Religious organisations and lifestyles in the US


The US has a tradition of religious tolerance and every resident has total freedom of religion without hindrance from the state or community. The establishment and free exercise of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US constitution. For this reason, prayer isn’t permitted in schools or at the start of sports games and was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

Although the influence of religion declined in most western societies in the latter part of the 20th century, the US has remained solidly religious (it’s one of the world’s most deeply religious nations). The national motto ‘In God We Trust’ is inscribed upon US coins, and the pledge of allegiance to the American flag still refers to the US as ‘one nation under God’ despite sporadic legal attempts to have the words removed. Religion is conspicuous in the US, where it’s a part of everyday life (only sport is taken more seriously).

More than 90 per cent of Americans claim to believe in God (and Mammon), two-thirds are members of a local church or temple and around 45 per cent attend religious services at least once a week. Some 60 per cent of Americans are Protestant, 25 per cent Roman Catholic, 2 per cent Jewish, 1 per cent Orthodox and 4 per cent belong to other religions such as Buddhist, Hindu or Moslem (the remaining 8 per cent claim no religion).

Not surprisingly, more Americans believe in heaven (around 80 per cent) than hell (65 per cent), and 70 per cent believe in life after death (they hope they can take their pile with them or at least come back and enjoy it in their next life). As a consequence of the diverse religions, Americans refer to ‘first’ or ‘given’ names, rather than ‘Christian’ names.

Astonishingly, around a third of Americans claim to be ‘Born Again Christians’, so called because they believe life starts anew when you commit yourself to Jesus Christ (being born again doesn’t, however, guarantee you a longer life!). They, and other fundamentalists, contend that every word in the bible is literally true and that Darwin’s theory of evolution is false. The southern and south-west regions are known as the ‘bible belt’ because of the prominence of fundamentalist Protestants. In many parts of the US, there’s a relentless determination by religious zealots to impose their views on non-believers, often through so-called street preachers.

Church on TV

The most famous (or infamous) evangelists conduct their business via radio and TV (the ‘electronic’ church). A staggering 1,300 radio and TV stations (television ministries) are devoted full-time to religion. Although TV religious broadcasts may look like game shows, they’re a deadly serious, multi-million dollar business (God is BIG business in the US). The chief aim of TV ministries is to encourage viewers to donate pots of money to pay for their salvation (or the preacher’s high life). Enterprising readers should note that one of the fastest ways to get seriously rich in the US is to start a religious organisation, which enjoy tax-exempt status.

Many religious groups have considerable influence in US society and politics, locally and nationally. Religion pervades political life and prominent politicians (and sportsmen) often praise or call on God in public or share their religious beliefs with millions of TV viewers (atheism is bad for business). Often sportsmen state that they won ‘with God’s help’, although losers don’t usually blame divine indifference.

Niche organizations

The US, particularly California, is also the birthplace of many of the world’s most bizarre religious organisations, including Hare Krishna, the Moonies, the Rajneeshies, Scientology and Transcendental Meditation (TM). Many ‘cults’ seek the total commitment and involvement of their members, which means giving up their worldly possessions or donating a large percentage of their salaries to the cult. Some cults have a fundamentalist outlook, while others are based on oriental religions or philosophies. Many Americans consider cults to be dangerous, as they appear to indulge in brain-washing techniques (which is why some have been banned in a number of countries).

Churches and religious meeting places representing a multitude of faiths can be found in every town (often outnumbering bars), and Sunday traffic jams are common, as people commute to church (some even have drive-in services). Recent years have seen the advent of mega-churches (known as ‘God’s shopping malls’) with seating for up to 6,000 worshippers or more than 30,000 a week. They generally offer a computerised, pulsating, video-age service packaged as big-time entertainment and dished up with a variety of added attractions.

Sunday schools and other programs

In some towns, practically everyone attends church or Sunday school, when people dress in their Sunday best. The bible remains the nation’s best-selling book and most book shops have a section for religious books. In smaller towns and communities, churches are often the main centres of social and community life. Most churches organise a wide range of social activities, including sports events, dances, coffee hours, dinners and suppers, discussion groups and outings.

Many also operate nursery schools and after-school and youth programmes for older children. Most colleges and universities have ‘campus ministries’ affiliated with churches. Many of the US’s largest charities are administered by religious groups, which run hospitals, homeless shelters, canteens, workshops for the disabled, refugee centres, youth centres, special schools, and many other establishments and projects. In many cases, these charities have now become eligible for federal government funding under programmes developed to encourage ‘faith-based’ initiatives to replace social services previously cut back due to budgetary constraints.

For information about local religious centres and service times, contact your local library or telephone religious centres for information (listed in the yellow pages under ‘Religious Organisations’ or ‘Churches’). Many religious centres hold services in a number of languages. In some areas, a church directory is published and local religious services are usually listed in tourist guides and published in local weekend newspapers, where a whole page may be devoted to religious news.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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