865), segregated worship has been the norm in American religion, the few exceptions being congregations that self-consciously decided to integrate. One church stands out in this regard, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. As Pentecostalism arose out of the revival of a African-American congregation in Los Angeles under the leadership of an African-American preacher, it attempted to evolve as an integrated movement, and early on had prominent African-American leaders, including C. H. Mason (1866–1961) and G. T. Haywood (1880–1931). However, the segregation patterns throughout American culture, enforced by law in the South, led the emerging denominations to become either all white or all black.

The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, one of the first of the Pentecostal denominations to take shape (1906), was hit with the full force of the arguments for segregation, backed by a significant schism of white members. The organization nonetheless kept its ideals and was able to retain a measurable white minority membership. It manifested its interracial commitments by periodically electing white leaders to top posts, one symbol of the effort the organization made to live beyond the racism within the larger culture.

Beginning at the time of the civil rights movement, a number of the larger, predominantly white denominations with a black minority moved to end segregated structures, passed statements repenting of past racist attitudes and deeds, backed measures that empowered black members, and in general created an atmosphere that would allow racial harmony to increase. Black church members responded overwhelmingly with acceptance, forgiveness, and pledges to cooperate with the new attitudes that were being generated. Through the 1970s, segregated structures were largely eliminated at the national and regional levels, and soon afterward desegregation began to occur at the state and local jurisdictional levels.

Less noticeable has been the emergence of functionally integrated congregations even in those areas where the local community is segregated. The integration of local congregations has proved far more complex an issue than that envisioned in the 1960s, and for a variety of reasons, the arrival of the stated ideal, a time when race is no longer an issue in determining membership in congregations, may be slow in being realized.


Paralleling the persistence of Christian denominations through the last half of the twentieth century to the present has been the emergence and institutionalization of the world’s religions. Included within this larger picture of American religion are a variety of “Christian” groups that, because of their distinctive beliefs and practices, have developed apart from the mainstream of the Christian community, what we have termed the post-Protestant groups. Though some of these Christian groups have taken their place on the American religious scene and integrated into the culture, they are still viewed as significantly different by most Christians. Among these marginalized Christian groups, as mentioned above, are two of some size, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which claims over 5.7 million members in the United States, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with between 1.5 and 2.3 million members. Both groups are now visible in every part of the United States (even though 20 percent of all Latter-day Saints reside in the state of Utah), and their houses of worship are found in every community of any size. The Witnesses have developed a systematic program that attempts to reach every home in the United States every five years. Both groups have also parented a set of splinter groups, and a few, such as the Christian Community (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), have enjoyed some success regionally.

Following the changes in immigration law in 1965, Eastern religions began to grow in the United States. One of the smaller groups, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, became a very visible Asian religion as its members engaged in public chanting and dancing on the streets of most urban centers and in fundraising and book distribution at the nation’s airports. Similarly, Buddhism gained a high profile from large numbers of Anglo converts, including many scholars. Although groups that converted non-Asians were given more attention, real growth resulted from the quiet movement of hundreds of thousands of Asians into the United States. Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus raised their profile slowly, as they built their often-elaborate temples, which have proliferated on the edges of major urban complexes. The Buddhist community in America received an additional lift from the honors heaped on the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, though the actual number of Tibetan Buddhist adherents in the United States remains small.

Though both the Buddhist and the Hindu communities in the United states now number in the millions, their visibility nationally has been blunted by their uneven distribution across the country. Some 40 percent of both communities reside in southern California, with an additional strong presence in the San Francisco Bay area. In addition, the Buddhist community is divided into more than one hundred “sects,” analogous to Christian denominations, with no single group having more than a few hundred thousand members. Hinduism is likewise divided, with the more visible segments affiliated with one of the nearly 100 organizations built around a contemporary living teacher (guru). Most Hindu groups are associated with the immigrant community and thus are organized geographically, each temple serving those Indian Americans within driving distance of it. Temples are locally autonomous but basically divided along geographical lines (serving southern Indian or northern Indians) and the two major communities (sampradayas) in each area (Vaishnava or Shaiva). Some of the new Hindu temples in the United States are replicas of famous temples in India.

