Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Whether there is an "American religion" is a matter of some dispute. The United States has a legal disestablishment that prevents a state church. Also, the country is perhaps the most religiously pluralistic in the world. As a nation of immigrants, many of whom brought distinctive religious traditions with them, the United States is a potpourri of faiths, from the international to the extremely privatized. Thus religion in America is, and historically has been, too fragmented to speak of in terms of an "American religion."

Nonetheless, a persuasive argument can be made that an American religion exists as a cultural reality that is distinct from the evangelical impulses to "Christianize" the continent (see Handy 1984) as well as from the cultural themes known as "civil religion" (Bellah 1967). The importance of religion in the founding of the European colonies, the experience of settling a frontier society with waves of immigrants, the powerful social and political impulses toward Anglo-conformity, and the continued centrality of religious cultures in contemporary politics, all speak to an "American" experience that has produced some distinctive religious forms.

Scholars have used two generally distinct conceptions, or "schemata," to describe the generic organizational forms of religion in the United States. One conception stresses the "denomination" as the quintessential organizational form, while the second schema understands the "congregation" as the heart of American religion. At the cultural level, the first conception stresses religion's role in integrating the American national community, either through support for a diffuse civil religion or through a system of denominational accommodation. By way of contrast, the second schema puts pluralism and processes of group competition and conflict at the center. Although both accommodation and conflict occur at both the denominational and the congregational levels, scholars have tended to focus on one or the other schema.

Despite divergent views on the appropriate interpretive conception, there is general agreement on other characteristics of American religion. For example, "revivalism" as a technique of evangelization has become a cultural and organizational form that has spread far beyond its Protestant origins (e.g., Dolan 1992). Revivalism's effects on the development of mass politics and the structure of the national economy also have been documented (e.g., Hammond 1979, Howe 1990, Thomas 1989). Also, the ideological themes of individualism, voluntarism, and an emphasis on morality over theology are all recognizable among many different faiths as practiced in the United States. Thus something of an irony emerges. Legal disestablishment and religious pluralism have transformed the "New Jerusalem" of the Puritans into a diverse society they neither would have recognized nor would have sanctioned; simultaneously, the American experience has helped produce "Americanized" versions of Catholicism (e.g., Appleby 1992), Judaism (e.g., Lipset 1990), Islam (e.g., Haddad and Smith 1994), and, more recently, Asian-based faiths (e.g., R. B. Williams 1988).

Cultural Consensus and Mainline Denominationalism

The most forceful argument for an American religion was Will Herberg's famous essay Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955). Writing during the booming fortunes of the "mainline" religious groups in the U.S. postwar prosperity, Herberg claimed that the central tripartite distinctions of American religion (Protestant, Catholic, Jew) had become mostly variations on a central theme—the celebration of the "American way of life." A comfortable denominational pluralism offered a judicious balance between identity and group membership while supporting civic order in the public sphere.

Other scholars have noted the development of an American religion but questioned Herberg's rosy assessment of the situation. Niebuhr's (1929) classic account of denominational pluralism was a critique of American religion. He located the social sources of denominations in ethnic, regional, and class identities. Niebuhr saw such divisions as an ethical failure, because they were divisions within Christ's church. Niebuhr's work also offered an important formulation of the "church-sect" dynamic that had the perhaps unintended effect of demonstrating empirically how "American religion" was created. Niebuhr noted that established churches spawned sectarian schisms, based on dissatisfactions with the institution's worldly "compromises." But forces such as the necessities of organizational survival, the challenge of keeping the second generation within the faith, and general American social mobility led many sects to develop the institutional trappings of "established" religions.

Thus were denominations born—reasonably open, "world-accommodating," large-scale organizations, co-existing with other similar organizations, eschewing claims to have the only valid interpretation of absolute truth. They are less encompassing than European-style "churches" but less exclusive than "sects." This very accommodation, of course, leads to yet another round of sectarian schism. One consequence of this cycle has been the increasing organizational and cultural similarity of the surviving denominations and their increasing similarity to nonreligious, formal organizations (see Scherer 1980).

