The United States is a secular democracy with a culture rooted in its majority Christian tradition. Religious dissidents from Europe, particularly Puritans from England, were among the first North American settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Declaration of Independence (1776), which marked a break with the British Crown, invoked an Enlightenment Deism, while the first amendment to the 1789 Constitution both prohibited the establishment of religion and protected religion’s free exercise. High levels of religious diversity and observance have remained distinctive features of American society; even as waves of Catholic immigration from the nineteenth century onward have diluted the Protestant majority, Jewish and, more recently, Muslim minorities have assumed a more visible role in American society. With the exception of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, all US presidents have been Protestants. The engagement of religious communities in politics, which has increased since the rise of evangelical Christian participation in the 1980s, often centers on values issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
United States history has been marked by a deep religious diversity from the beginning. North America was home to a wide variety of indigenous religious traditions before the arrival of European colonists in the seventeenth century. Initial colonial settlement took place under different religious auspices: Puritans were prominent in New England, Anglicans in Virginia, Quakers in Pennsylvania, and Catholics in Maryland and French Louisiana. A first Protestant Great Awakening took place in the 1730s and 1740s, at a time when the colonial population and economy were steadily growing through immigration, expansion, and the exploitation of African slaves in the southern colonies. While the rebellion against the British and the successful war of independence (1775-1783) were driven mainly by economic and political interests, the Bill of Rights incorporated into the United States Constitution (1791) began with a religious freedom clause designed both to prevent the establishment of a state religion and to guarantee free religious exercise, though individual states were still able to establish a particular church as the state religion. The subsequent consolidation of the new federal government through further economic growth, the incorporation of French Louisiana, and the forced expulsion of Native Americans produced a powerful, religiously diverse, Protestant-majority country.
The fundamental conflicts that culminated in the American Civil War (1861-1865)—the institution of slavery in the South and the balance of power between the federal government and the states—had a significant religious dimension. The Second Great Awakening (1800-1840) saw extensive preaching against social ills and a turn among most northern Christians against slavery. Political struggles over whether new states incorporated through western expansion should be slave or free also spurred religious divisions. In the 1840s and 1850s, Baptists and several other large denominations split along North-South lines, each identifying support for its view of slavery in scripture. Reconstruction and industrialization after the Civil War saw a further transformation of the US religious landscape. Massive Catholic immigration, from Ireland before the war and later from southern and eastern Europe, led to a strong nativist, anti-immigrant movement. Public education was a key battleground; starting in the mid-1800s, Catholics opposed to the Protestant ethos of public schools founded their own extensive network of parochial schools. Toward the end of the century, longstanding conflict between the federal government and the Mormons (Church of the Latter-day Saints) came to an end when the church banned polygamy, paving the way for Mormon-majority Utah to be granted statehood in 1896.
The twentieth century saw a shift from Protestant dominance towards a more inclusive religious and political landscape. In 1928, the first major Catholic candidate for president, Al Smith, lost a campaign in which his faith was an issue. Three decades later, John F. Kennedy was elected the country’s first—and, to date, only—Catholic president in 1960. By this time, the negative legacy of the Holocaust in Europe and recognition of Jewish contributions to American life led to a sharp decline in anti-Semitism and the rise of the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition. The 1960s also saw a resurgence of religion in public life, evident in the catalytic role of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and progressive Christian and Jewish allies in the struggle against segregation and in favor of civil rights. From the late 1970s onward, political mobilization among evangelicals and Catholics around a conservative social agenda helped to elect several Republican presidents. This upsurge of religion in public life posed an ongoing challenge to the US Supreme Court, which defined and redefined the proper church-state relationship through controversies including prayer in schools and the public display of religious symbols. At the turn of the twenty-first century, growing religious diversity complicated the political and legal constellation. The lifting of restrictions on non-European immigration in the 1960s encouraged the growth of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other groups, challenging established ideas of a Christian or Judeo-Christian America. A major contemporary challenge for religious pluralism in the United States is discrimination against American Muslims in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The United States is a majority Christian nation, with approximately 78 percent of all adult Americans identifying with a denomination of Christianity. Within the American Christian community, 52 percent identify themselves as Protestant and 23 percent identify themselves as Catholic. Religion has historically had a foothold in American contemporary discourse but became a particularly salient factor in the 2012 presidential race. While some mocked Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, President Barack Obama had to refute claims that he is a Muslim, despite the fact that he was previously criticized for attending the church of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. These concerns underscore the importance of religion in American politics, also recently demonstrated by national political debates on issues such as funding for stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, and the Affordable Care Act (known colloquially as Obamacare). By May 2014, same-sex marriage was legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Southern Baptist Convention have been outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage, citing concerns regarding natural law, the definition of marriage, and family life. A number of religious communities also have challenged the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, claiming that its use of tax dollars violates citizens’ religious liberty. In response to the mandate, several religiously affiliated non-profits, such as universities and hospitals, obtained an “accommodation” in February 2012 that allows them to opt out of the contraceptive mandate. In June 2014, the US Supreme Court released their decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, allowing for-profit, “closely-held corporations” to opt out of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
The United States is widely recognized for its strong commitment to religious freedom, which is upheld by its laws, public programs, and the actions of its citizens. The Constitution and associated legislation provide all people with the right to practice their religion and identify avenues for recourse when these rights are violated. The US government and many civil society groups also seek to promote religious freedom worldwide. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, meant to entrench religious freedom into US foreign policy, mandates a bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom and Office of International Religious Freedom within the Department of State, and a special adviser on international religious freedom within the National Security Council. Through the Office of International Religious Freedom, the US Department of State conducts an International Religious Freedom Report, monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, and recommends and implements policies to resolve religious freedom concerns. Additionally, the American public is generally respectful of religious tolerance; however fringe actors occasionally diverge from this trend. In particular, Islam has been an increasingly frequent victim of acts of intolerance since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In 2012, the Islamic month of Ramadan was marred by several hate attacks; at least seven mosques and one Islamic cemetery were desecrated by fires, explosions, or pig parts. These attacks have been complimented by biased legislation that aims to prevent sharia law from being implemented in the United States. Many religious and political leaders have rejected these acts as unnecessary and stigmatizing to the American Islamic community. Other non-Christian groups have been targeted, including one incident where a white supremacist and US Army veteran fatally shot six people and wounded three others at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August 2012.
The United States Constitution was adopted in 1787, but broad constitutional protection for religious rights came with the United States Bill of Rights, the ten amendments added in 1791. While Article 6 prohibits any "religious test" as a qualification for public office, the primary constitutional foundation for religious freedom rests on the First Amendment, which is divided into two clauses: the Establishment Clause separates church and state, declaring that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"; the Free Exercise Clause adds “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” guaranteeing freedom of religious belief and practice. However, because the First Amendment only explicitly prohibits laws made by Congress from infringing upon these rights, the Constitution offered no broader protection until the 1940s, when the First Amendment was deemed binding upon all state and local governments through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Since then, both the freedom of religion and the state’s relationship with religion have been reinterpreted through numerous Supreme Court cases.
|Madeleine Albright||George H.W. Bush|
|George W. Bush||James Carter|
|William Jefferson Clinton||Timothy Dolan|
|Gerald R. Ford||John F. Kennedy|
|Richard John Neuhaus||Richard Nixon|