For many were called, but the chosen are few."
There isn't an official church of the United States of America. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States begins Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...note
The First Amendment has been held applicable to state and local governments since 1925. Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652. Early in the history of the US, some states did have established churches, but the last had been ended by 1836.
In the United States, the First Amendment puts an extremely strong prohibition on the government regulating religion or endorsing one, up to and specifically forbidding a government church. This is known as the principle of "separation of church and state." Now, this doesn't give churches unlimited freedom to do anything they want — church buildings still have to comply with building codes (although they're generally exempt from height limitations), and anyone claiming something ridiculous and illegal (like, say, Human Sacrifice) as part of their religion will be laughed out of court (and in the case of Human Sacrifice, promptly convicted of murder). And while the involvement of religious organizations in politics isn't forbidden by the Constitution, incorporated churches can lose their tax-exempt status if they do so (as they would then be considered a political lobbying group), causing them to keep a low profile in politics. Nearly all religious-based lobbying is done by non-profit groups for exactly this reason.
The government can't decide that your religion is unworthy, isn't right, or is a Cult simply because people think that it's heretical or blasphemous or crazy. To do that, they will go after something else: too many guns and paedophiles at Waco, too much polygamy and forced marriages of young girls to older men at that Mormon compound in Texas. But if a bunch of adults decide to hold Satanic services involving devil worship, short of finding something actually illegal going on, there ain't a damn thing the government can do to stop it. note So if you want to start a cult that says the world is cube-shaped and your deity is a talking lizard, you're A-OK (legally, anyway; it will not stop people from laughing at you or criticizing you/your beliefs. The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of speech and of the press).
A government agency, state or federal, can deny a permit to operate virtually any business, be it a pawn shop, a liquor store, or even a non-profit operation like a thrift store or a charity, but by law, it can't even require a church to have a permit. You might not be able to invite 10 people into your home for a Tupperware party, due to hard rules on commercial activity, but you can always invite 10 people over for a prayer meeting. Churches are also exempt from taxation, as this is considered a violation of the separation of church and state (although see above for one of the big exceptions). Thus, churches in the United States have a great deal of power in the way they operate themselves without fear of the government shutting them down, unlike, say, Falun Gong in China or a Christian church operating in Saudi Arabia.
Americans have the tendency to believe that Europeans and Canadians view them as far more religious than the rest of the Western world. This may be partly true when comparing America to areas of Western Europe such as the United Kingdom, Germany, or the Benelux countries (which are basically all what most Americans think of when they say "Europe"). However, people in these countries themselves usually don't view America as particularly religious compared to some of their own European neighbours in places such as Italy, Greece, or Poland. Furthermore, there are some parts of the United States, most notably New England, the Pacific Northwest and most of the Rocky Mountain region, that have rates of religiosity similar to those in Canada or in the aforementioned countries in Western Europe. The idea that America is seen as the most religious country in the Western world therefore probably stems from the situation in the Deep South, the rural Midwest or Utah, where it's not as much of a joke as a non-native would think to say that the church is the local government, and vice versa.note These regions tend to have firmly established churches that are heavily integrated into the local community and are often a major part of community life. It's very common, especially in small rural towns, for churches to be the center of the community, and for everyone in that town, from the mayor to convenience store owners, to attend the church services on Sundays. However, similar situations can also be found in many areas in the southern and eastern parts of Europe, which therefore means that it's nothing exclusive to America at all, even within the limits of the Western world, contrary to popular American belief.note And that's not even taking to account the fact that a good number of European countries have actual state churches, which, as stated at the top, would be completely unthinkable in America.note
In the United States, Christian churches tend to fall into the following groups:
- The Roman Catholic Church is the largest single denomination in not only the United States, but the world (although Sunni Islam is catching up with the second one). Historically, Catholicism was the religion of The City in general, and of immigrant ethnic groups (Irish, Italians, Poles, French-Canadians, and more recently Latinos) in particular. The association with immigrants and the supposed decadence of big cities, combined with America's longstanding Protestant tradition, led to widespread anti-Catholic prejudice in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with many claiming that the Catholics were agents of The Pope who were trying to subvert American society. However, outside of a few die-hard fundamentalists (such as Jack Chick), this attitude has mostly disappeared, the pivotal moment being the election of John F. Kennedy as America's first Catholic President in 1960.note
Historically, Catholics have generally been concentrated in the Northeast, the Midwest, the Southwest,note and Louisiana.note More recently, a mix of Latino immigration and internal migration has made the Church more popular in California, the Southwest, and Florida.