Writing 20 years after Herberg, Cuddihy (1978) charged that the polite civility required for Herberg's version of American religion robbed religions of their distinct traditions and historical authenticity. Cuddihy merged Herberg's Eisenhower-era convergence with an ironic reading of Bellah's "civil" religion and produced a stinging rebuke of a too-easy ecumenical unity. He noted that this civil faith was particularly disastrous for religious minorities. Cuddihy, however, did not deny the reality of American religion.

Wuthnow's (1988) influential assessment of contemporary American religion noted that Herberg's essay appeared just as the putative consensus of the 1950s was crashing on the ideological reefs of the 1960s. Driven by conflicts over civil rights and foreign military adventures, there was a restructuring of religious cleavages from denominational loyalties to ideological divisions. Further, the organizational bases for public involvement shifted from denominational bureaucracies to small, ideologically driven "special purpose groups."

This is not to say that denominations were not part of the 1960s social conflicts. Hadden (1969) demonstrated how clergy working within denominational agencies were deeply involved in antiwar, civil rights, and social justice activism. This involvement helped polarize the "restructured" religious scene and contributed to the declining significance of denominationalism (Wuthnow 1988).

Thus an important body of work accounts for "American religion" in terms of a denominational pluralism that in the nineteenth century helped in the successful assimilation of many European immigrants and in the twentieth century played a major role in shaping the societal consensus so central to civil society. Eisenstadt (1991) goes so far as to claim that the denomination, as such, is a U.S. creation and only truly exists within the American context. Denominationalism's integrating functions reached their zenith in postwar society just before the major challenges of the late 1960s emerged, and the U.S. religious scene and American culture in general began its transition to a more pluralist and ideologically charged landscape.

Religious Pluralism and Social Conflict

An alternative (but not completely incompatible) view of American religious development is to reframe it, deemphasizing the formation and dissolution of consensus and focusing instead on religion as a consistent source of social differentiation and a tool of social conflict. American religious history thus becomes a series of political and cultural challenges to white, male, Anglo-Saxon, mainline Protestant hegemony.

One version of this narrative is to describe American religion as a series of "disestablishments." The first, of course, was the legal disestablishment of the colonial churches. The First Amendment of the Constitution prevented a federal establishment; state governments varied in their religious establishments, some maintaining state churches until early in the nineteenth century. As Murrin (1990) noted, at times in some American colonies there were fewer legitimate religious options than at the same time in England. Those viewing the New World as their opportunity to build a "New Jerusalem" did not have religious tolerance—as we now think of the term—as one of their goals.

Colonial society could not sustain established churches, and a de facto Protestant pluralism developed. Effective control of institutional religious life was undermined by a consistent influx of new immigrants, many with different religious loyalties (e.g., Fischer 1989, Hackett 1991), and the expansion of the frontier (e.g., Finke and Stark 1992, Innes 1983). Also, among seaboard elites, Enlightenment ideas of individual rights, freedom from government intervention, and the historical march of progress gave ideological justification to a right to freedom of expression (Bailyn 1967).

After the legal institutional separation of church and state, however, a Protestant cultural hegemony continued. If one takes church-state cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court as a measure of conflict over religion, Protestant hegemony was relatively uncontested until the middle of the twentieth century (Demerath and Williams 1984). Certainly there was religious conflict over the waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants that came to America in the 1840s-1850s and then again in the 1890s-1920. But well into the twentieth century, Protestantism asserted itself successfully, restricting immigration, prohibiting alcohol production and consumption, and fostering assimilation (Anglo-conformity) as a social ideal. Whether nativist or progressive, public discourse was still dominated by Protestant voices.

The second disestablishment was the shattering of this cultural hegemony following World War II. There was a large-scale movement of American Catholics out of urban ethnic neighborhoods into middle-class suburbs and, after 1965's immigration law reform, a new wave of immigration from Latin America and Asia. Protestant control of public life was increasingly eroded, symbolized by conflict over schools and education. Particularly in urban politics, a Catholic ethnoreligious "establishment" emerged (Demerath and Williams 1992).

