History of religion in the United States

Religion in the United States began with the religions and spiritual practices of Native Americans. Later, religion also played a role in the founding of some colonies; many colonists, such as the Puritans, came to escape religious persecution. Historians debate how influential religion, specifically Christianity, was in the era of the American Revolution.[1] Many of the Founding Fathers were active in a local church; some of them had deist sentiments, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. Some researchers and authors have referred to the United States as a "Protestant nation" or "founded on Protestant principles,"[2][3][4][5] specifically emphasizing its Calvinist heritage.[6][7] Others stress the secular character of the American Revolution and note the secular character of the nation's founding documents.

African Americans were very active in forming their own churches, most of them Baptist or Methodist, and giving their ministers both moral and political leadership roles. In the late 19th and early 20th century most major denominations started overseas missionary activity. The "Mainline Protestant" denominations promoted the "Social Gospel" in the early 20th century, calling on Americans to reform their society; the demand for prohibition of liquor was especially strong. After 1970, the mainline denominations (such as Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians) lost membership and influence. The more conservative evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic denominations (such as the Southern Baptists) grew rapidly until the 1990s and helped form the Religious Right in politics.

Though Protestantism has always been the predominant and majority form of Christianity in the United States, the nation had a small but significant Catholic population from its founding, and as the United States expanded into areas of North America that had been part of the Catholic Spanish and French empires, that population increased. Later, immigration waves in the mid to late 19th and 20th century brought immigrants from Catholic countries, further increasing Catholic diversity and augmenting the number of Catholics substantially. At the same time, these immigration waves also brought a great number of Jewish and Eastern Orthodox immigrants to the United States. While the Catholic Church is technically the largest single religious denomination in the United States, Protestantism in general (i.e. all of the Protestant denominations combined) remains the predominant and largest form of religion and the dominant form of Christianity in the United States.

As Western Europe secularized in the late 20th century, the United States largely resisted the trend, so that, by the 21st century, the US was one of the most strongly Christian of all major Western nations. Religiously-based moral positions on issues such as abortion and homosexuality played a hotly debated role in American politics.


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