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.
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.
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.)
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!)
"A New Religious America" attributes the rise in spiritual diversity to the wave of mainly non-European immigration into the United States. A 1924 federal statute ended the Ellis Island era of mainly European, Judeo-Christian influx by severely restricting immigration. That changed in 1965, when Congress passed a new law opening American borders again. The wording of the 1965 law favored non-Europeans, leading to the second great immigration wave--the United States now accepts on average 1 million legal immigrants per year, more immigrants than accepted by all other nations of the world combined, and nearly all post-1965 immigrants hail from Africa, Central and South America, India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia.
These arrivals bring with them a broad diversity of new spiritual traditions. It is the new immigrants, Eck writes, who have transformed the United States into the most religious pluralistic society ever. And this task is far from complete, as a million more non-Europeans join the United States annually.
That America could become so religiously diverse, while remaining basically Christian, might have pleased the Founders enormously. Most of the Founders presumed the United States would be Christian, and George Washington even said that Christianity would be essential to the new nation's moral character. But the Founders were also disgusted by the spiritual strife that had marred so much of Europe's past, and by the notion of state-mandated religion.
When they spoke of freedom of religion, what the Founders had first in mind was the freedom to choose among Christian denominations; or to choose to reject Christianity, and believe nothing. Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom--which he called a more important achievement than the Declaration of Independence--did not have Jainism in mind.
But the fact that it's worked out that America, conceived as a Christian society, has opened its door to virtually all of the world's non-Christian faiths is totally consistent with the American concept of religious freedom.
Arriving here 200 years ago, new Americans wanted the right to practice whichever Christian view they embraced, without encountering the prejudice or state interference directed against them in their native lands. Today many Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and others arriving in the United States seek the same thing--the freedom to worship as they choose, a freedom their native countries may deny. No American Christian who claims the right of religious freedom can begrudge the same right to the plural beliefs of others. That this so far hasn't been a problem--diverse faiths are blooming in the United States with comparatively few instances of intolerance--is testament to the fact that the majority of Americans mean what they say about the right to determine your own faith. Who can doubt that American beliefs are so robust exactly because no one can tell an American what to believe?
But while we celebrate, as we should, the growth of non-Judeo-Christian faiths and the nation's ability to accommodate them, let's not lose sight of the center. America is "a Christian nation," by numbers, by observance, by authenticity of belief. Christian views should not have anything to do with government, of course, nor ever be used against non-Christians. But if you had to choose one salient thing about United States spiritual culture, it would not be the growth of plural forms. It would be the strong, solid, and serious Christian majority.