Faith in America
It's as important as ever, no matter what you believe
Since the arrival of the first Christian pilgrims in colonial times, Americans have defined themselves as a "nation under God." In times of peace and prosperity as well as in war and tragedy, the nation and its leaders have paid homage to the God many believe is the author and sustainer of life and liberty. And they have ordered their lives and laws according to widely shared principles informed by a rich tapestry of religious traditions.
Today, the nation's historic reservoir of faith faces new and daunting challenges in a world shaken by terrorism, ethnic strife, and economic uncertainty--and by the stinging disappointment of clergy scandals. Yet there are few signs of a concomitant waning of the profound religious character that has defined the United States from the beginning. A new U.S. News/PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly poll suggests that the wealthiest, most powerful, and best-educated nation on Earth still is one of the most religious--but in some intriguing new ways. Nearly two thirds of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, and close to half say they attend worship services at least once a week--the highest percentages since at least the 1960s. Other surveys continue to show belief in God and devotion to prayer at historic highs. And voluntary giving to religious institutions--estimated at more than $55 billion annually--exceeds the gross national product of many countries. From a storefront tabernacle in South Central Los Angeles to a Gothic cathedral in upper Manhattan, there are more churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques per capita in the United States than in any other nation on Earth: one for about every 865 people.
Meanwhile, many Americans seek spiritual sustenance beyond organized religion, in personal experiences and meditative practices. More than 4 of 5 Americans say they have "experienced God's presence or a spiritual force" close to them, and 46 percent say it has happened many times. "People are reaching out in all directions in their attempt to escape from the seen world to the unseen world," explains pollster George Gallup Jr. "There is a deep desire for spiritual moorings--a hunger for God."
Yet while the United States may well be, as many experts claim, the most religious of the Western democracies, it also is becoming the most religiously diverse--and tolerant. Since the Immigration Act of 1965 eliminated quotas linked to national origin, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, and others have arrived in increasing numbers, dramatically altering the religious landscape of many communities. As Harvard Divinity School Prof. Diana Eck points out in A New Religious America, members of religions now live "not just on the other side of the world, but in our neighborhoods; Hindu children go to school with Jewish children; Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs work side by side with Protestants and Catholics." Though the numbers of non-Christians are relatively small--about 6.5 percent of the U.S. population--their visibility and influence are growing. Nationwide, there are now more Buddhists than Presbyterians and nearly as many Muslims as Jews.
"The kind of pluralism we're seeing today is unheard of," says Gary Laderman, a religion professor at Emory University in Atlanta, "and we don't know what the response is going to be." Yet it already is becoming clear, say Laderman, Eck, and others, that Americans of the 21st century can no longer appeal to a shared "Judeo-Christian heritage" in navigating the contentious issues that arise in a free and democratic society. "When you begin to think of yourself as a Judeo-Christian-Islamic-Hindu-Buddhist culture," says Laderman, "how do you strike a balance in civic religion that's going to accommodate everyone?"