Increasing socioreligious diversity, combined with the countercultural challenges of the 1960s and early 1970s, has produced a third disestablishment—one that undermines all traditional institutionalized forms of religion in favor of a variety of syncretic, ideologically polarized, grassroots, feminist, and often relatively privatized forms of spirituality (e.g., Hammond 1992, Wessinger 1993, Wuthnow 1988).

The fragmenting of religious, cultural, and even political authority represented by successive disestablishments has been abetted by tendencies that have always been present in American religion but were perhaps minor chords until institutional and social structural changes provided the opportunities to flourish.

The Reformed Calvinist orthodoxy of Puritan New England was intermittently, but repeatedly, challenged by versions of Protestantism that focused on individualized, ecstatic religious expression, emphasizing spirit over intellect, and containing significant components of Arminianism and "perfectionism." These challenges included the "Great Awakening" in western New England in the mid-eighteenth century (e.g., Stout 1986), the growth of evangelizing denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists (Hatch 1989), the "feminization" of American religion (Welter 1976), and a host of less formally organized, popular forms of charismatic faith (P. Williams 1980).

At various times, major political and social divisions have centered on the differences between established, "respectable" forms of religion and pietistic, grassroots forms. For example, Howe (1990) and Carwardine (1993) discuss this very conflict in the antebellum North. Kleppner (1970) and Hammond (1979) demonstrate religion's importance to political conflict by concluding that religious differences influenced voting patterns as much as class or party differences in the Midwest and the "burned over" district of New York, respectively, in the late nineteenth century.

Studying the twentieth century, Marty's (1970) interpretation of American Protestantism holds that religious conflict was centered in a basic disagreement over strategy for the church's work in the world—whether it should save souls or reform social institutions. This conflict emanated from strictly theological differences into issues shaping the public sphere, such as the efficacy of social reform. Relatedly, Pope (1965) connected conflict over religious ideology and cultural styles to labor and class struggles.

Finke and Stark (1992) chart a long history of conflict in American religion between those groups whose strategy for institutional preservation was to relax their opposition to the "world" for the purposes of inclusion, and those groups who retain a sectarian separation and sense of election as a compensation for their doctrinal and behavioral discipline. Thus in many ways American religion has been an arena of social conflict and succession.

Related to this "conflict" approach to American religion is an emphasis on the ubiquity of the "congregation" as the central organizational form for many religions. Wind and Lewis's (1994) recent two-volume work makes this point with a variety of empirical and conceptual arguments. R. S. Warner (1994) argued that the congregation is the distinctive form of American religion and that there is a general convergence toward a de facto congregationalism. While the model of congregational life comes from reformed Protestantism's reappropriation of the Jewish synagogue tradition, other faiths have freely adopted and adapted it. As an organizational form, the congregation is neither liberal nor conservative necessarily; bulwarks of liberal Protestantism such as the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian-Universalists share many organizational characteristics with Independent Baptists and the Assemblies of God.

"Local" concerns and local identities have had the preeminent place in American life in religion as in politics. Denominational bureaucracies are often distant, both geographically and socially. Coupled with an anti-institutional cultural theme, and a recurring pattern of distrust of doctrinal knowledge in favor of an emotional immanentism, local congregations may be regarded as the organizational unit that ultimately matters. Even internationally organized religions, such as Catholicism or Islam, have felt this pressure toward congregational autonomy in the United States.

Practical and Cultural Similarities in American Religion

Despite the differences among the many religious groups who have arrived in the United States, and the scholarly assessments of what constitutes "American religion," some similarities have arisen in both the practice and the study of religion in America. As mentioned earlier, revivalism began as a technique for energizing new religious converts but became a more general method of persuasion used subsequently in the development of mass politics. Ryan (1981) delineated the ways in which revivals shaped both the private and the public spheres, affected the ideas of what constituted the proper middle-class family, and gave women a significant role in societal-level change as well.

