Americans have always considered themselves religious, even if they don’t go to services or practice the rituals of their faith. But, Americans’ religions have been influenced, and changed, by their culture.
For researchers like sociologist and political scientist Alan Wolfe, religion is the bedrock of American life.
“If I try to understand American politics, it leads to religion,” he says. “If I try to understand American sports, it leads to religion. Entertainment leads to religion. We are a very, very religious country.”
Over the last two years, Professor Wolfe visited different religious communities to discover how Americans actually live their faith.
“I like talking to people who are different from me, not people that agree with me,” he says. “I’ve come in the course of my research to know many people who are again born Christians, people who are devout Catholics, and people who are observant Jews and Muslims. I find it very interesting to learn more about them.”
Those conversations resulted in a book titled The Transformation of American Religion. In it, Professor Wolfe explains that religion in America is moving in new directions.
“We’re not the kind of religious country that we were a century ago. The religion of Americans today is not the religion of their grandparents,” he says. “The religion is really very much transformed, just the way politics has been transformed, or hobbies have been transformed in the United States. We Americans live in a very dynamic society, an innovative society, a society that’s always going through change. And we somehow expect that religion is going to be like a rock of ages, and it’s never going to change. Well, the news is, it does. It changes all the time.”
Religion, like culture, is a powerful force that influences how people think and act. When religion and culture come into conflict, Professor Wolfe says, culture wins.
“In America, we have a culture that many people describe as a culture of individualism; an individual freedom, a culture of choice, a culture of opportunity,” he says. “It’s those aspects of the culture that are strongly influencing religion. For example, one of the biggest changes is that a century ago, people were born into a religion, their parents’ religion. They tended to stay with that religion for their entire lives. Now people choose their religion. They switch; they go back and forth.”
That cultural influence on religion can be a positive force, according to Michael Fishbach, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“Absolutely. I think the miracle and promise of this country is that faith traditions have great deal to learn from American culture. The very notion of democracy, internalized into a religion, has led to something new and profound,” he says. “Democracy has been good for religious tradition. Americans are far more filled with faith than are many Europeans, where there are official churches. Here we have separation of church and state. Nevertheless, Americans are far more likely to define themselves as religious. What we have realized is that faith has flourished in freedom in ways that perhaps were never anticipated.”
Even religions relatively new to America are finding a variety of ways to transform themselves in their new environment. Author Alan Wolfe points to Islam as an example. Historically, he says, most Muslims were born and raised in a Muslim majority society. That’s not the case in the United States.
“So, the question is how to you become a minority religion when you were once a majority religion? I’ve also seen that a lot of Muslims rediscover their parent’s religion and rediscover their faith in the U.S,” he says. “They became more religious than their parents were, wherever their parents came from, and that’s too kind of part of the process of rediscovery.”
Los Angeles Islamic Center Imam Mostafa Alqazwini agrees. He says living in a diverse society encourages Muslim Americans, especially the younger generation, to rediscover their faith. “They always try to search and discover their roots and origins. They are introduced to their faith through writings, readings and discussions especially at universities, colleges and schools,” he says. “When they engage in discussions with people of other faiths, they try to find their own principles. The other element is that this is a matter of choice. No one is pushing them. No one is pressuring them. There is no government here asks people to go to the Islamic Center, a temple or a church to worship God. So in fact people have the freedom of going and searching for their religion by themselves without any intimidation or pressure.”
The United States was the first society in the world to enshrine freedom of religion in its constitution. And that right includes the freedom to change and evolve… to become more liberal or more conservative… to add new liturgy and ritual… making the many religions in America truly American religions.