American Catholics are often perceived as being more liberal than the American mainstream, dissenting from the Church in Rome on many social/cultural issues (such as gay rights, allowing priests to marry, birth control, and the ordination of women and gays) while supporting activism for social justice projects. However, the culturally conservative direction taken by the Church in the last few decades under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI means that many recent converts tend to have more conservative views on social issues than the stereotype suggests. The growing Latino contingent within American Catholicism also tends to hold more traditional values. Indeed, Catholics are considered part of the Democratic Party's historic base, but in recent years the Republican Party has been courting them, with part of the GOP's 2012 post-election "autopsy" emphasizing a need to appeal to socially conservative Catholic Latinos, though this has since been largely abandoned with Donald Trump's swing towards a hardline immigration stance.note .
- Mainline Protestant churches include the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians (the American branch of the Anglicans), the United Church of Christ, and other well-established, or "heritage", churches. These churches are usually the more liberal of the two Protestant groups, and will often take moderate or liberal positions on social issues. They are generally concentrated in the Northeast and the Midwest. These churches saw steep declines in membership in the late 20th century as people gravitated to either the more conservative evangelical churches or toward more secular outlooks, a trend that only bottomed out in the 2010s. During that time, many of these churches battled conservative defections due to their liberal social positions, especially with regards to homosexuality. The Episcopal Church's election of an openly gay bishop, for example, caused some parishes to break away and align themselves with more conservative Anglican denominations in Africa.
- Evangelical churches, as defined by Wikipedia, are Protestant churches that are distinguished by four key traits — a focus on personal conversion (becoming "born again"), spreading the message of The Bible (evangelizing), placing high stock in Biblical authority, and a focus on Jesus' death and resurrection. Examples of such churches include most subgroups of Baptists, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Presbyterian Church in America.note They usually adhere to conservative social values, and are very often fundamentalist. note
The evangelical churches saw rapid growth in the late 20th century, much of it at the expense of the mainline Protestant churches, enough to make them, for a time, the largest of the major Christian groups in America. Even today, these are the stereotypical "American" churches often seen in fiction made after The '70s. However, that growth quickly stalled out and saw a rapid reversal in the late 2000s and 2010s for a variety of reasons, with young people in particular abandoning the faith, such that White evangelicals are now the oldest religious group in America. They are most heavily concentrated in an area known as the "Bible Belt", consisting of the South, Texas, and parts of the Midwest. If a character is described as a "born-again Christian," then he or she is most likely an evangelical — the two terms are largely seen as interchangeable in American usage.
They are also responsible for the growth of what are often called megachurches. While a more traditional church will have from a few dozen to a few hundred parishioners return every week, with "extracurricular" services largely limited to Sunday schools, bake sales, and (for Catholic and some larger Protestant churches) grade schools, a megachurch has thousands or even tens of thousands, and its services will often be more comparable to a rock concert than an old-time congregation. A large number of these churches have multiple sites, a model under which the head pastor/minister usually preaches live at the main campus with the message transmitted via satellite or Internet to the other sites, though other campuses will have their own worship music and in-church announcements are tailored to each individual location. Megachurches are likely to have their own K-12 schools, fitness centers, day cares, shops selling Christian merchandise (some of it likely pertaining to, or created by, the head pastor/minister), and ministries targeting various subcultures, making them one-stop shops for born-again suburbanites. The trend began in the mid-late 20th century and is associated with the rise of the Religious Right and the growth of the Evangelical and Pentecostal movements, as they tend to focus on conversion and personal morality/salvation. These churches have been the target of criticism by both Christians and non-Christians alike, for drawing parishioners away from traditional churches, for their "big box" feel and perceived focus on consumerism, their use of secular business models to bring in worshipers and dollars, and their tax-exempt status.note
- Related to the Evangelical movement is Pentecostalism, which writers often lump in with the evangelicals due to a lack of familiarity with either one.note Pentecostalism is based around a direct experience with God, and often includes faith healing, speaking in tongues, and getting "imbued" with the Holy Spirit. Often associated with loud, charismatic preachers (indeed, a subset of Pentecostalism is called the "charismatic movement," although the word has a more specific meaning in this context), who many skeptics will claim are responsible for the activity that goes on during Pentecostal sermons due to their getting the crowd riled up.
