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I had thought religion in America consisted mainly of consumerism, with a highly visible idiot fringe in southern states. Here I’ve looked more closely at religion in the USA. Reliable information was hard to come by, and what follows has been served up by Google, so what I say may not be too factual. Despite the theocracies of Islam and the extravaganzas of Roman Catholic countries, it seems America may be the most religious country on earth.
There are religions, churches and sects in bewildering diversity in America. This has always been a characteristic of religions, for over four thousand years, in every part of the world. Probably because nobody knows anything about god and eternity, but we all really want to.
There are over two billion Christians (that is, that many people so define themselves on a census or survey form), of the world’s population of 7.3 billion. Islam has 1.6 billion adherents, and Hinduism 1.1 billion. Those with no membership in a church (atheists, agnostics, those with a personal faith and the non committed) total 1.1 billion, and all other faiths combined make up the remaining 1.3 billion. Perhaps all groups will soon be equal.
1 Christians in America
Far more interesting that statistics of numbers is religious conviction, religion as it is practised. There are no global figures for religious conviction, but church membership can be measured, and in the USA Christianity can be seen in its most active, it seems at times its most aggressive, form. Gallup International indicates that 41% of American citizens report they regularly attend religious services, compared to 15% of French citizens, 10% of UK citizens, and 7.5% of Australian citizens. Other polls reveal that 65 % of Americans say that religion is important in their daily lives compared to just 17 % of Swedes, 19% of Danes, and 24% of Japanese (just remember that 50% of statistics are inaccurate).
There are 247 million Christians in the USA, one eighth the global total, more than in any other country in the world. There are 323 million US citizens, so Christians of various denominations form 75% of the population. They can be divided roughly into three groups: Roman Catholics, about 24% (about 62 million); Protestants, about 46% (about 103 million); and Evangelicals, including Pentacostals, and Fundamentalists, about 30% (about 82 million). These, like the global totals above, are of those who have described themselves accordingly on a form. Other statistics reveal that only 60% of these numbers are actually part of a congregation, i.e. committed Christians, church goers. Nobody has any statistical information on how many people successfully practise their faith’s teachings.
Generally speaking, Roman Catholic and Protestant are the groups that came to the Americas with European settlement from the 16th century. Evangelicals, Pentecostal and Fundamentalists are reformed churches which seek to go back to a perceived original form of worship and avoid compromises that have crept into the churches over the years. The USA is rich in this later category of church. The term ‘other’ below refers to churches not considered Christian by the majority.
The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches gives the following figures for church membership for the year 2012 (note, figures include those for Canada). The total membership in the top 25 churches for 2012 was 145,691,446, very approximately about 60% of the total for the USA given above. Very approximately the combined totals for Evangelicals and Protestants equals that for Catholics, and the two former categories have about equal numbers of churches and congregations, in the top 25 churches.
1. The Catholic Church 68,202,492. Roman Catholic
2. Southern Baptist Convention 16,136,044. Evangelical
3. The United Methodist Church 7,679,850. Protestant
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 6,157,238. Other
5. The Church of God in Christ 5,499,875. Pentecostal 6. National Baptist Convention U.S.A. , Inc. 5,197,512. Protestant
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 4,274,855. Protestant
8. National Baptist Convention of America , Inc. 3,500,000. Protestant
9. Assemblies of God 3,030,944. Evangelical
10. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 2,675,873. Protestant
11. African Methodist Episcopal Church 2,500,000. Protestant
12. National Missionary Baptist Convention of America 2,500,000. Protestant
13. The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) 2,278,586. Protestant
14. The Episcopal Church in USA 1,951,907. Protestant
15. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc. 1,800,000. Evangelical
16. Churches of Christ 1,639,495. Evangelical
17. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America 1,500,000. Orthodox
18. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church 1,400,000. Evangelical
19. American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. 1,308,054. Protestant
20. Jehovah’s Witnesses 1,184,249. Other
21. Church of God (Cleveland , Tennessee ) 1,074,047. Pentecostal
22. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ 1,071,616. Protestant
23. Seventh-day Adventist Church 1,060,386. Evangelical
24. United Church of Christ 1,058,423. Protestant
25. Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. 1,010,000. Protestant
The other 100 million Christians in the USA belong to a host of churches too numerous to mention. They include a further 200 denominations with 90 million members, plus non denominational churches with a combined total of 12 million members.
2 Other Faiths
There are of course more than just Christians in the USA. About 15% of the population combined call themselves Baha’is, Buddhist, Hindu, Jews, Muslims, New Age or tribal, or Sikhs. The largest of these groups is the Jews, with 5.5 million members. The varieties of Christianity are equalled by a similar number of sects or denominations in every other religion.
3 Start a religion
But perhaps none of these faiths are quite right for you? In America, the home of free enterprise, you can start your own. It’s just like starting any other business, and anyone can do it. Below are the first two relevant ads I came across.
a Start a church
“Has god spoken to you? Are you his beloved prophet? Do you want to call a congregation to your ministry? Let StartChurch.com do it for you. Become one of 1000s of churches that use the StartRIGHT™ Program. In just 30 days you will receive everything you need to:
b Become ordained
“Become an Ordained Minister Almost Immediately, Senior Citizens Welcome, Fast Ordination, Fast Shipping, Excellent Service for Over 30 Years. We give you full legal authority to begin your own independent church or ministry and perform all Christian services including marriage, baptism and funerals”. wcm.org can help.
