Religion in America: The New Ecumenicalism

Gregg Easterbrook
Gregg Easterbrook Contributing Editor, The Atlantic, Visiting Fellow (2000-08), Brookings Institution, Author, Arrow of History (forthcoming, 2018)

December 1, 2002

The post office near my quiet street in quintessentially suburban Bethesda, Maryland, is about to change hands: it’s going to become an ashram. The local ashram needs more space, so its managers negotiated with the Postal Service to take over the West Bethesda post office when mail carriers make a scheduled move to a new facility. Some doctors’ groups bid for the building, and so did the 7-Eleven chain. But the Buddhists had the juice, and they won out.

At some levels, this epitomizes the ongoing transformation of American religious demographics. Within driving distance of my home now stand a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara, a Mormon temple, and several mosques. Other typical American communities, not just the downtown areas on the coasts, have similarly varied religious landscapes—and also offer places of worship for Jains, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, and others. The United States has become “the most religiously diverse nation in the world,” according to Harvard’s Diana Eck in her 2001 book, The New Religious America.

Today, Eck writes, the United States has more Muslims than Episcopalians, with Islamic faithful and worship houses increasing—at least 1,200 mosques—while several mainstream Protestant denominations are in mild decline. Depending on whose figures you use, Muslims have passed or are just about to pass Jews as a share of the American population. Meanwhile, contends Eck, Los Angeles has become Òthe most complex Buddhist city in the world.” America has become “the most religiously diverse nation in the world” because essentially all the world’s faiths are now represented and tolerated here, whereas across much of the globe, one religion dominates or minority beliefs are suppressed. The Founders dreamed that America would be a land of spiritual freedom. Americans are now exercising that freedom to a degree perhaps unprecedented in history, and the Founders would be proud, if not bewildered, to hear that it is now respectable to be a witch.

Religious Freedom

The rise of plural beliefs in the United States should not suggest that Christianity is in decline. Far from it: the Christian faith has flourished alongside rival beliefs. According to an April 2001 Gallup poll, 82 percent of Americans now describe themselves as Christian—down only a little from 89 percent in 1947, when Gallup began polling on this subject. In the same April 2001 poll, 10 percent put themselves into all non-Christian faith categories, and 8 percent said they were not believers. Christians outnumber adherents of all other beliefs by eight to one.

Moreover, since World War II, numbers for American Christianity are up. Media commentary tends to drum on attendance declines among the mainstream Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, which contracted throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though the losses stopped in the 1990s. (Detailed statistics on U.S. religious affiliations can be found at But though some liberal Christian denominations may be down, the faith’s traditional subsets are thriving, as is the share of Americans who view themselves as Christian.

Consider the population math. The 89 percent Christian share of the U.S. population just after World War II meant (treating children as having the same faiths as their parents) that America held about 130 million Christians. The 82 percent share of Christians in today’s much larger population means there are now about 230 million American Christians. One hundred million new Christians in just 50 years! This single figure swamps all other religious data for the contemporary United States and may swamp all religious data in the nation’s history, considering that adding the first 100 million Christians to the country’s population took roughly two centuries.

That America could become religiously diverse while remaining basically Christian would surely have pleased the Founders. Most assumed as a matter of course that the new nation would be Christian. George Washington, for example, said in his farewell address that Christianity would be essential if the nation was to have moral character.

But the Founders abhorred the spiritual strife that had marred so much of Europe’s past, as well as the tyranny of state-imposed belief. The freedom of religion they had in mind, though, was to choose among Christian denominations or to reject Christianity and embrace no faith. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—which he called an achievement equal to writing the Declaration of Independence—his aim was to protect people’s freedom to revere Jesus in whatever way seemed fitting to them and to prevent state legislatures from “establishing” any particular Christian denomination.

Thanks to the Founders’ instincts regarding separation of church and state, all faiths are flourishing in the United States. Attendance at religious services is higher here than in any other Western nation and by some measures higher than in any nation in the world. (It’s hard to know what to make of attendance figures for the countries that mandate faith.) Today 57 percent of Americans say they regularly attend a worship service. Membership in religious faiths has steadily increased as well. At the turn of the 20th century, 41 percent of Americans considered themselves a formal member of some faith. Today that share has grown to 70 percent.

Self-described faith membership is much lower in other Western nations and observance lower still. Only 10 percent of people in the United Kingdom and Sweden regularly attend church, 15 percent in France and Germany, 20 percent in Italy, about 25 percent in Israel. Yet all these nations have official, or near-official, sanctioned religions.

Maybe religious observance is lower in Western Europe because of lingering memories of the bloody warfare faith has caused in the Old World, whereas North America was mainly spared the curse of killing in the name of religion. But at least as likely an explanation is that Americans accept faith because government has nothing to do with it. This may be an ominous sign for advocates of faith-based government spending; in the long run, anything that connects the state and religion may only dilute faith.

That helps explain some public ambivalence about President Bush’s proposed expansion of federal support for faith-based organizations. The best study, by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that 75 percent favored the basic idea and yet that 78 percent opposed allowing government-funded religious groups to discriminate against those who violated tenets of their faith—an essential clause of the Bush proposal. More than three-quarters of Pew’s respondents said religion could contribute to solving the country’s problems. But 68 percent also worried that getting government “too involved” with spiritual organizations would be bad for faith.

