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?"
The changing complexion of American religion already has worked its way into the public discourse. From President Bush on down, elected officials accustomed to lauding America's churches and synagogues now routinely include "mosques." At the White House and in some governors' mansions, ceremonies honoring Islam's holy month of Ramadan are increasingly commonplace. And Muslim and Hindu clerics have joined ministers, priests, and rabbis in offering opening prayers at legislative sessions and city council meetings--although not always without controversy.
Still, despite sporadic assaults directed at religious minorities, experts say extreme xenophobia is generally rare and mild in comparison with the violence common in some parts of the world. Indeed, the U.S. News/PBS survey--conducted last month by Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research--found a high degree of acceptance toward people of different faiths. More than three fourths of Americans call the nation's religious diversity a source of strength; fewer than a third think it makes it harder to keep the country united. (There is, however, a new suspicion of Islam: 37 percent say they have an unfavorable view of that religion, while nearly 40 percent think Islam harbors more violent extremists than do other religions.)
Tolerance. Meanwhile, more than 3 in 4 Americans believe all religions have at least some elements of truth--even though few say they know much about religions other than their own. And nearly 70 percent think spiritual experiences are the most important part of religion. "If one's religion is more about individual identity than doctrine or creed, it's a lot easier to be tolerant," says Egon Mayer, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Gallup says that the high degree of religious tolerance reflects, in part, "not only a lack of knowledge of other religions but an ignorance of one's own faith." In some polls, he says, "you have Christians saying, `Yes, Jesus is the only way' and also, `Yes, there are many paths to God.' It's not that Americans don't believe anything; they believe everything."
In some denominations, the growing diversity already has spawned internal debate over basic doctrines. Recently, both Roman Catholics and Presbyterians have wrestled publicly with the question: Is Jesus--and Christianity--the only way of salvation? The Vatican reprimanded a Belgian theologian last year for suggesting in a book on religious pluralism that salvation might be achieved other than through the Catholic Church. And after a passionate debate, leaders of the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected a statement declaring "Jesus is the only savior and Lord" and affirmed instead that "for us, the assurance of salvation is found only in confessing Christ and trusting him alone."
The growing diversity also has raised pressure on some groups to halt aggressive proselytizing. Southern Baptists, for example, have been widely criticized in recent years for targeting Hindus, Jews, and others for conversion during those religions' holy days. "That doesn't sit well with many people who want to celebrate American religious freedom," says Laderman of Emory University. In the U.S. News/PBS poll, 71 percent, including 70 percent of Christians, say Christians should be tolerant of people of other faiths and leave them alone. Just 22 percent (24 percent of Christians) think it's a Christian's duty to convert members of other faiths. "I certainly believe we ought to be tolerant in terms of respecting other people's faiths," says James Merritt, president of the 15.9 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. But for a Christian, he says, proselytizing "is not an option. I'm as obligated to share my faith in Christ as I am to pay taxes. All we ask is that you be tolerant of our right and responsibility to share what we believe to be the real truth of salvation."
Whatever effect the nation's religious newcomers may have in shaping American culture, experts say, is likely to pale in comparison to the strong cultural influences the new religious communities will face as they adapt to their new surroundings. In their 1990 book, One Nation Under God, sociologists Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman described a "process of Americanization" at work on minority religions in the United States. Catholics, Jews, and other groups "have become more individualistic," reflecting attributes of the majority Protestant culture. Like Protestants, said Kosmin and Lachman, "they are less reliant on authority and less submissive to a hierarchical structure than their forebears were." Thus, polls consistently show that American Catholics, for example, are far more inclined to follow their own consciences rather than church teachings on matters like birth control and divorce.
In the long run, learning to live together peacefully and productively, experts say, will require greater personal engagement with people of other faiths. "Tolerance is a good beginning, but it's not enough," says Eck, who heads Harvard's Pluralism Project, aimed at mapping religious diversity and promoting interfaith relations. "You can tolerate people you know nothing about and basically maintain religious ghettos." Even so, some are leery of participating in interfaith activities that suggest that one path to God is as good as another. "We want it understood that Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims are not praying to the same god," says Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, whose 51 denominations represent 10 million Christians. "Allah," he says, "is not Jehovah."
With such widely divergent views, not only on basic religious beliefs but on the value and necessity of forging strong interfaith ties, navigating the new religious landscape may be perilous. "It was easy to do when we thought of ourselves as a nation of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews," says Emory's Laderman. Now, he says, "it's going to be difficult to find the glue that holds it all together." The real challenge, says Eck, will be "to create a multireligious and democratic state"--something that has never been done before. Still, it is a task that the world's most religiously diverse nation may not be able to ignore for long.