Most non-Asian converts to Hinduism are associated with one of the many guru groups headed by a living spiritual teacher. Such groups became popular in the 1970s; however, in the twenty-first century, a new wave of younger teachers has arisen to fill the vacuum as the original teachers who came to America in the 1970s have retired or passed away. These teachers are among the most difficult religious leaders to locate and document because their presence on the landscape is virtually invisible. They often operate out of rented facilities or in members’ homes, and have few stable worship centers relative to their size, though their profile rises during the summer when nomadic Hindu teachers make American tours.


Most visible of all the newly arrived world religions in America is Islam. American Muslims, like Hindus and Buddhists, have become concentrated in southern California, but they are more evenly spread across the country and appear to have more adherents, though the actual number of Muslims in America is a matter hotly contested among those who try to count. This encyclopedia has taken the more conservative approach and considers a practicing Muslim community of some four to five million. They are divided into a variety of subcommunities along lines of national origin (Middle Eastern, Asian, African) and differences in belief and practice (Sunni, Shi’a, Ismaili, Sufi, etc.).

The terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in 2001 lifted the profile of the American Muslim community and made its neighbors aware of the mosques that had been quietly operating in almost every American urban center. (The attacks also raised the profile of the American Sikh community, after turban-wearing Sikhs were frequently confused with Muslims in the period following the attacks.) By 2008, with the United States involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and making strong diplomatic moves involving China, Pakistan, and Iran (to name only a few prominent examples), the issues involving religion in foreign policy have given the American Muslims a place in the national consciousness that they would not have had otherwise. Even as the major newspapers and electronic media gained sophistication in separating the two realities, some commentators (including those speaking from a specifically religious position) consciously associated the terrorist acts with the American Muslim community, ignoring the facts that those responsible for the attacks were not Americans (they were aliens, primarily from Saudi Arabia), nor were they active in any American Muslim circles.

Prior to the 1960s, the American Muslim community was based in the country’s relatively small Middle Eastern population, with most Muslims residing in the Midwest. After 1965, immigration from India and Pakistan took the lead (in the same wave of immigration that laid the foundation for the expansion of Hinduism), coupled with the parallel development of Islam within the African-American community. Indo-Pakistani Muslims now make up the largest segment of the American Muslim community, which has its organizational center in the Islamic Society of North America, headquartered in suburban Indianapolis, Indiana.

The growth of Islam within the African-American community is an artifact of Jim Crow legislation. Early in the nineteenth century, the discrimination directed against African Americans was embedded in the U.S. legal structure and reflected in the attitudes of many Christians. This situation led many African Americans to seek a new path in Islam and the related Black Nationalist movement. When a new Indo-Pakistani movement, Ahmadiyya, arose in the 1920s, African Americans flocked to it, and throughout most of the twentieth century formed the largest segment of its membership. Today, quiet apart from sectarian Islamic movements such as the Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan, African Americans make up more than 25 percent of the American Muslim community.

Though demographers and sociologists are continually improving their approaches, the size, as well as the best means of measuring the size, of the American Muslim community remains one of the most contested issues in American religious studies. In the 1990s, some suggested that the number of Muslims in America might be as high as six million (a figure derived from adding up all the immigrants from predominantly Muslim communities). That figure was immediately contested, and a census of all the mosques in America could identify only about 1.5 million attendees. While some continue to advocate even larger figures (as high as 10 to 12 million), most estimate there to be 4 to 5 million American Muslims in 2008 (a figure more in line with the developing Buddhist and Hindu communities), including many people who self-identify as Muslim even though they are not currently active in any organized religious activities. The exact figure has become more important as Muslims press their case for changes in government policies toward the Middle East and try to resolve issues of discrimination experienced by their members. American Muslims also look to the day when their growing community will overtake the American Jewish community in size (a development likely to occur in the 2020s if present growth rates continue).

Meanwhile, Islam has assumed a very public presence. Mosques can now be found in American cities of any size. At the same time, Muslim leaders, conditioned by Muslim culture to participate in public life, moved more quickly than their Buddhist and Hindu neighbors to exercise their role in cultural and political affairs through organizations such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, with headquarters in both southern California and Washington, D.C., and the Council on America-Islamic Relations, also based in Washington, D.C.

The rapid growth and heightened profile of the Muslim community has had ambiguous results for Judaism. The Jewish community is still the largest non-Christian religious community in America, and continues to enjoy widespread benefits from the century-long growth of amiable relations between Jews and Christians that were fed by the decisions of Vatican II and a vigorous ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue. Jews maintain their unique place in America life, a status deriving in part from the Christian use of the Jewish Bible and from widespread revulsion over the culmination of antiSemitism in the Holocaust.