Despite the fact that Hollywood screenwriters often lump Pentecostals and Evangelicals together (most likely due to their shared social conservatism and protestant origin), the two groups differ on a great number of theological issues, which has led to some friction between them. Both believe in biblical inerrancy/literalism and baptism/rebirth in Christ. Pentecostals and Charismatics believe in faith healing, speaking in tongues, and the continuation of miracles/spiritual gifts (e.g. prophecies). Evangelicals meanwhile, take a more skeptical view of such practices, believing that miracles and prophecies have ended (or at the very least, severely lessened) following Jesus' death and resurrection. Pat Robertson (Charismatic) made doomsday predictions and believed he spoke with the voice of God. Evangelicals may confine themselves to agreeing with him when, ex post facto, he said a certain city was punished for not punishing homosexuality. To confuse things further, there are charismatic Catholics, too. One group of Pentecostals diverges from mainstream Christianity with its rejection of the Trinity. They are known as Oneness Pentecostals, after their view that God is a single indivisible entity. As a consequence, they believe in "Jesus' name baptism", baptizing people in the name of Jesus only. Many also enforce "holiness" standards, i.e. a strict dress code (particularly with women).
- Black Protestant churches, also known as simply the Black Church, get a special mention here, as their religious traditions, while coming from a similar background as the White Protestant churches both mainline and evangelical, diverged in their own separate directions. Including such denominations as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the National Baptist Convention, and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), their main distinguishing factor isn't their theology but their membership — most of their parishioners and clergy are African-American, owing to a legacy of segregation that saw Black people, especially in the post-Civil War South, prohibited from entering White-dominated churches and forming their own in response. The Black churches played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, with Martin Luther King Jr. having started his career as a reverend and many other Black ministers having rallied their congregations in support of civil rights and social justice. As a result, they maintained a lot of their role as community centers that eluded their White mainline Protestant counterparts and hastened their decline. Today, they are a key pillar of support for the Democratic Party within the Black community, especially on issues of racial and economic justice, though they do trend more conservative than the party's mainstream on issues of gender and sexuality.
- The Orthodox churches include the Eastern Orthodox (Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, etc.) and Oriental Orthodox (Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Ethiopian Orthodox, etc). note The Oriental Orthodox split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 5th century over differences in Christology, as well as just plain East vs. West bigotry. The Eastern Orthodox Churches are descended from the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century following disputes over the respective authority of the Pope versus the Eastern Roman Emperor and Patriarch of Constantinople, doctrinal disputes over liturgy and the use of icons, and (again) West vs. East bigotry. The two, Pope and Patriarch, mutually excommunicated each others' followers around 1055. It would not be until 1965 that the then-current Pope and Patriarch formally undid this, and the churches have begun to reconcile since then.
Orthodox Christians make up less than 1% of the American population, and are associated with particular ethnic groups even more than the Catholics. Basically, if someone is from Eastern Europe or the Balkans, they're more likely than not Eastern Orthodox, and vice versa. The main exception is Alaska, a former Russian colony where Russian missionaries heavily evangelized among the natives. (Significantly, the only Member of the 118th Congress (2023-24) who identifies with the Russian Orthodox Church is Mary Peltola (D-AK), who reports no ethnic Russian ancestry but is Alaska Native.)
Oriental Orthodox aren't as common in America as they are in Canada (America's little brother). The main Oriental Orthodox communities are from Ethiopia, Egypt, Eritrea, and Armenia (which spreads out into Turkey, Iran, Lebanon...note ). There are purportedly 700,000 to 1 million Oriental Orthodox Christians in America, but in very clustered communities.note The most common denominations of Oriental Orthodox in America are the Armenian Apostolic (mostly in California and to a lesser extent the Midwest, especially Detroit), Ethiopian Orthodox (mostly in Greater DC, Greater Philadelphia, and the Midwest), and Coptic Orthodox (mostly in New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, and California) churches.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or the LDS Church, "saints" among themselves, or simply the Mormons) is a Nontrinitarian orientation (which means they reject the concept of the Holy Trinity as it is defined by others), and is based mostly in the state of Utah (despite originating in New York), although there are also significant populations in California, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona. They are stereotyped as having deeply conservative social views — a view that is usually Truth in Television. Owing to their history of persecution and hard life on the frontier, they also believe in self-sufficiency — the Church recommends that all Mormons keep a few months of supplies on hand, and the Church itself has a massive stockpile of food and supplies in the event of a disaster. They operate a significant charity effort around the world through LDS Humanitarian Services. Mormon charity tends to put more emphasis on helping people find jobs and become self-sufficient; examples include significant efforts to dig clean wells in parts of the world that lack clean water supplies, and the Perpetual Education Fund which makes low-interest loans to people in third-world countries pursuing education.