Islam, old and new
It's nearly noon as Hafiz Ghaffar Khan peers into the prayer hall where some 20 young boys in South Asian garb sit on oriental rugs, rocking back and forth and reciting loudly in Arabic from the Koran. "They are memorizing," Khan explains over the din. "It is expected; a good Muslim will learn it beginning at a very young age." As imam of the Georgia Islamic Institute, a modern mosque and school in Lawrenceville, a sprawling middle-class suburb of Atlanta, Khan considers education an important part of his job--teaching the ways of Islam not only to the 200 or so Muslim families that attend the mosque but to his overwhelmingly Christian neighbors, many of whom, he says, harbor false stereotypes about his religion. "We want to be good neighbors," Khan says. "That is the way of Islam."
But Khan's hopes of fostering goodwill and understanding suffered a setback earlier this year, when the mosque bought a plot of land next to a new subdivision and across the street from a Methodist church and cemetery and asked the county for permission to turn the land into an Islamic graveyard. Neighbors protested that the Muslim custom of burying the dead unembalmed and wrapped in cloth shrouds--not in caskets--would create a health hazard. "We've got underground streams in there that carry water into the lake," says Drew Johnson, whose ranch home backs to the property. "No one can tell me that's not going to create problems." Residents complained that another Muslim cemetery south of Atlanta, near Lovejoy, was a hazard and an eyesore: Graves were left open and empty to accommodate the Muslim practice of burial within 24 hours of death, while headstones and markers seemed haphazardly placed, and the grounds were poorly kept. "Imagine what that's going to do to property values," says Johnson.
County officials ordered soil-sample and water-table studies, checked with state and federal health officials, and concluded that a cemetery would pose no health hazard. In February, they approved it, with conditions: People would be buried inside wooden caskets and open-bottomed vaults, no graves would be dug more than 24 hours in advance, and an 8-foot-high wooden fence would surround the property. Leaders of the mosque agreed, even though it meant modifying their traditions. The compromise, said Khan, was "within the limits of our religion."
But the neighbors still were not satisfied, prompting some local officials to suggest that, in the aftermath of September 11, something more than health and property-value concerns was behind the opposition. "Every time we'd answer their objections, something else would come up," says Gwinnett County Commissioner John Dunn, who represents the neighborhood. "I believe that there was some religious intolerance there."
Local residents say anti-Muslim bias had nothing to do with their opposition to the cemetery. "If it was my mother who was putting in that cemetery, I would have been against it," says Johnson. And members of the mosque are reluctant to ascribe such motives to their neighbors. "Initially, a lack of knowledge had created some concerns," says Moiz Mumtaz, who attends the mosque. "We tried to alleviate them and to accept whatever the county wanted us to do and, in turn, please the neighbors. The purpose of our religion is to promote peace, and that's our goal."
But the Muslims' willingness to alter their burial customs illustrates the kinds of accommodations religious newcomers often must make in adjusting to new surroundings. "They came up with a compromise that in no way sold their religion short," says Laderman. "It was probably a big deal to make the change, because they would prefer not to." On the other hand, he says, "this is a face of Islam that we need to see more of in America, which is one that is about being good neighbors." -J.L.S.
Choosing to be Buddhist
It's the Buddha's birthday, and the Buddhist Church of Oakland is packed. Three generations of Japanese-Americans are here for a Sunday morning service that would be familiar to most Americans, right down to the organist and overflowing collection plate. The only thing setting it apart from a mainline Christian denomination, in fact, is the golden statue of Buddha and the Japanese chants punctuating the reading of the church bulletin and minister's sermon.
But across the bay, a very different Buddhist service is unfolding. Surrounded by Japanese calligraphy and carvings of Buddha (including a 2,000-year-old Afghan stone statue), practitioners at the San Francisco Zen Center meditate in ceremonial garments drawn from traditional Japanese practice. There are few Asian faces here; aging white hippies and 20-something spiritual seekers are more common.
The two churches represent dramatically different trends in American religion, as well as the power of American culture to shape the religions that take root here. Since it was founded more than a century ago, the Buddhist Church of Oakland has been the center of a gradually assimilating immigrant community and in response has "Americanized" worship while remaining dedicated to its Japanese-American congregation. On the other side of the gap lie an increasing number of Americans who find spiritual fulfillment in the rituals of this centuries-old religion.
Born in India 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has by now established itself in the American consciousness: Dharma, karma, and Zen are common vocabulary words, and books by the Dalai Lama fly off the shelves. "There's a definite acceptance of Buddhism that wasn't here 30 years ago," says San Francisco Zen Center Dean of Buddhist Studies Michael Wenger. "Now a large number of Buddhists are Buddhists by choice, not by chance of birth."