4 Cults and non-Christian Groups
Many have started their own religion in America. Who says the ancient Near East has the monopoly on that? Here is a random selection, most of them outside the Christian pale though many rely on their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the bible. Many of these churches have argued as passionately about the nature of the Trinity as ever they did in fourth century Constantinople. Thankfully, they don’t throng the streets murdering thousands to prove their point as they did in Constantinople: they just start a new church. Some charismatic individuals have become a cult in their own persons.
Billy Graham (b. 1918) is a Southern Baptist minister, preacher and televangelist from North Carolina. Between 1949 and 2005 Graham is estimated to have preached to over 2.2 billion people. His advocacy of racial integration is thought to have influenced implementation of civil rights legislation. Graham is a fundamentalist who believes in the literal truth of the bible. He has been involved in politics, against Kennedy in 1960 because he was a Catholic, and has moved from a Democratic supporter to a Republican one.
Oral Roberts (1918-2009) was a Methodist faith healer, charismatic preacher and televangelist from Oklahoma who claimed he could bring the dead to life. At his peak of popularity in the 1980s he had an income of $88 million pa, though by the end of that decade Roberts lost credibility through allegations of diverting funds for his personal use. At one time 80% of the American population believed in Oral Roberts and his powers.
The Oneness Pentecostal movement was started in 1916 by Frank Ewart, an Australian Baptist minister living in California. It consists of several Pentecostal churches and is a fundamentalist Christian movement that relies mainly on the bible, and like other Pentecostal denominations, believes in the gift of tongues, or direct inspiration from god. The movement denies much Christian theology and especially the doctrine of the Trinity. They claim a membership totalling 24 million.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormons) was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, a visionary from Vermont who had met the angel Moroni who showed him where golden plates were buried, with the texts of what became the Book of Mormon, Smith’s English translation of these texts. The book tells the story of America’s first inhabitants in the years 600 BC-421 AD. Smith saw himself as an Old Testament figure like Abraham, and his revelations from god were a mixture of early Jewish religion and modern ideas of his own time. Mormons accept the bible as the (imperfect) word of god but reject much Christian theology, and believe that righteous persons can become gods. LDS is based in Utah, and has a membership of about 15 million (with four million active worshippers). Funding is by tithing. Assets are about $30 billion.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a fundamentalist Christian group who reject much of mainstream theology. They were founded 1931 by Joseph Rutherford, a Missouri lawyer. They believe the world is evil, but that Christ is coming in judgement to reward the faithful. They say there are eight million members world wide. Revenue is about $950 million pa from donations.
The Church of Christ, Scientist was founded in Massachusetts in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, a Congregationalist from New Hampshire. It was a movement that was based on the bible and its tradition of healing, but included a belief that the world was but an illusion. Eddy rejected much of Christian theology. Her book Science and Health was held to be divinely inspired. There are now less than 100,000 members, a third of the 1936 membership.
The Church of Scientology is a mix of science fiction, psychiatry and self help techniques formulated as a commercial religious organisation and founded by SF author L Ron Hubbard in 1954 in California. Its members revere Hubbard for his revelations. His book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health is one of the best selling non fiction books of all time. The church is right wing, and targets its critics aggressively, including both individuals and governments, using both legal and illegal means. There are 100,000 members of the church, 25,000 in America, and it has an income of $500 million pa.
The Christian Identity Movement was started in the 1940s by Wesley Swift, a former Methodist minister from California. It is a racist, right wing white supremacist group that believes only people of European descent (“white”) have souls, and that they are the descendants of the “lost tribes” of Israel. It has no coherent beliefs, and seems to exist only to justify racial violence. There are an estimated 70,000 members.
Christadelphianism is a fundamentalist religious group founded in 1832 by John Thomas, a British doctor who lived in Richmond Virginia, which relies entirely on the bible as the word of god and rejects much of Christian theology. The group has 50,000 members.
The Family International (Children of God) was founded 1968 by David Berg, a former Baptist minister from California and a prophet inspired by god (he said). It has 10,000 members and has used controversial recruiting methods including sex. It is funded by tithing.
The Way International (plus Christian Family Fellowship and 25 other splinter groups) is a fundamentalist religious group founded in 1942 by Victor Paul Wierwille in Ohio which focuses on bible study. It rejects much Christian theology. There are about 10,000 members, and funding is by tithing.
The Swedenborgian Church in North America is a fundamentalist group based on the teachings of the mystic Emanuel Swendenborg and on his interpretations of the bible. It is said to have similarities with the Oneness Pentecostal movement and with the Church of LDS. It is based in Massachusetts and it has 2,000 members.
There are of course hundreds more faiths, denominations and churches who have gone their own way in America, and hundreds more which have done so in the past, and are now vanished.
This survey only touches on what churches and religions there are in the USA and gives brief data on membership, doctrine and income. Much more could be said. I’d like to look at income and assets of churches in America, and their political influence, and may do so in a later essay.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.