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America's Diverse Religious Identity - 2002-06-12

Studies show that America may be one of the most religious nations in the world. Nearly half of all Americans say they attend worship services at least once a week, and the $55 billion individuals donate to religious institutions in the United States each year is greater than the gross national products of many countries.

America is also one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world. As part of an on-going series, VOA's Maura Farrelly will be taking a look at the varied and sometimes unwieldy topic of "Religion in America". The series begins by examining the development of a distinctly "American" approach to religion.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States has always been religiously diverse. Although historically its residents have been predominantly Christian, this doesn't mean Americans have always agreed with one another on matters of faith. The theological differences that separate one Christian denomination from another can be quite great, and this concerned the men who created America's system of government in the 18th century. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams all worried that arguments between Lutherans and Baptists, Presbyterians and Catholics, could cause problems for a young and fragile nation.

"The response of Madison and the other most eminent of founders to this…people like Jefferson, people like John to take government out of the business of erect what Jefferson calls a 'wall of separation' between Church and State, so that no particular religious faction can use the power of government to turn the United States into whatever that religion's version of what a holy nation, or a Christian nation might be," says Christine Heyrman, a professor of American Religious History at the University of Delaware.

The idea was pretty radical at the time. No country before the United States had ever been founded without a state-supported religion, and some leaders believed that without an established Church, America would become a nation of heathens. If people weren't required by law to support a particular church, the reasoning went, they wouldn't.

But Professor Heyrman says more Americans actually started going to church after the government got out of the business of supporting religion. Professor Heyrman says in the 19th century, when churches were forced to compete with one another for members and financial support, church leader, particularly Protestants, began to make their sermons more emotional - even entertaining - so people would want to hear them.

"They are so inventive, so creative, in terms of their techniques for evangelizing people," he said. "Disestablishment is regarded by these formally established groups as a kind of glorious opportunity to go out and rally their faithful, and to make sure that Christianity and Christian morality continue to prosper in the new republic."

Professor Heyrman says the 19th century saw the development of an enthusiastic, informal, and voluntary style of worship that continues to thrive in the United States today.

While the country is still predominantly Christian, the number of different faith groups within American Christianity has skyrocketed, and the number of Americans who say they're something other than "Christian" is also on the rise. According to unofficial estimates, there are now more than 5.5 million Jews in America. There are also about 4 million Muslims, 2.5 million Buddhists, and about a million Hindus.

Not all of this increase is because of immigration. Gary Laderman is a professor of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He says in the 1960s, the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam made many native-born Americans more aware of non-Christian faiths. In keeping with a voluntary approach to religion, Professor Laderman says, some of these people converted.

"After the 60s, I think, public culture becomes much more open to other kinds of religious ideas and values," he said. "Before the 60s, I just don't think there was the kind of availability of different kinds of religions. Really. Learning about them, participating in them, observing them, just seeing them on the street. And so people were more inclined to stay within the religious world that they were born into. "

Professor Laderman says Americans are more overtly religious than people in many other countries because of what he calls the "entrepreneurial spirit" of American religion. Americans, he says, like being religious, and they like it because by and large, they've chosen it - as consumers.

"When you make religion a kind of voluntary activity, those communities that are going to 'make it' are going to be the ones that are most successful in attracting new adherents," he said. "And so there is an element of marketing. Other historians have written about "Selling God" in America. You put religion out there like other kinds of consumer products and hope that the consumers will come and attend and participate."

A recent survey of American attitudes toward religion revealed that three out of four people in the United States believe all religions have at least some elements of truth. This same survey showed that in the post-September 11th era, non-Muslims in the United States have become much more suspicious of the Islamic faith. But still, 75 percent of the people surveyed said they believe religious diversity is one of America's greatest strengths. And as historian Christine Heyrman points out, that diversity is a product of the "wall of separation" between church and state that was crafted by America's founders more than two centuries ago.