The simple, introspective spirituality of certain Buddhist traditions holds a strong appeal. Zen Buddhism has been one of the most popular. A Japanese tradition, it emphasizes ritual meditation and contemplation. "When we sit in meditation, we try to drop everything and notice what is going on inside ourselves," says Wenger. "People always say don't just sit there, do something. We like to say don't just do something, sit there."
Aimee Mangan of Scotts Valley, Calif., finds in Buddhism a spiritual direction lacking in Catholic services. Though she still attends her parish church with her husband and children, Mangan visits a meditation center regularly and has joined a Buddhist-Christian dialogue group. "I felt it was something that was more mine, rather than just sitting and being preached to," she says. "There isn't an either-or mentality, which is part of its appeal." -Andrew Curry
Who is a Jew?
When Marina Cooley married 16 years ago and agreed to raise the couple's children Jewish, she never thought she would end up converting to Judaism herself. "It was a gradual process," says the Catholic-born Cooley, 54, who grew up in Mexico. "It was like the frog in the frying pan. The heat keeps going up and then you're cooked."
What made Cooley acknowledge the heat after nearly a decade of membership at Temple Micah, a Reform synagogue in Washington, was her son and daughter's b'nai mitzvah two years ago. During preparations, the rabbi told her it was inappropriate for a non-Jew to bless the Torah from which her children were going to read, though her husband, Larry--Jewish by birth--could. Cooley was incredulous: "You mean I can hold candles, I can schlep the kids to religious school, I can take classes, but somehow you draw the line that I can't go up there?"
Redrawing the lines of what is acceptable is exactly what American Judaism is doing these days. Jews, who make up roughly 2 percent of the total U.S. population (about half of what it was 50 years ago), are facing what observers perceive as a general weakening of Jewish identity. Outreach efforts to build loyalty among disconnected Jews began in the 1970s and accelerated after the publication of the landmark 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which found that American Jews had intermarried at a rate of 52 percent from 1985 to 1990. A 2001 survey shows that the intermarriage rate has leveled off at 51 percent. Yet a decade ago, 3.4 million adults, or 41 percent of the American Jewish population, said they were of Jewish parentage and that their religion was Jewish. By 2001, that number had dropped to 2.8 million, or 28 percent. "You have an ever growing population of people who are of Jewish ancestry but not of the Jewish faith," says Egon Mayer, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who conducted both studies. "There are a very large number of Jews who will tell you, `I'm Jewish but I'm Quaker' or `I'm Jewish but I don't have a religion."'
Because Judaism rejects proselytizing, its teachings are typically handed down from parent to child. "Jewish life is focused very much in the home," says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization for Conservative synagogues in North America. "We see intermarriage as a challenge to that." The response to marrying outside the faith varies widely among the four main branches of Judaism. A generation or so ago, Orthodox Jews, a more traditional wing, would likely have mourned a Jewish relative who married a non-Jew as if he or she had died. Today, while the movement still won't acknowledge the marriage, individual Orthodox Jews are more likely to maintain a relationship with the Jewish spouse. For its part, the Reform movement, the largest and fastest-growing division, has accepted patrilineal descent as another way of determining Jewish identity--traditionally passed on only through the maternal line. Before 1983, when the policy changed, Cooley's children wouldn't even have been called Jewish.
But even such flexibility has its limits. Nowhere, for instance, is intermarriage actively encouraged. And not many Reform rabbis perform interfaith weddings. Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah, who doesn't marry non-Jews, nonetheless doesn't discourage interfaith couples. "If you share something with someone, marry them," he says. "There are ways to work it out." What will do more for Judaism, says Zemel, is to "deepen the center while leaving the door open wide." -Linda Kulman
Hindu in the Bible Belt
Wrapped in a traditional Indian sari, Jyotsna Paruchuri sits cross-legged before an effigy of Durga, an eight-armed Hindu warrior goddess, while a priest chants the deity's 108 names in Sanskrit and lays a garland of limes at the statue's feet. During the hourlong ceremony--known as Durga puja, or worship--the priest invokes Durga's spirit in the 63-year-old Paruchuri. In the rite's final act, Paruchuri receives a gift platter laden with bananas and a smoky gray sari--along with a Revlon makeup compact and a bottle of Chantilly perfume.
