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Living in the US

Religion in the USA

Religion has always played an important role in the USA. Some of the first settlers who landed on American soil came to the USA because they were looking for a place where they could practice their religion freely.

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Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. This gives it a high priority in the USA and also enables different religions and denominations to exist side by side. Protestant Christians form the biggest religious subgroup in the USA, but there are a lot of other religions which all enjoy equal rights and recognition before the law.

While the US is a secular nation, religion and faith, and the moral standings that come with it, play a very large role in everyday political discourse. The more conservative Christian groups in particular often get involved in US politics and voice their opinion on political issues.

Religious Groups in the USA

Due to the nation’s history as a refuge for those who were persecuted in other countries for their beliefs, a variety of religions, faiths, and denominations co-exist in the USA. Protestantism alone consists of various sub-groups that have emerged in the course of the past 400 years:

  • Baptists
  • Methodists
  • Lutherans
  • Presbyterians
  • Episcopalians
  • Congregationalists
  • The Disciples of Christ
  • Seventh Day Adventists
  • Quakers
  • Mennonites

With more than 50% of the population, Christian Protestants – both mainline Protestants and faith-based, “born again”, evangelical Christians – make up the biggest religious group in the United States, and hence also the most influential. However, there are many other religions and denominations which are just as present in the public life of the US. Among them, there are such important faiths as:

  • Roman Catholics (25% or more of all US citizens)
  • Judaism (1.2-2.2% of the population, depending on whether or not you count those Jewish Americans that are not necessarily practicing Jews, but still feel connected to Jewish culture and tradition)
  • Orthodox Christians (3.6%)
  • Islam (There is an ongoing controversy about their exact percentage of US demographics, and hence there are no exact figures available.  Estimates range from 0.6% to over 2% of the population.)
  • Buddhism (0.5-0.9% of the US population)
  • Hinduism (0.4%)
  • Humanism, agnosticism and atheism (Although these people are explicitly non-religious, their worldview is often treated like a religion under the law.)

Aside from these, however, small religious groups and cults also have a place in the USA. They enjoy the freedom to practice their religion, and you can find numerous places of worship for all sorts of believers in many towns and regions of the US. Such groups may include:

  • Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)
  • Christian Science
  • Unitarian Universalism
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Scientology

Aside from the religions and denominations mentioned above, quite a few other churches and religious splinter groups exist, and we could not possibly list them all here. Protestantism in particular is an umbrella term for countless congregations with sometimes widely differing beliefs and varying degrees of social conservatism.

On the non-judgmental web portal Patheos, you can find more in-depth information on various religions present in the US and have the opportunity to compare them directly. You can also use the site to find a worship community near your place of residence. However, their directory is by no means comprehensive and you might want to check your new hometown’s phone directory or Yellow Pages as well.

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Religious Freedom and Tolerance

The First Amendment grants everyone in the United States the right to worship freely as they see fit. Many organizations propagating religious freedom fight to make sure that the federal states abide by that law and do not interfere with religious practices. Some of these organizations focus on the rights of one specific religion, others on religious rights in general. For this reason, they often have a very different take on what religious freedom means.

Various court cases of very diverse nature have been fought to secure religious freedom for groups and individuals. Often people who did not belong to the Protestant majority filed a lawsuit for their right to practice their religion freely and safely. Prison inmates, for example, have often sued for their right to practice a non-Christian religion, such as Islam. In another case, which famously re-affirmed the freedom of religion, worshippers fought for their right to use peyote, most commonly used as a drug, in spiritual rituals – and won.

Moreover, there is a so-called “hate crime law” in the US, which includes crimes against a group or a person based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The state prosecutes this kind of crimes quite harshly.

Due to the great religious diversity in the United States, followers of different religions enjoy general tolerance. However, many people, especially in areas with less cultural diversity, still are suspicious towards religious minorities. The situation for Muslims has gotten somewhat more difficult since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. In the five days after the attacks, about 210 anti-Muslim incidents occurred, the most serious of which were investigated as hate crimes. Especially around the yearly anniversary of 9/11, when terrorism is extensively covered in the media, Muslim Americans complain about a climate of general Islamophobia in the US.

Religion and Politics

Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, religious groups may hold strong sociopolitical views and show a lot of commitment to these opinions, favoring the political activities of their churches or a recognizable influence of their religion on society. US candidates running for a political office recognized the impact of religious faith on voting decisions a long time ago and often use it during their campaigns. Many American citizens base their vote on who will represent their religious values the best, and some voters show a strong distrust towards non-Christian candidates.

These voters evaluate their candidates based on the religious “hot topics” rather than actual political experience – political topics on which certain religious groups have very strong opinions. Some politicians are thus very careful to voice no opinion whatsoever on some of these hot topics, knowing how much they divide the country. Current hot topics include, among others:

  • Equal rights for homosexuals (especially same-sex marriage)
  • Access to abortion
  • Capital punishment
  • Religion in public schools
  • Abstinence-only sex education

Conservative Christian groups in particular are often involved in heated controversies concerning these and other issues. They consider the United States a country built on Christian principles. Therefore, they consider religious statements and upholding Christian values in politics extremely important while other parts of the population want to adhere to a clear-cut separation of church and state.

Updated on: December 11, 2019
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