USA Isn’t Religiously Diverse
Despite the mythos, 95% of Americans are either Christian or unaffiliated.
It is part of the American mythos that we are amazingly diverse religiously and culturally. Whether that’s true depends on how one measures.
Pew Research Center (“U.S. doesn’t rank high in religious diversity“):
The United States has often been described as a religiously diverse country, an image celebrated in forums ranging from scholarly work to a popular bumper sticker and even a recent Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl. But, from a global perspective, the United States really is not all that religiously diverse, according to a new Pew Research Center study. In fact, 95% of the U.S. population is either Christian or religiously unaffiliated, while all other religions combined account for just 5% of Americans. As a result, the U.S. ranks 68th out of 232 countries and territories on our Religious Diversity Index.
The new study treats all Christians as members of the same religion. The U.S. has an enormous variety of Christian denominations, and if diversity within the world’s largest faith were taken into account, the United States likely would rank higher. But the study treats Christianity no differently than Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism – all of which also have a lot of internal diversity, yet are considered as single religions in the study.
The U.S. is classified as “moderate” in terms of religious diversity. While adherents of many world religions live in the United States – the world’s third most populous country – most of those religions each represent less than 2% of the U.S. population. That includes people who identify their religion in surveys as Judaism (1.8%), Buddhism (1.2%), Islam (0.9%), Hinduism (0.6%) and folk or traditional religions (0.2%).
This is a perfectly reasonable methodology, but certainly not the only one. It really depends on what you’re trying to get at with the rankings.
The sense in which America is religiously diverse is the sheer multitude of religions represented here. And the report acknowledges that fact:
While adherents of many world religions live in the United States – the world’s third most populous country – most of those religions each represent less than 2% of the U.S. population. That includes people who identify their religion in surveys as Judaism (1.8%), Buddhism (1.2%), Islam (0.9%), Hinduism (0.6%) and folk or traditional religions (0.2%).
But grouping all Christians into a single category, which again is perfectly reasonable depending on what one is trying to measure, points to the fact that, despite nominal diversity, we’re essentially a Christian nation. We non-believers are more numerous than any non-Christian religion–indeed, all of them put together. Outside of a handful of urban areas, then, Americans will rarely encounter people who aren’t either a Christian, a Jew, or non-religious.
The Pew folks do throw a bone to the American exceptionalists:
There’s an important distinction between religious diversity and religious freedom, which this report does not measure. (We’ve studied global restrictions on religion, both in the form of government restrictions and social hostilities, in a separate series of reports.) TheFirst Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, of course, guarantees the right to “free exercise” of religion, which has been celebrated by figures ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Norman Rockwell.
But even as Tocqueville (in the late 1830s) wrote that the “sects that exist in the United States are innumerable,” he also observed that all those sects “are comprised within the great unity of Christianity.” The country has certainly changed over the centuries, but it remains a nation with an overwhelming Christian majority.
But, while we may have been pioneers in enshrining religious freedom in our founding documents, we’re hardly alone in practicing it at this point.