The peoples of America have long encountered religious difference—from the variety of Native tribal traditions which existed before colonization to the presence today of every major religious and ethical tradition of the world in the United States.
Diverse Native American religions and cultures existed before and after the arrival of European colonialists. In the 16th to 17th centuries, Spanish conquistadores and French fur traders were generally more violent to Native Americans than were the Spanish and French missionaries, although few Native Americans trusted any European group. The majority of early colonists did not recognize the deep culture and traditions of Native peoples, nor did they acknowledge the tribes' land rights. The colonists sought to convert the Native people in the New World and strip them of their land.... Read more about First Encounters: Native Americans and Christians
Many American colonies were founded by dissenting or establishment English religious sects that sought to practice their own traditions freely but were, in some cases, less lenient toward other sects. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, founded by Roger Williams and William Penn, respectively, more readily affirmed free practice of religion. Although the framers of the Constitution repudiated the idea of an official established state religion, most considered the United States a Christian nation.... Read more about Establishment or Tolerance?
In colonial and revolutionary Virginia, James Madison argued for the “free exercise” of religion and Thomas Jefferson opposed the “establishment” or government support of religion. Such measures were included in the U.S. Constitution, particularly in the Bill of Rights. In the 18th century, Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States and observed that such religious freedoms increased citizens’ interaction with and support for religious institutions. The scope of “free exercise” and “establishment” continue to animate debates in contemporary America.... Read more about The "Free Exercise" of Religion
Africans forced into slavery in America brought with them a diverse range of African polytheistic and Muslim religious traditions. These traditions were often syncretized with one another and with Christianity in America. The diverse American religious traditions that trace their lineage back to the religious traditions of African slaves and African immigrants played an important role in the fight for civil rights in the middle of the 20th century and they continue to inform fights for civil rights and against injustice.... Read more about African Religion in America
Many new religions and religious sects were founded in America in the mid-19th century, including Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Christian Science, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Scientology. Many of these new religions arose out of popular Christian denominations, and some drew from Eastern religious and Buddhist texts for inspiration. Christian Science and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have had complex and sometimes contentious relationships with the U.S. courts.... Read more about Alternative Altars
New immigration to the United States in the 19th century changed the American religious landscape and sparked nativist, anti-immigration responses. Irish immigration led to anti-Catholic sentiment, and Jewish immigration to antisemitism. Later, Italian and Eastern European immigration led to intra-faith and additional inter-faith conflict as well. These tensions played out in debates on the presence of Protestant religion in public schools, which precipitated the growth of Catholic independent schools and the eventual eradication of all devotional Biblical reading in schools. Muslims and non-European immigrants have also experienced such tensions in the 20th and 21st centuries.... Read more about Catholic and Jewish Immigrants
Chinese and then Japanese immigration to California in the 19th century was met with much nativist racism, suspicion, and negative stereotyping. Asian wives and families were not allowed to immigrate with working men, leading to a large male population that was perceived as at risk of drug addiction and soliciting prostitution. Buddhists had to navigate the degree to which they attempted to assimilate or accommodate Christian influence. Punjabi Sikhs were successful in farming but could not own land. Some intermarried with Mexican women as they were not allowed to bring wives from India. From 1882 on, Asian exclusion legislation severely limited the number of Asian immigrants who could enter the U.S. The immigration door from Asia to the U.S. was effectively shut following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. ... Read more about Asians and Asian Exclusion
The World’s Parliament of Religions convened in Chicago as part of the 1893 World's Fair. Its goal was to bring together world religious leaders on common ground. The event introduced many Americans to the world’s religions. However, some critiqued the Parliament for its strongly Christian terminology and themes, the relative absence of African American Christian groups, and relegation of Native Americans to the Midway on the fairgrounds.... Read more about Parliament of Religions, 1893
The metaphor of the United States as a “melting pot” first gained prominence during the wave of European migration from the 1880s to 1910s. A simplistic assumption of the “melting pot” asserts that all American immigrants become the same, while a more nuanced understanding sees American diversity affecting everyone differently. Many critiques of the “melting pot” have been made throughout the 20th and 21st centuries: that the metaphor denies the presence of non-European Americans, that religion may not “melt away” as ethnicities seem to do, and that ethnicities do not disappear as quickly as expected.... Read more about God's Melting Pot
In the early 20th century, Horace Kallen argued that the image of the “melting pot” did not and should not epitomize the American immigrant experience. Instead, Kallen advocated for cultural pluralism, in which different groups could retain cultural heritage and respect the ties and commitments of others. This vision has been tested throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly by groups that wish to remain radically separate from the American majority, such as the Amish.... Read more about The Right to Be Different
In the early 20th century, during rising waves of immigration, white nationalist groups gained ground in American culture and governance, resulting in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which put low and strict national quotas on immigrants hoping to enter the U.S. This anti-immigrant xenophobia also supported the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which incited anti-Catholic and antisemitic sentiments, and the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. During this period, interfaith efforts between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews strove to combat rising American xenophobia.... Read more about Xenophobia: Closing the Door
In 1955, Will Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew. He argued that America had become a “three religion country,” where religious commitments matter more than ethnic ones, and that, despite irreconcilable religious differences, Americans together form a kind of American “common religion.” It also seemed as if the U.S. were no longer a distinctly Protestant nation after the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy in 1960. However, Herberg’s theory was thoroughly challenged in the following decades for his insufficient attention to segregation in Protestant churches, the presence of Eastern Orthodoxy and African American Islam, and the proliferation of multitudinous complex identities complicating a simple tripartite system.... Read more about A Three Religion Country?
The lightening of restrictions on immigration starting 1960s allowed for new waves of diverse immigration to America. As recent immigrant religious groups become more established in America they often build places of worship by either blending with existing organizations or forming new ones. Recent developments have thus created new opportunities and challenges for the American experiment in religious pluralism.... Read more about A New Multi-Religious America