Their religious beliefs often conflict with those of mainstream Christianity, not just with the aforementioned Nontrinitarianism but also in regard to their belief in The Book of Mormon, which they believe to be a holy text on par with and corroborative of the Biblical Gospels. This, combined with their past practice of polygamy (which is not helped by the existence of breakaway sects that still practice it, in violation of both the law and current LDS Church doctrine), means that they are still targets of mockery in many parts of the country. Both from other Christians who view them as heretics, and non-Christians who view them as a cult. Many liberals and secularists often associate them with the Christian Right, even if they're aware of the latter’s issues with their beliefs. This became evident in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, when Mitt Romney's Mormon faith caused issue with some Christian conservatives,note and in the California Proposition 8 debate in 2008, going by some of the reactions from the anti-Prop 8 side to their influence over the gay-rights debate in California.
- Jehovah's Witnesses, like the LDS Church, are Nontrinitarian, evangelical, and conservative, and are known to come off as strange to the majority of Americans. They are infamous for their door-to-door preaching and proselytizing (so much that it even got them their own trope), and they keep track of how much time they spend in those activities, trying to be the most passionate and zealous missionaries they can possibly be. They don't observe Christmas, Easter, or birthdays, which they deem pagan in origin, or national holidays like Thanksgiving or Independence Day. They do celebrate the Lord's Evening Meal, held on Passover, which is similar to Eucharist, but they don't believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation. They do not participate in the military or warfare in general and refuse to salute national flags, which has gotten them in lots of trouble (especially in public schools, what with the Pledge of Allegiance). They're also famous for refusing to use certain blood products, even if they're dying. This means no blood transfusions or emergency surgery that requires transfusions of blood or blood products from another person. Finally, they feel that The End of the World as We Know It is imminent, and have, in the past, tried to pin down the exact date of the Apocalypse. They stopped doing this when they realized that it was earning them more mockery than converts, but eschatology is still a major part of their belief system.
- Much less common than the above, but still prevalent in America, are Anabaptists. They are the descendants of the Radical Reformation, alongside The Protestant Reformation, who believe that being baptized and joining a church should be a choice, offered only to adults who had the knowledge to make such a decision. This sounds sensible now, but was pretty revolutionary in the 16th century. In fact, this was the origin of their name: Anabaptists literally means "re-baptizers", a pejorative term used by the Catholics for their practice of baptizing adults who had formerly been baptized Catholics as infants.
This is not some liberal hippie denomination, but actually the "plain people": Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Each group is distinct from the others, but they all share core beliefs. They're famous for being actual pacifists (believing that Turn the Other Cheek isn't just a suggestion), and also refusing to swear oaths, participate in politics, or drink any alcohol. The more conservative groups dress in plain clothes, keep technology use to a minimum, live in their own separate communities, and refuse to pay into Social Securitynote or even for insurance. More moderate branches, particularly the Mennonites, blend in more with society, though they still stick to their theology. Unusually for a Christian group, Anabaptists have their own language: Low German, also known as Plautdietsch. It's worth noting that, as the name implies, this group is the ancestor of the Baptists, who share many of the same beliefs although often to a lesser degree.
- The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers (the term was originally applied as an insult, but the Friends embraced it) is not so much a sect as a (very) loose network of people who agree on certain principles, and agree to disagree on others. There is enough variety and universality among the Friends that a significant minority of them do not identify as Christian. The Friends have no clergy, and no creed, and are as a whole much more interested in activism and social justice than proselytizing. They've been the most consistently socially liberal sect in American Christianity for centuries: the Quakers allowed women preachers from their foundation in the 1650's, opposed slavery long before it was cool, and were one of the first sects to welcome openly homosexual members. They are famous as pacifists, with their refusal to serve in the military being the origin of conscientious objection in the US (later extended for anyone who has a philosophical or religious not to serve). They are also the reason for affirmations instead of oaths being explicitly allowed in the Constitution, since Quakers historically refused to swear oaths (as a passage in Matthew says not to). William Penn, a Quaker who was persecuted for preaching in England along with his brother, founded the colony of Pennsylvania, with religious toleration and (initially) also peaceful relations toward Native Americans.