There are subtler indications that Sri Ganesha Temple--named for an elephant-headed deity known as the "remover of all obstacles"--rests squarely on American soil. Cradled in Paruchuri's lap during the Durga puja is her 2-month-old granddaughter, whose mother is not Hindu. "My daughter-in-law is a Catholic from Louisiana, but she's more devout than my son," says the Indian-born Paruchuri, a political science professor at Tennessee State University. "I bring my grandchildren to the temple to ensure that it will be different for them."
Attracted by jobs in medicine and academia in the late 1960s, Nashville's first Hindu arrivals (many already fluent in English from colonial-era school programs introduced by the British) met little resistance in the Bible Belt. White-collar jobs placed many Indian immigrants in the company of well-educated, broad-minded locals. "By the time we built the temple, most of us were well established," says Buntwal Somayaji, the temple's first chairman. "And from the beginning, we explained that Hinduism never preaches conversion, that there's no evangelistic zeal."
In fact, many local Hindus credit their faith's recognition of diverse religious traditions with easing their transition to a city with two Bible Factory Outlet stores. "Say God is Nashville," says Radha Reddy, who leads frequent tours through the temple, often for local Christian groups. "Some people are going to take I-40 east and others will take I-40 west, depending on where they're coming from."
That kind of tolerance hasn't always been reciprocated. In 1999, a prayer book issued by the Southern Baptist Convention instructed its followers to rescue those "lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism." Nashville's Hindu community responded with silence. "I feel sad that God is so misunderstood," says Reddy. "But we'd rather work with people who understand us than go out and scream at the ignorant."
Some say the move to America has actually strengthened their ties to Hinduism. "In India, we'd take religion for granted," says Paruchuri, who started chanting and meditating daily several years ago when she realized that her fast-paced lifestyle was causing undue anxiety. "Because we're in an outside setting, we raise questions and try to answer them rather than falling into rituals." Many younger worshipers agree but see the temple as more a cultural conduit than a religious center. "Being born and raised in America, we're pulling at the threads of our culture," says Manish Jani, 23, a medical student at Nashville's Meharry Medical College.
Many first-generation American Hindus find that one of the wider cultural gulfs between their own and their parents' lives involves the role of the traditional arranged marriage, which is often dropped or significantly altered in the United States. Still, most young Hindus here say they want to marry someone of the same faith. "I don't like the concept of an arranged marriage," says Srikanth Ambarkhana, a 27-year-old computer engineer from Atlanta who, like many attendees at the temple's anniversary celebration, drove hundreds of miles to Nashville. "But I can't find many Hindu girls. Right now," he says, "I'm banking on my parents." -Dan Gilgoff
Religion in America: an integral part of life
Although Americans are on the whole very accepting of faiths other than their own, many report unfavorable views of Islam.
How important would you say religion is in your life?
Very important 69 pct.
Somewhat important 24 pct.
Somewhat unimportant 4 pct.
Very unimportant 3 pct.
Very important 40 pct.
Somewhat important 20 pct.
Somewhat unimportant 13 pct.
Very unimportant 26 pct.
Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services?
More than once a week 22 pct.
Once a week 30 pct.
Once or twice a month 16 pct.
A few times a year 18 pct.
Seldom or never 14 pct.
More than once a week 10 pct.
Once a week 14 pct.
Once or twice a month 9 pct.
A few times a year 15 pct.
Seldom or never 51 pct.
In general, how often would you say you have experienced God's presence or a spiritual force that felt very close to you?
Never 10 pct.
Once or twice 17 pct.
Several times 23 pct.
Many times 49 pct.
Never 36 pct.
Once or twice 13 pct.
Several times 15 pct.
Many times 34 pct.
Which statement comes closer to your own views, even if neither is exactly right?
The religion you practice is the only true religion 77 pct.
All religions have elements of truth 19 pct.
The religion you practice is the only true religion 86 pct.
All religions have elements of truth 7 pct.
Would you describe your general impression of Islam as ...
Very favorable 5 pct.
Somewhat favorable 29 pct.
Somewhat unfavorable 25 pct.
Very unfavorable 15 pct.
Very favorable 12 pct.
Somewhat favorable 36 pct.
Somewhat unfavorable 22 pct.
Very unfavorable 7 pct.
Source: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly/U.S. News & World Report poll of 2002 adults conducted by Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research March 26-April 4, 2002. Margin of error for total sample: plus or minus 2 percent.
Clusters of faith
[Map is not available]
Baptists, Mormons, Roman Catholics, or Lutherans are dominant in a majority of counties in the United States.
[Color-coded dats are not available.]
Disciples of Christ
No reported churches
Source: New Historical Atlas of Religion in America
With Andrew Curry, Linda Kulman and Dan Gilgoff
This story appears in the May 6, 2002 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.