America’s landscape now a rich tapestry of diverse religions

Sunday, August 19, 2001

Here's some eye-opening news: America is now the most religiously diverse nation in the world.

When did this happen? Over the past 30 years, immigration has brought millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others to the United States. Diversity in America is about more than race and ethnicity. Diversity now includes religion.

All of this is documented in A New Religious America, a new book by Diana Eck based on research conducted for the Pluralism Project she directs at Harvard University.

Eck uncovers an extraordinary variety of religious expression, from the suburbs of Nashville (with its large Hindu temple) to downtown Los Angeles (now home to more Buddhist traditions than any city in the world).

Quietly, steadily, with little fanfare, the religious landscape of America is changing dramatically. The image of America as “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” — the title of Will Herberg's famous 1955 book — no longer even begins to convey who we are.

Wherever we live in America today, we're increasingly likely to see temples and mosques rising up amidst the churches and synagogues. And if we listen carefully, we'll begin to hear new religious voices at school board meetings, in the military and even in the halls of Congress.

Last year, for example, a Hindu invocation opened a session of Congress for the first time. And two years before that, the Navy opened its first mosque on a naval base. America is a rapidly changing place.

Most of these changes have yet to register with many Americans. We don't hear much about them in the media. We don't talk about them in schools. Most of us don't know much about this “hidden diversity” or what it might mean for the future of our country.

Unfortunately, ignorance may be breeding misunderstanding and even contempt. A slice of the public appears to view the new arrivals as “foreign religions” in our “Christian country.” From attacks on Hindus in New Jersey to zoning discrimination against Muslims in Mississippi, it's clear that some of us aren't happy about the new diversity.

It's true that America's founding and much of our history have been shaped by Christian and Jewish influences, ideas and people. And it's also true that most Americans identify themselves as “Christian” (though they mean vastly different things by that).

But our Founders — most of whom were Christian — broke from the precedents of history to found a nation that had no official faith. Prior to the Bill of Rights, the Constitution mentions religion only once: Article VI prohibits any religious test for public office. And the First Amendment goes even further, prohibiting the government from making any law that would establish religion.

We sometimes forget that we were religiously diverse from the beginning. Although most colonists were Protestant (with a small number of Catholics and Jews), the differences among Protestants were abiding and deep. As James Madison predicted to Thomas Jefferson, the very “multiplicity of faiths” would help ensure religious liberty since no one faith could dominate all the others.

But in the last 30 years religious diversity in America has taken on new meaning. As Eck points out, the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act opened up the doors to people from Asia, Africa and elsewhere who had long been excluded by restrictive immigration laws. Today all of the world's religions can be found here in significant numbers.

Beyond immigration reform, the real catalysts for religious diversity in this country are the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment. Even though we haven't lived up to the promise of full religious liberty (just ask the Native Americans), we have managed to build the most religiously free nation in the history of the world.

Now our challenge is to sustain and expand this extraordinary experiment in religious freedom even as we grow more and more religiously different.

It won't be easy. A good first step would be to learn who our neighbors are. Then comes the hard part: We must agree to uphold the First Amendment so that everyone is treated fairly in the nation's public square.

Just as the First Amendment has made religious diversity in America possible, so religious diversity now makes the First Amendment more necessary than at any time in our history.

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