At the same time, the Jewish community has begun to feel the impact of competing religions and the persistence of attitudes in the still-overwhelmingly dominant Christian community that views Jews as but one among many other religions. Jewish leaders have also begun to anticipate a date in which the Muslim American community will overtake the Jewish community in size, the former being in a growth phase that dates to the 1970s. A variety of possibilities remain open for both groups.


The pluralistic religious environment emerging in the United States is now the common experience of the majority of the world’s countries, with important differences in some countries where an older single religion, once the privileged faith, remains favored in many areas of life. In Malaysia, for example, there is broad religious pluralism, but among native Malaysians, religious pluralism is limited to various sects of Islam, while many varieties of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity flourish among that half of the population of Chinese, Indian, and European background.

The amazing pluralism that became so visible in the late twentieth century can be traced to the global mission undertaken by Christianity during the colonial era. By the middle of the nineteenth century, most Christian denominations in North America and Europe were expending sizeable portions of their funds sending missionaries around the world. They succeeded in planting all of the Western denominations in new contexts where, as they took on an indigenous cast, they developed new histories and new variations on denominational forms. As colonial establishments came to an end, most mission churches became autonomous bodies with local leadership. Thousands of new churches came into existence as Western churches cut their international members free.

The country-by-country development of so many new churches meant that new forms of association and fellowship had to be developed, and plans for such structures— ecumenical councils—were already in the formative stages as the new independent governments arose. The new councils provided for a reordering of former relationships between mission-sending and mission-receiving churches into partnerships in mission. The process of forming such councils accelerated after World War II (1939–1945), with the newly formed World Council of Churches becoming a model for regional, national, and more local councils. At the same time, older organizations that attempted to unite churches within a single denominational family (the World Methodist Council, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, etc.) were given new life and developed rapidly as former mission churches assumed their new roles on the global stage. Whenever serious divisions appeared within family groups, multiple parallel family-based ecumenical organizations would form to serve distinctive constituencies within different communions. Most would arise within the Reformed Presbyterian family, where fine distinctions would be drawn between separatist fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and more liberal Presbyterians, and between those of continental Reformed, British Presbyterian, and Congregationalist traditions.

The international ecumenical organizations that became so evident within Christian circles were mirrored in other faiths as well. Internationally, such organizations as the Muslim World League and the World Fellowship of Buddhists sought to bridge gaps that had arisen by the global spread of the religions, the rise of national states, and the different demands placed upon believers in varying contexts. Even a relatively small tradition like Judaism, which had developed distinctive denominational communities, formed international structures (such as Masorti Olami, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism) that tie international groupings within Judaism together.

Together, the global conciliar structures developed by the major religious communities serve as an important counter to the continued splintering of the religious scene. Because all of the major world religions have developed large worshipping constituencies in North America, the United States has become an important nexus for the global conciliar organizations—all of which have a national or continental office in the United States, and many of which have their international headquarters there.


Among the religious controversies of the last decades of the twentieth century, few reached the intensity of the “cult wars.” As a result of the convergence of the 1965 changes in immigration law and the coming of age of the baby-boom generation, a new set of religions found a ready audience. Several hundred new and unfamiliar religious organizations founded in the 1950s and 1960s were joined by several hundred additional groups launched in the 1970s. These groups enjoyed a period of rapid growth among young adults unable to find a place in a society not ready to receive them. While most of these new religions assumed a low profile in the culture, several dozen, due in large part to their aggressive recruitment tactics and the high level of demands they made on the time and energy of their members, became embedded in controversy.

The controversy surrounding new religions began fading during the 1970s, but suddenly burst forth with new energy following the deaths of more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple at Jonestown in Guyana in November 1978. The Peoples Temple was an unusual group in that it was a congregation of a large America denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a member of the National Council of Churches. In the mid-1970s, members of the Peoples Temple were active in the California ecumenical scene, and its social-action work received high praise in liberal Protestant circles. Following the deaths of its members in Guyana, however, the Peoples Temple went from controversial congregation to “cult” overnight, and became the catalyst for a spectrum of state and federal legislation and the organization of a national cult-awareness movement. Unable to get legislation passed, the cult-awareness movement operated in civil courts where, through the 1980s, it backed a number of former “cult” members who claimed that the religion they had left had brainwashed them. The coercive control implied in the brainwashing accusation not only formed the foundation for the court action but also justified the accompanying practice of kidnapping group members and subjecting them to “deprogramming” in an attempt to convince them to renounce their faith.