- The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a Christian denomination holding Christians are still bound by the Ancient Testament laws such as the dietary restriction (i.e. no 'unclean meats')note and the Shabbat or seventh day rest.note Like the Jehovah's Witnesses, they have a history of predicting that the end is near, and in fact began as a splinter group from the Millerite movement, based on two failed predictions by the preacher William Miller. It frowns on alcohol, jewelry and smoking. The church has over 17 million members, among whom a mere 7% reside in the U.S. Its worldwide educational and health system is second only to that of the Catholic Church.
Other religions are also well-represented in the country, although all of them are clear minorities of the United States population.
- Jews are primarily concentrated on the East Coast (particularly the New York City and Washington, D.C. areas, where they make up a double-digit percentage of the population in some counties), South Florida (where many of them go to retire), and California, with small enclaves elsewhere in the country. The US has the world's second largest Jewish population, after only Israel, with about 5-6 million.
In America, as in most other places, Jews were acceptable targets of prejudice. Antisemitism was prevalent in America as late as The Great Depression, during which time populist radio host Father Coughlin blamed the Jews for the stock market crash, but slowly began to fade after the atrocities of World War II were brought to the surface. Today, antisemitism is significantly less common, and most Jews have turned to worrying about their children marrying non-Jews (which could result in their grandchildren not being considered Jewish, depending on the sect of Judaism they follow) and struggle over whether to preserve traditional Jewish culture or assimilate into American society. That said, antisemitism is still the most common form of religious hate crime, and certain antisemitic tropes have been incorporated into either paranoid conspiracy theories or radical anti-Israel rhetoric (in both cases, often by changing the word "Jews" to "Zionists" in claims that Jews drink blood, secretly control the world, et cetera). A new blood libel is also the claim that Jews/Zionists traffic black market organs taken from unwilling "donors", some of whom are claimed as being murdered for it, like the original blood libel.
Politically, they are the second most loyal constituency to the Democratic Party, after only African Americans. Since Al Smith in 1928, the Democrats have always won the Jewish vote by enormous margins, typically more than 70%, even in elections that the Republicans otherwise won in a landslide.note Their social views in particular are more liberal than the American mainstream, owing to a history of persecution and, with it, a general sympathy for marginalized groups. They were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and it was a Jewish woman, Betty Friedan, who wrote The Feminine Mystique, the book often credited with kick-starting the second wave of the feminist movement in the US. Conservative Jews, however, are not unheard of. Most notably, it was disillusioned Jewish former socialists who provided much of the intellectual backbone of the neoconservative movement in the US, and on the subject of Israel, Jews tend to take a hawkish perspective and react very strongly to criticisms of and opposition to the Jewish state's existence from both the left and the right. Orthodox Jews, particularly the Haredim (aka the ultra-Orthodox), are also a major exception to the liberalism of the Jewish community, with the Modern Orthodox community (those who blend in more with general society) being politically split and the Haredim swinging overwhelmingly Republican.
- There is significant debate on the number of Muslims in the United States, with most estimates ranging from as low as one million to as high as seven million. Two-thirds of the Muslim community is foreign-born, while most of the rest consists of African-American converts (where we get the stereotypical "black Muslims"). Almost one-fifth of American convicts are Muslims, most of whom converted to Islam while in prison (again, the "black Muslim" stereotype). They tend to be concentrated on the East Coast, in Detroit, in Houston, and in California.
After the 9/11 attacks, many Muslims support the Democratic Party.note Even so, they tend to be rather well-integrated compared to their European counterparts, having a higher average income and educational attainment than the national average. The first Muslim member of Congress is Keith Ellison, an African-American Democrat from Minnesota elected in 2006; he was followed by another African-American, Andre Carson (Democrat of Indiana), after a special election in 2008.note Ellison left Congress in 2018 to successfully run for attorney general in Minnesota; his seat was filled by one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, Somalia-born Democrat Ilhan Omar. The other Muslim woman in Congress, also a Democrat, is Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Detroit-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants who was also elected in 2018. Interestingly, Ellison and Carson are both relatively moderate "workhorse" Democrats, while Omar and Tlaib are both notably members of "the Squad", a grouping of far-left and Extremely Online young Democratic Representatives of color informally led by arch-lefty Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (herself a Puerto Rican Hispanic Catholic).