Such ambivalence may be both a yellow flag to supporters of faith-based funding programs and one reason why the political standing of the idea slipped from its peak during the 2000 presidential campaign—when both Bush and Al Gore endorsed faith-based funding unequivocally—to the mixed outlook that predominated by last summer, when proponents found themselves softening their proposals for fear of failing to carry even the Republican House.


The rise in spiritual diversity in the United States corresponds to the current wave of non-European immigration. In 1924, in response to the Ellis Island influx of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Congress severely restricted immigration. In 1965, Congress opened America’s borders again, but the new law essentially unintentionally awarded almost all slots to non-Europeans, especially Asians, South Asians, South Americans, and Africans. Immigrants flocked through the open door. Today America accepts about one million legal immigrants each year—more than all other nations of the world combined. In the 2000 census, the foreign-born population hit 14 percent—its highest share since 1930, the end of the Ellis Island era. The peak, in 1910, was 14.7 percent; the low, in 1970, 4.7 percent. Today’s legal immigrants do not arrive by tramp steamer wearing rags and change their names at Ellis Island; they tend to come in by jet wearing something with a Nike logo on it. But considered in terms of sheer numbers, another Ellis Island era is upon us.

The new immigrants from Asia, South Asia, and Africa bring with them the religions of the East and the subcontinent—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the African interpretations of Christianity. Ellis Island era arrivals were either Christian or Jewish or masked their familiar faiths in the hope of assimilating. Today’s immigrants are rarely Christian or Jewish and are pleased to find they are entering a nation where no one’s faith need be masked. One example of the diversifying effects of immigration on faith practice, from a 2001 study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research: the percentage of U.S. places of worship that “always use piano or organ” has been in steady decline, from 89 percent in 1945 to 59 percent today, while the percentage that “always use drums or other percussion” has steadily risen to 30 percent.

Arriving here two centuries ago, many new Americans longed for the freedom to practice Christianity as they wished, without state interference. Today’s newcomers long for the same spiritual freedom, but often to practice other faiths. Many new immigrants find, as European immigrants once did, that in the United States they can observe their faiths openly and with pride in a way that never would have been possible in their native lands. Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and other beliefs now flourish here on free soil, just as Baptism once did and before that Methodism and Congregationalism.

Religious Tolerance

Statistics on spiritual adherence tell only part of the story. What about attitudes?

On questions of open prejudice, all trends seem favorable. No mainstream religious group in the United States is today subject to open bias, while even such controversial groups as the “Church” of Scientology and the Nation of Islam generally receive the benefit of the doubt regarding their claims to religious respect. About 2,000 respondents to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life had “favorable” impressions of almost all major faiths, including 65 percent favorable for American Muslims.

Here’s a telling indicator. In their classic sociological study of Middle American viewpoints, the authors of the 1924 book Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) found that 94 percent of high school students agreed that “Christianity is the one true religion and all peoples should be converted to it.” Revisiting Muncie in 1999, sociologist Theodore Caplow found that only 42 percent agreed with that statement. Almost all respondents were Christian, as before, but far fewer felt theirs was the “one true” faith to which others must conform.

Diverse new religious groups are not, of course, necessarily models of edification. Many Hindus bring with them to the United States the same hostility to Islam that they felt in their home nations. Much of the new mosque movement has striated into mosques for African Americans, mosques for South Asian Americans, and mosques for Arab Americans, with crossovers not necessarily welcome. The small but real Vietnamese crime underworld is often Buddhist, which mocks true Buddhism as much as the Catholic Mafia mocks true Christianity.

And of course tensions still flare. Groups such as the Mormons feel they are unfairly derided, so much so that many want to change the denomination’s name to one that makes it clearer Mormons are Christians. And many subsets snipe at each other continuously—Orthodox Christians and Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Reform and Conservative Jews, fundamentalist Protestants and mainstream Protestants, traditional Muslims and the Nation of Islam.

If there’s one thing you do not want to be on the spiritual spectrum in today’s United States, it is an unbeliever. Just the word “atheist” has a negative connotation. Surveys show that Americans think atheists are likely to be less ethical than believers, though the world is full of sanctimonious religious phonies, while some atheistic humanists follow strict codes of ethics. In the Pew surveys the lowest “favorable” impression goes to atheists, at 34 percent. And a June 2001 Kaiser Foundation survey found that although today most Americans say they would not mind if a close family member married someone of a different race, fully 70 percent would object to a wedding with an atheist.

Momentary controversies over Islam aside, in America’s contemporary spiritual landscape, the dividing line is not between Christians and non-Christians, nor drawn along any religious perimeter. It is between believers and nonbelievers. Persons of faith of almost any stripe have begun to embrace each other as allies against the encroachment of pure secularism, philosophical positivism, and legal hostility toward belief in the public square. How else to account for the warm embrace by many Christians and even some Muslims of the vice-presidential candidacy of Joe Lieberman? How else to explain why Catholics and Christian evangelicals applauded when President Bush appointed as his adviser for bioethics and stem-cell issues Leon Kass, an observant (versus cultural) Jew— Kass makes Catholics and evangelicals feel comfortable because he is a believer; exactly what he believes is seen as less important than that he acknowledges a God.

As the number and variety of American religious affiliations continue to soar, the cultural divide may increasingly pit believers against nonbelievers; what you believe will be seen as less important than that you believe. This could make the 8 percent who acknowledge their atheism uncomfortable, even unhappy if public expressions of faith come back into fashion. But it might also allow the adherents of the nation’s many religions and denominations at last to see past their differences toward the common good that all faiths claim to seek.