Mosques in Ohio, Hindu temples in Tennessee, Buddhist monasteries in Minnesota, Sikh gurdwaras in Maryland, Jains and Zoroastrians and Wiccans in Wyoming and Texas and Mississippi--that's the United Stares in the year 2001, "the most religiously diverse nation in the world," according to the book "A New Religious America" by Harvard professor Diana Eck. Not only is there more variety of spiritual beliefs in the United States today than in any other nation, Eck writes, there's more than in any nation at any time in history. The Founders dreamed of freedom of religion, and Americans are now exercising that freedom to an unprecedented degree.
But though minarets and golden domes may be going up in the suburbs, ours is still fundamentally a Christian nation. Eighty-two percent of Americans call themselves Christian, according to an April 2001 Gallup poll. That's down only a little from the 89% of Americans who told Gallup they were Christian when polling on this subject began in 1947. In the latest Gallup figures, a combined 10% chose all non-Christian spiritual categories--Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Earth-based, and the rest. That means Christians trump all over religious traditions more than eight-to-one.
And America's Christians are highly observant, with 57% attending services regularly (defined as once or more per month), versus just 10% regular attendance in the United Kingdom and 20% in Italy--home of the Vatican--or for that matter, 25% regular attendance of Jewish services in Israel. This does not mean non-Christian beliefs are not likely to rise in significance relative to the Christian center. Eck's analysis of the growth of other-than-Christian views is surely correct. Today, she writes, America has more Muslims than Episcopalians, with Muslim American numbers expanding faster than other faiths. (Muslim political clout appeared in U.S. presidential politics for the first time in 2000, as George W. Bush and Al Gore competed for the Arab American voting bloc in Michigan.)
In turn, owing to population increases, America today holds far more Christians than it did a generation ago: roughly 230 million followers of Jesus, versus roughly 130 million when the postwar era began. The growth in U.S. non-Christian belief may be important and interesting. The growth in U.S. Christian belief is spectacular.
Former Arkansas governor Kirk Fordice was excoriated in 1992 when he called America "a Christian nation." But as a simple factual statement, along the lines of calling the United States "a nation located in North America," America is Christian by history, culture, and most important, by the free choice of its citizens. If you don't view America through the lens of Christianity, you can't understand it.
Today, Eck says, Los Angeles is "the most complex Buddhist city in the world," with the many strains of Buddhist belief better represented there than in any Asian city. (No one can forget the role Buddhist fund-raising played in the 2000 election.) Hindu and Sikh influences can now be seen in many American cities, with both faiths growing. (In 1998, Bill Clinton issued a proclamation commemorating the birthday of Guru Nanak, the 16th-century cleric who began the Sikh movement; imagine what Milliard Filmore would have thought if told a future president would be trying to please the Sikh constituency!)