- The Nation of Islam, whose more prominent members have included Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and Muhammad Ali (although Malcolm X and Ali both left the NOI for mainstream Islam), is an American offshoot of the religion of Islam. As with mainstream Islam, the NOI preaches adherence to the five pillars of Islam, personal modesty, eschewing pork, and many other similarities. They differ from mainstream Islam in that they also preach black supremacy and that their founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad, was viewed as the Christian Messiah and the Muslim Mahdi (much the same thing). With its own religious text, doctrinal differences with traditionalists, and American origin, the Nation of Islam can be seen as analogous to Mormonism, and its reception has often been similar (frosty at best, hostile at worst).
- Atheists and other non-religious people (not a church, but here for completeness) make up about 15% of the American population. Their numbers are highest in the Western states and the Northeast, with the title of "least religious state" often fluctuating between Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the various New England states depending on the year and the survey. The vast majority of non-religious people tend to be either liberals (they voted about 71% for Barack Obama) or libertarians, although there are a few prominent conservative atheists. They have long been an acceptable target in American culture, often being stereotyped as bitter, elitist, amoral, un-patriotic, and possibly Communist (the latter during the Cold War especially, when "In God We Trust" was made the US's national slogan as a political statement against "godless communism"), to the point where it's been suggested that lingering stereotypes have caused pollsters to significantly underreport the actual number of atheists in the US, as many of them would be reluctant to express their non-belief to a stranger.
- Agnostics are people who are open to or undecided on the idea of an afterlife and/or a higher power, but who don't ascribe to any one religion. Tend to get lumped in with atheists by some religious communities, despite the difference (there is also overlap for some individuals). Most common in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest.
- Buddhists make up 1-2% of the American population. About 75-80% of American Buddhists are Asian, while most of the rest are white converts (although, as noted below, not entirely white). This latter group is typically stereotyped as consisting largely of New Age Retro Hippies and Granola Girls, while the former group is usually stereotyped as... well, Asian. There have been precisely three Buddhists in Congress, all Democrats: Mazie Hirono, a non-practicing Isseinote Japanese-American from Hawaiʻi, and Hank Johnson, a Black convert from Georgia (yeah, it's kind of weird) were elected in 2006; Colleen Hanabusa, a practicing Yonseinote Japanese-American from Hawaii was elected in 2010.note Probably the most prominent Buddhist in the U.S. is golf superstar Tiger Woods (child of a black father and Asian mother, but with white and Native American heritage as well).
- There are about 1-1.5 million Hindus in the United States. Most of them are South Asian immigrants who, like their East Asian Buddhist counterparts, have their own stereotypes (such as the Asian Store-Owner and the Bollywood Nerd). Hindu gurus had a large influence in the American New Age movement in The '60s and The '70s, when it attracted a number of high-profile Western converts (including—most weirdly—J. D. Salinger, and in the 1950s at that) into denominations such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), stereotyped as the "Hare Krishna" guys in orange robes working as missionaries in airports. Most American perceptions of the religion stem from this, and from what is gleaned of the Indian community.
- Although two recent state governors are the American-born children of Indian immigrants, neither is a Hindu (or Muslim, Buddhist, or Sikh, for that matter). Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina from 2011 until resigning in 2017 to become the country's UN ambassador, is Methodist, and Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana from 2008 until being term-limited out in 2016, is Catholic. However, both were raised in Indian religions before converting to Christianity (Haley as a Sikh and Jindal as a Hindu). Hindus have been somewhat more common in Congress; as of 2022, there are two Hindus in Congress, both relatively progressive Democrats (being Ro Khanna, D-CA-17, representing Silicon Valley, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-IL-8, representing Chicago's affluent professional-class western suburbs).
- There are between 1 and 1.2 million neopagans in the United States. The largest neopagan denomination is Wicca, which is estimated as having between 150,000 and 300,000 followers. They are typically seen as acceptable targets, due to the fact that they practice a faith claiming lineage from the pagan, pre-Christian religions of Europe. As such, they have often been falsely accused of Satanism and criminal activity (including child abuse and sacrifice) by conservative Christians, although this has declined in recent years.
- While Wicca is the predominant neopagan faith, there are plenty of others, though they have even smaller representations:
- Alchemy is a reconstruction of alchemical ideals reimagined as spiritual descriptions rather than practical chemistry.