Even the organizational forms of religions in America, whether denominational or congregational, are examples of convergence. Processes of "institutional isomorphism" (DiMaggio and Powell 1983) push different organizations toward similar structural forms. The same legal and social forces that encourage pluralism in religious identification also promote an organizational isomorphism among different groups. Groups look alike organizationally even if they differ theologically, politically, and socially. The American experience has been the stage for both diversity and convergence.

At the cultural level, several themes have become common to American religion. Disestablishment and pluralism have produced an ethos of religious voluntarism. For many groups, beginning with evangelical and Holiness traditions but spreading widely, "real" religion involves voluntary submission of the individual will to the "free grace" of God. The "community of saints" was still filled by the elect, but not necessarily a "predestined" elect. Rather, humans must use their free will to come voluntarily to a Godly humility. This worldview placed a primacy on the individual believer. Thus religious requirements for salvation and the individualism implicit in a rationalizing capitalist economy and a mass political democracy all shared an "elective affinity" (Thomas 1989).

Without legal compulsion holding communicants, disaffected church members can leave. Additionally, the variety of acceptable options offered by increasing religious diversity have forced American religious groups to respond to what is essentially a "religious market" to recruit and maintain members (Berger 1979, Finke and Stark 1992). As ethnicity became submerged by geographic and social mobility (especially for European Americans), church switching became easier, more acceptable, and more common. Indeed, from the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, a religious populism became firmly ingrained in American religious culture.

This cultural individualism and religious voluntarism also led to a widely shared emphasis on morality over theology. In a diverse society, an often-shared morality allowed a certain ecumenical and interfaith tolerance that glossed theological differences. This "shared" morality was not a neutral, consensual product of an egalitarian society. Practical and public morality has often been the cornerstone of religious conflict as well as civility. Nonetheless, in American life the idea resonates that a shared sense of the moral is not dependent on specific theological underpinnings (Demerath and Williams 1985).

The case for an American religion also resonates with an argument concerning "American exceptionalism." Exceptionalism has both political and religious dimensions that may be related to efforts to answer such questions as these: Why has there not been a serious socialist challenge in American politics? Why are there continued high levels of religious activity, despite the society's thorough modernization? Why does religion have the political influence that it does despite disestablishment and pluralism? While debates continue over the details of answers to such questions, there is widespread agreement that the United States is distinct from other industrialized, (post)modern societies. The nation's religious profile is one aspect of that distinctiveness; America is what it is in large part because of the development of "American religion."


Central to U.S. religious culture is the conception of the nation as divinely blessed and Americans as a "chosen people" with a special covenant with God. The Puritans' "errand into the wilderness" (Miller 1956) to create a new Jerusalem (Cherry 1971) is one obvious example, but the notion has spread far beyond that tradition. Indeed, even in Judaism there has been some debate over the special place America holds for Jews (e.g., Lipset 1990). In Weberian terms, Americanism has often been the "priestly" form of U.S. civil religion (Richey and Jones 1974), a celebratory, often self-congratulatory, and occasionally sentimental form.

Americanism, however, is more a cultural theme than a coherent doctrine. It can be both inclusive and exclusionist, for example, exalting our common history of immigration while opposing the newest arrivals. There is a nostalgic cast to this, celebrating the nation's idealized past while lamenting a confusing present Often this past is "remembered" as pastoral, agricultural, and ethnically homogenous, made up of people like Jefferson's yeoman farmers—rugged, virtuous, neighborly yet self-reliant—quintessentially American.

This image contrasts sharply with the historical reality of waves of immigrants filling American cities and factories (see Handy 1984) and stimulating extensive social conflicts. An exclusionist nativism has been one reaction; other efforts have attempted to turn immigrants into "good Americans," that is, culturally similar to Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The cultural mystique of the "heartland"—meaning the traditionally WASP Midwest—continues to reflect this Americanism in current culture and politics. Note that Iowa and New Hampshire get the first cracks at picking the candidates for president.

