On Common Ground: World Religions in America

“We the People…”

The religious landscape of America is changing as immigrants from all over the world take the oath of citizenship and claim the United States as their home. From the beginning this has been a nation of religious diversity, but today it is probably the most religiously diverse nation on earth, despite its overwhelming Christian majority. The deepest reason for America’s religious diversity is our fundamental commitment to religious freedom: matters of religious conscience cannot be legislated or decided by majority rule.

The more immediate reason for this new diversity, however, is the 1965 Immigration Act which changed American policy, opening the door to immigrants from many parts of the world for the first time since the 1920s. Restrictive laws going back to the first Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and culminating in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 had severely limited immigration from some parts of the world, particularly Asia. With the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, however, America began to address the issues of discrimination in immigration policy. Robert Kennedy, supporting the 1965 act before the U.S. Congress said, “Everywhere else in our national life, we have eliminated discrimination based on national origins. Yet this system is still the foundation of our immigration law.” The 1965 act eliminated national origins quotas and opened the door again for immigration. The new post-1965 immigration has made clear for all Americans that the United States is a nation based not on race, ethnicity, or religion, but on common commitment to the democratic ideals of its Constitution.

In the past nearly fifty years, the ethnic composition of the United States has gradually changed, with new immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The term “multicultural” is often used to describe the new cultural reality of the American people. But what are the religious dimensions of America’s new cultural mix? What changes have taken place in the religious landscape of America’s cities and neighborhoods? How have new religious traditions changed as they have taken root in American soil? And how is America changing as the freedom of religion cherished by America’s founders is now cherished by Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus who have come to America as immigrants? These are the questions the Pluralism Project has investigated since 1991 and these are the questions you are invited to explore in On Common Ground: World Religions in America.

The American Constitution begins with words, “We the People of the United States of America…” The thirty-nine people who framed and signed the Constitution in 1787 were almost all white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon men. The “we” of which they spoke referred to the citizens of the new America, who were mostly English Protestants, joined by a few Catholics, and still fewer Jews. At that time, “we” did not include the Native peoples of America, nor the considerable number of African slaves who accounted for approximately one-fifth of the non-indigenous population.

Over the past two centuries, the “we” has expanded and become considerably more complex. Through years of struggle, America’s “we” has come to include African Americans and Native Americans, and has come explicitly to comprise both women and men among its voting members. It refers to immigrants from all parts of Europe, from Asia and the Pacific, from Africa and Latin America. Coming to know who “we” now are is one of America’s most challenging tasks.

In many parts of the world today, the “we” is being defined in ever narrower terms as the “we” of ethnic, religious, or national chauvinism. But America’s “we” has become ever broader. Today it includes Buddhist Americans, like the Hawaiian-born Buddhist astronaut who died on the Challenger, and Muslim Americans, like the Muslim mayor elected to office in Kuntz, Texas. Our “we” embraces Hindu and Jain engineers and surgeons, Zoroastrian social workers, and Sikh political advisors. It includes Native American legislators, activists, and educators. It includes Christians of all races and denominations—Hispanic pentecostalists, Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Vietnamese Catholics, Korean Presbyterians. It includes Jews from black-coat Lubavitchers to Reform women rabbis. It includes Bahá’í and Unitarian Universalists, Wiccans and Earth Spirit communities, and Afro-Caribbean practitioners of Santería and Vodou. And it includes a wide range of people who cherish the freedom to stand outside all of these religious communities—as ardent secularists, as ethical humanists, or as committed atheists.

Since the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask about religious affiliation, there is a sense in which we do not know who “we” are religiously. According to a 2007 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimate, there were 2.35 million Muslim Americans, which means there are more Muslims than Episcopalians and just short of half as many Muslims as Jews. Hindus were estimated to be over 2 million and continued immigration from South Asia will certainly see this number rise. For Buddhists, the matter is more complex. It was estimated in 2010 that there are just under 1 million Buddhists, but one suspects this figure indicates, and probably underestimates, the many Buddhists with roots in the cultures of Asia. What about all the “new Buddhists,” native-born Americans who have come to identify themselves as Buddhist through years of meditation practice in the rapidly growing number of Buddhist meditation centers? Their numbers may easily be 1.5 or 2 million, perhaps more. Bahá’ís are said to be 171,000 in 2013; and Jains a few thousand. The difficulty of being certain about any of these statistics is perhaps best revealed by the Sikhs who are estimated to number anywhere from 78,000 to 500,000 depending on the source.

America’s population is still predominantly Christian. As of 2010, the largest denominations were Catholic, Southern Baptist, and Non-denominational Christian, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives’ U.S. Congregational Membership Report. But the news of the twenty-first century is that our religious minorities are not followers of the passing gurus of the 1970s, but new Americans who have brought their faith with them to this land and are in the process of creating the educational and religious institutions to pass it on to succeeding generations. Large or small, America’s growing religious minorities have re-shaped the religious landscape for us all.

On Common Ground invites you to investigate this new multireligious reality in three different but interrelated ways:

landscapeFirst, A New Religious Landscape invites you to explore what the new diversity looks like “on the ground” in select cities across the United States. Twenty cities are represented here, each with an interactive map of religious diversity and data from the U.S. census. The Directory of Religious Centers is also a resource. This is clearly a work-in-progress, and it comes to you as an invitation to become more fully aware of your own neighborhood, and to let us know what you discover.


Second,religions America’s Many Religions enables you to learn about seventeen religious and ethical traditions. What are their histories, teachings, and practices? What is their history here in the United States? What is their lived experience as communities of faith: their songs and devotions, forms of meditation, education, and social action? What are the issues they care about, argue about? What are their forms of organization? You will meet some of the people of these traditions, hear their own voices as they speak about their faith and their concerns. You can also find information about the publications and websites of organizations associated with these various religious traditions.


Third, Encountering Religious Diversity invites you to think encounterabout the encounter of people of different religions on American soil. In the section called “Historical Perspectives” you can explore the history of America’s long sustained argument over just how wide our “we” ought to be. Through text, image, and document excerpts you can study the first encounters of Native peoples and Christian settlers; the prejudice that beset Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish relations; the first frontier-encounters of Euro-Americans with Chinese and Japanese immigrants; the formation of a new multireligious America. In the section called “Today’s Challenges” you can look at the questions this new religious diversity poses today—for our public schools, courts, zoning boards, hospitals, and neighborhoods. You can learn about some of the fault lines that have created tension and division, and you can find out about some of the bridges that have been built in the creation of a new interfaith infrastructure.

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