- Asatru is reconstructed Norse paganism. It comes in generally two strains: a peaceful, non-racist form that most followers embrace, and a violent Neo-Nazi form. Confusing the two is a major Berserk Button.
- Chaotic paganism is a left hand path that has some actual similarities to Satanism below in love for embracing contradiction and theatrics and for embracing or reimaging of traditionally "evil" or "negative" concepts, deities, energies, etc. That said, very importantly it is not Satanism, and is a solitary pagan spiritual path rather than one affiliated with any church or religion - and which is actually most similar to neo-shamanism below as a "kitchen sink" or "cafeteria" path. There are some texts, but any specific practitioner is free to reject them and create their own way.
- Druidry is a reconstruction of Celtic paganism.
- Kemetic belief is a reconstruction of Egyptian paganism.
- Classical paganism, also known as Hellenic paganism, is the belief in the Greek Pantheon, although there are subsets that worship the Roman gods as well. They are not as large or widespread as Wiccans or Druids.
- Neo-shamanism is (sometimes unfairly seen as) the New-Age Retro Hippie / Granola Girl "kitchen sink" neopagan path, as it is about sampling from different beliefs and creating one's own practice, but generally avoiding "negative" deities, energies, and spirits and being more about healing and light work. In it, too, there are some texts, but any specific person is free to reject them and create their own way, and most remain solitary, though some will affiliate with Buddhism or Wicca or, in a more appropriating way, Native American spirituality below.
- While Wicca is the predominant neopagan faith, there are plenty of others, though they have even smaller representations:
- There are about 650,000 Sikhs in the United States, most of them living in California. Despite their own history of clashing with Muslims, Sikhs wound up getting caught up in the wave of Islamophobia that occurred after 9/11, due to the fact that many of them wear turbans. The first Indian (or indeed Asian of any kind) to serve in Congress was Dalip Singh Saund, a Sikh from California who served from 1957 to 1963.
- Native American spirituality has still held on at reservations. For many years, American law was at best indifferent and at worst opposed to the indigenous religions of American Indians, often preventing Indians from accessing sacred sites and acquiring the materials necessary for rituals (such as peyote and eagle feathers), as well as sending Indian children to boarding school where they would be taught Christianity. Policy changes in The '70s ameliorated the situation, to the point where, today, the greatest threat to native religions comes from the opposite direction: many Indian religious leaders have begun entering the profitable New Age market, often at the expense of teaching traditions to their tribes, in what many Indians compare to a religious "brain drain".
- The Ghost Dance was a short-lived movement among a number of American Indian tribes that reached its peak in 1889-90. It was started by a Northern Paiute named Wovoka, aka Jack Wilson, and melded millennial Christianity with a Native American liberation theology that proclaimed that God would return soon and sweep away all of the evils afflicting the Indians. While Wovoka preached non-violence and co-existence with white Americans, the Ghost Dance quickly took on apocalyptic, messianic overtones, most notably among the Lakota Sioux, who preached that God would reclaim their lands from the white man and popularized the "ghost shirt" that was believed to protect the wearer from bullets. The Ghost Dance seriously spooked US authorities, culminating in the Wounded Knee massacre that led to a large drop-off in followers.
- Scientology is a... highly controversial religious movement founded in the United States. They claim to have over three million members in America, but most estimates put their numbers at below 100,000. They have lots of missionaries giving "Free Stress Tests" or the like, and many are attracted from the "Free" offer. However, most "converts" leave soon after they find out about the exorbitant prices one must pay to continue on the Bridge, as well as the practice of shunning non-members or "SPs". They are extremely well-represented in Hollywood, due to their practice of proselytizing toward celebrities (who are usually rich enough to afford the thousands of dollars that their programs cost) in order to use them as spokespeople to gain further converts. They also have a strong presence in Clearwater, Florida, often called "Scientology's Town", where they have their headquarters.
- Anyone wondering why the United States has made no moves against the Scientologists, in contrast to many European nations, should go back and re-read the opening paragraphs of this page again. They can't. However, prior to 1993, the IRS (the US tax service) did not recognize the Church as tax-exempt due to its profit-making practices, and some members were sent to prison for stealing IRS files on them in the largest ever infiltration of US federal agencies.
- There are some splinter groups of Scientologists, such as Free Zone Scientology, who eschew abusive practices such as shunning or harassing people, and (as the name indicates) give members their services for free rather than charge them. Unsurprisingly, they in turn have been harassed and sued by the mainstream Church (since it copyrighted all Scientology materials).