Americanism also has been an important cultural backdrop to U.S. foreign relations. In this venue, it has been both isolationist and interventionist. America's uniquely "chosen" status has allowed the nation to act as though the "old world's" problems had no relevance to it. On the other hand, America's call to be a "city on a hill" has produced a sense of responsibility for leading the world into a better future. The results are sometimes benign, such as the nation's charitable giving and foreign aid.

But Americanism also has been manifested as an aggressive assertion of national privilege. For example, the Monroe Doctrine staked out the entire Western hemisphere as the U.S. sphere of influence, and the doctrine of "manifest destiny" legitimated the expansion of the nation's boundaries from coast to coast. Somewhere in between benign and militant has been the country's conviction, particularly in the twentieth century, that it had the responsibility to spread "democracy" throughout the world. The religious roots of Americanism's "mission to the world" may be given a secular facade, but they do not disappear (e.g., Tiryakian 1982).

A noted analysis of religious themes in the celebration of America is W. L. Warner's (1959) examination of Memorial Day observances in "Yankee City." His symbolic anthropology demonstrates the extent to which the nation's past, present, and future, through its living and its dead, are brought together within a common transcendent plan.

Americanism has been, in sum, both a source of national unity and a tool for social conflict.

Rhys H. Williams


R. S. Appleby, Church and Age Unite! (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992)

B. Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press, 1967)

R. N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96(1967):1-21

P. L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979)

R. J. Carwardine, Evangelical Protestants and Politics in Antebellum America, 1840-1861 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993)

C. Cherry (ed.), God's New Israel (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971)

J. M. Cuddihy, No Offense (New York: Seabury, 1978)

N. J. Demerath III and R. H. Williams, "Separation of Church and State?" Society 21(May/June 1984):3-10

N. J. Demerath III and R. H. Williams, "Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society," Annals 480(1985):154-166

N. J. Demerath III and R. H. Williams, A Bridging of Faiths (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992)

P.J. DiMaggio and W.W.Powell, "The Iron Cage Revisited," American Sociological Review 48(1983):147-160

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S. N. Eisenstadt, "The Expansion of Religions," in Comparative Social Research 13 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1991): 45-74

R. Finke and R. Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992)

D. H. Fischer, Albion's Seed (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)

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Y. Y. Haddad and J. I. Smith (eds.), Muslim Communities in North America (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994)

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J. Hammond, The Politics of Benevolence (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1979)

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W. Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955)

D. W. Howe, "Religion and Politics in the Antebellum North," in Religion and American Politics , ed. M. A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990): 121-145

S. Innes, Labor in a New Land (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983)

P. Kleppner, The Cross of Culture (New York: Free Press, 1970)

S. M. Lipset (ed.), American Pluralism and the Jewish Community (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1990)

M. E. Marty, Righteous Empire (New York: Dial, 1970)

P. Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press, 1956)

J. M. Murrin, "Religion and Politics in America from the First Settlements to the Civil War," in Religion and American Politics , ed. M. A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990):19-45

H. R. Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Holt, 1929)

L. Pope, Millhands and Preachers (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965)

R. E. Richey and D. G. Jones (eds.), American Civil Religion (New York: Harper, 1974)

M. P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981)

R. P. Scherer (ed.), American Denominational Organization (Pasadena, Calif.: Carey Library, 1980)

H. S. Stout, The New England Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986)

G. M. Thomas, Revivalism and Cultural Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989)

E. A. Tiryakian, "Puritan America in the Modern World," Sociological Analysis , 43(1982):351-368

R. S. Warner, "The Place of the Congregation in the Contemporary American Religious Configuration," in American Congregations , Vol. 2, ed. J. P. Wind and J. W. Lewis, q.v. (1994): 54-99

W. L. Warner, The Living and the Dead (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959)

B. Welter, Dimity Convictions (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976)

C. Wessinger (ed.), Women's Leadership in Marginal Religions (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993)

P. W. Williams, Popular Religion in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989)

R. B. Williams, Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

J. Wind and J. W. Lewis (eds.), American Congregations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

R. Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

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