Both the civil suits, which netted a number of multimillion-dollar judgments, and the practice of deprogramming came to an end following a series of reversals in court beginning in 1990 when a federal court declared that the expert witnesses who spoke of brainwashing did not meet the court’s standards for scientific testimony. Previously, several academic organizations, most notably the American Psychological Association, had declared the case proposed by its members for psychological brainwashing to be methodologically flawed. In 1995, following a countersuit brought by a victim of an unsuccessful deprogramming, the main cult-awareness organization, the Cult Awareness Network, was forced into bankruptcy.

The “cult wars” essentially ended in 1995, after which most of the new religions, including the more controversial ones, saw a significant drop in the level of tension they experienced relative to the larger society and the more established religious community. At the same time, the newer groups, those founded after 1990, found a higher level of initial acceptance within the American culture and avoided the period of trials prior to being integrated into the larger religious landscape.


Among the many noteworthy national and international movements of the last half of the twentieth century was the New Age movement, a millennial movement that in the 1970s proposed the emergence of a new age of love and light (wisdom) to arrive early in the twenty-first century. As the movement underwent analysis, it was seen as a revitalization within the older “occult” community. The New Age movement was originally generated within and derived its initial support from several independent British Theosophical groups.

Utilizing older occult practices, the New Age movement called people’s attention, in a new and different context, to the possibility of healing and transforming their individual lives, while at the same time projecting a vision of broad social renovation. From England, the movement traveled to the United States and found popular support from a wide range of alternative religious groups, most relatively small. However, year by year the movement grew and through the 1980s began to count its adherents in the hundreds of thousands and then in the millions. As the New Age movement peaked toward the end of the 1990s, it is estimated that as many as 2 to 3 percent of the population were attracted to it, and many times that number at least minimally affected by it. Some 25 percent of the American population, for example, now professes a belief in some form of reincarnation.

The New Age movement transformed the older, miniscule, occult community into what in the 1990s began to be called the Western Esoteric community—a new name denoting the new level of respectability that these earlier berated beliefs and practices had attained. The new name also came as the culmination of a generation of scholarship that had been done on esoteric groups, redefining them as part of a third religious tradition whose origins rivaled that of the more dominant Christian community. The Esoteric tradition is a broken tradition whose adherents were, like the Jews, frequently the object of persecution, but which had since the seventeenth century been able to find an increasing space in Western cultural life.

The Esoteric Tradition has supplied an alternative to the mainstream orthodox Christian tradition since the emergence of the Gnostics in the patristic era (the exact origins of the Gnostics being another significantly contested issue in contemporary scholarship). Once Christianity became the dominant religious community in the West, groups with strong resemblance to the Gnostics regularly reappeared and were just as regularly hounded out of existence. However, in the growing atmosphere of religious freedom, Gnostic-like groups, some even assuming that name, have once again returned in force, and now are taking their place on the larger religious landscape, and furthering its pluralism.


As American religion enters the twenty-first century, it faces a very positive environment. With few exceptions, religious communities are experiencing a growth trajectory. Given the size of the country and its increasing population, the growth of one religious group is not dependent on the growth (or decline) of others and often accomplished without awareness of the rise and fall of religious neighbors. Given the country’s projected population growth and current immigration policies, the continued growth of most religious communities appears to be the story that will dominate in the religious community. Those groups that lose members will be the exception, and their losses in such a context will be a matter for serious reflection.

While non-Christians groups will continue to grew during the next generation, there is nothing on the horizon to suggest a loss of Christian hegemony in the American religious community as a whole, nor any groups that will even begin to challenge that hegemony. At the same time, religious leaders reflecting on the global situation appear ready to offer other religions a level of freedom and respect (significantly beyond mere tolerance) that would not have been imaginable even a century ago. This heightened religious pluralism even reaches out to the new humanist-atheist community, the religiously irreligious, whose observations are now welcomed into discussions on basic religious concerns.


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American Religion in the Twenty-first Century

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