- Bahá'í is a monotheistic religion with millions of followers around the world. Bahá'í in America are divided among Persians, many of whom fled the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the sort of New-Age Retro Hippie-types who might have become Buddhist but preferred something more Abrahamic. The most notable Bahá'í in America is none other than Rainn Wilson (playing Dwight Schrute in The Office (US)), whose parents were of the second category and raised him in the faith while living in a houseboat off the coast of Washington State.
- The Church of Satan was founded in The '60s by Anton Szandor LaVey in San Francisco. Sources state that there are about ten to twenty thousand official members of the Church of Satan in the United States, and there are countless more who adhere to the philosophy or one of its offshoots. Despite their name and reputation, they do not actually worship Satan, being an atheistic organization rooted in a mix of pseudo-Nietzschean philosophynote and the theatrics of Aleister Crowley and other occultists. They chose the name because they feel that Satan, the original rebel in Christian theology, is a role model for people to look up to, and that the Christian message of tolerance, humility, and egalitarianism is self-destructive for both individuals and society. The Church of Satan is not to be confused with...
- The Worldwide Satanic Church of Evil, which is not a real church — although that hasn't stopped thousands of Urban Legends. Since time immemorial, many religious groups have claimed that there is an evil cult that performs occult rituals, human sacrifice, and other evil acts.note Fear of Satanism turned into a moral panic, known as the Satanic Panic, back in The '80s following the publication of Michelle Remembers, a now thoroughly discredited book purporting to be an expose of an underground, worldwide Satanic organization with millions of members performing horrific acts on children. The ensuing panic over "Satanic ritual abuse" did lasting damage to the daycare industry (which was hit hard by dozens of allegations of Satanic abuse) and social services (which jumped onto the Satanism bandwagon early, and saw a huge backlash once Satanic abuse became discredited), and even saw Procter & Gamble forced to change its logo following accusations that its original logo was Satanic (they would be awarded $19 million in damages from the people who spread the rumors, which had caused their stock to plummet).
- The Temple of Set was one of the first of many offshoots from the Church of Satan, founded by Michael Aquino in The '70s because he and several other members basically felt that Anton LaVey was little more than a carny huckster who wasn't interested in genuine spirituality and occultism. These days, one of the most common places where you're likely to see the Temple of Set mentioned is in conspiracy theories about the above, mainly due to the fact that Aquino was also a Lieutenant Colonel in US Army intelligence who co-wrote a paper on psychological warfare with the ominous title of MindWar. This was frequently held up as 'proof' that Satanists had successfully infiltrated the Pentagon, and that MindWar (which was actually about neutralizing enemies through diplomacy and psy-ops in order to minimize the damage done by war) was a blueprint for Satanic mind control and world domination.
- Unitarian Universalism is a religion that began as a fusion of the Unitarian (Christians who believe that God is one, rather than in the Trinity) and Universalist (those who believe all people will be saved) churches, but has drifted somewhat from there. The stereotype of Unitarian believers is New Age Retro Hippies, not without some justification. Unitarians are big on social justice and not very big on defining what religious beliefs are required for one to be a Unitarian (indeed, it's not uncommon when talking to Unitarians to hear that one's minister was in fact an atheist). Officially Unitarians believe (according to the "Principles, Purposes, and Sources" of the Unitarian Universalist Association) in 1. The inherent worth of and dignity of every person 2. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations 3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations 4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning 5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large 6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all and 7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As Unitarian Universalism is a "creedless" religion, attending Unitarian services is usually rather like experiencing a sampler plate of world religions and spiritual experiences. One of the most famous Unitarians to live was (in)famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Thomas Jefferson was also a Unitarian.
Examples of American churches in fiction
- A skit on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In showcases the leeway that churches have. A county tax assessor visits a small grocery store to examine the place and estimate its value for property tax purposes. The owner complains about how much his property taxes keep going up, and the assessor notes the big problem is all of the churches in the area that don't pay property taxes. The owner gets an idea, and as the assessor is leaning over the front counter next to the cash register to write up some notes, the owner says to him, "Stop leaning on my altar!"
- The church that The Simpsons attend. It appears to be an amalgam of most of the aforementioned mainline Protestant churches, and is in fact called "the Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism". (Though for a while, most of Springfield does become enamored with a megachurch. Homer and Bart also once converted to Catholicism.)