30 N America: Cultural Geography I – Religion in the United States (part 1)


In this essay, we’ll examine the religious geography of the United States, including a look at the origin and traits of some denominations and movements that are particularly common in the U.S. For a more general look at religion, see Chapter 3. The origins and traits of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Protestantism are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 48. The origins and traits of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are not covered here for they predominantly are found in the other half of the world – the Eastern World.



About 71% of Americans identify as Christian, and there are many different denominations of Christianity in the United States. Protestants account for just under half the U.S. population (47%), and the single largest Protestant denomination are the Baptists (15% of Americans). The Baptist movement began when a group of English reformers broke from the Anglican Church. It was a relatively small movement in England, but flourished in the United States.

Another 15% of Americans identify with various churches that are sometimes collectively referred to as Mainline Protestant. The term “Mainline” is not strictly defined, but it implies a few things. First, Mainline churches are usually theologically moderate, rather than fundamentalist. That means that most members of Mainline churches look to the Bible for truths, but agree that some of the stories, particularly those of the Old Testament, might be symbolic parables, rather than a strict record of facts. This makes them distinct from some of the more conservative or fundamentalists denominations, such as some Baptist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, or non-denominational churches. Second, mainline churches tend to be fairly traditional in their worship, and have not generally embraced the more contemporary approach of some Evangelical churches. Third, Mainline churches tend to be somewhat apolitical, although many have actively promoted social justice and civil rights movements. Finally, Mainline churches might be thought of as “national” churches. Although some of them tend to be more numerous in certain parts of the country, Mainline churches can typically be found in nearly any city of even modest size anywhere in the United States.


Image by Ricarda Mölck from Pixabay.

Four Protestant denominations account for the largest numbers of Mainline Protestants: Methodists (5% of the U.S. population), Lutherans (4%), Presbyterians (2%), and Episcopalians (1%). Methodism began as a reform movement within the Church of England, and soon spread to much of the British Empire, with its greatest success coming in the United States. Lutheranism was initially an immigrant Church, associated with Germans and Scandinavians, but as German-Americans became the single largest ethnic group in the country, and spread to nearly every part of it, Lutheran churches were soon found nationwide. The Presbyterian Church is a Calvinist church that was founded in Scotland, and made its way to the U.S. with Scottish immigrants. The Episcopal Church is essentially the Church of England in the United States. After the Revolutionary War, Anglicans in the U.S. could no longer accept the King of England as the official head of their Church. So, they separated to form their own organization, although Episcopalians are still part of the global Anglican communion.

In stark contrast to the Mainline churches is the Pentecostal Church, which accounts for about 4% of the U.S. population. Originating in Kansas in the early 1900s, Pentecostalism is a fundamentalist movement. Fundamentalists tend to view the Bible as strictly factual and unerring. And while most Mainline churches tend to feature formal liturgical services, in Pentecostal churches, sermons and prayers are to be extemporaneous expressions of the Holy Spirit, and the services can therefore be pretty lively. The Pentecostal movement is often seen as the predecessor of the later Evangelical movement.

About 14% of Americans are non-denominational Protestants. They are members of churches that are part of the Protestant lineage, but which don’t adhere to the doctrine of any larger church organization. Such churches develop their doctrine, for lack of a better term, “in house.” There have long been non-denominational churches in the United States, but their popularity rose sharply in the 1970s, particularly in large urban and suburban “megachurches.” Many of the converts to this new movement in Christianity had grown up in Mainline Protestant denominations. Frustrated or bored with the traditionalism of the Mainline, they sought churches that were more contemporary in their worship and personalized in their approach. Often times, these churches would crystalize around a particularly popular pastor. Many of these churches are closely connected to the modern Evangelical movement.


Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians

There are more than twice as many Protestants as Catholics in the United States, but because Protestants are so highly fragmented, the Roman Catholic Church is actually the single largest religions organization in the country, accounting for about 21% of all Americans. Eastern Orthodox Christians account for a much smaller share, about 1%.


Other Christian Groups

Mormons, who account for about 2% of the U.S. population, are followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (sometimes abbreviated as the LDS Church). Founded in western New York state in the 1830s, LDS beliefs are based on the Christian Bible, but also on the teachings of the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith. Smith attempted to establish a Mormon community in western Missouri, but was driven out of the state. Smith and his followers retreated to Illinois, where Smith was murdered by a mob for some of his controversial teachings. In the 1840s, the Church’s new leader, Brigham Young, led his followers to Utah, where the largest LDS organization is still based. Mormons are well-known for their missionary zeal, and LDS churches are now found throughout the United States and the world. Another church with origins in New York state, and likewise famous for its missionary proselytizing, are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who account for about 1% of the U.S. population.

For a map showing the distribution of American religious affiliations by county, go to https://tinyurl.com/countyreligion.


Evangelical Christianity

The term “evangelism” in Christianity simply refers to spreading the word of Christ, and has been used by Christians for centuries. One of the largest Lutheran groups in the United States is called the “Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.” Since the middle of the 20th century, however, the term “Evangelical Christian” has come to refer to a specific movement within Christianity.

To begin, it is a trans-denominational movement, meaning that members of multiple Christian denominations identify as Evangelical. Some Mainline Protestants, and even some Catholics, have adopted the term. But those identifying as Evangelical are far more likely to be Baptist, Pentecostal, or non-denominational. Because it is a cultural movement, and not a specific church organization, a concise definition is difficult, but it usually implies four things. First, Evangelical Christians are likely to be fundamentalists – believing in the strict historical accuracy of the Bible. Second, Evangelicals believe that one must renew their faith in Christ, which is why they are sometimes referred to as “Born Again” Christians. Third, Evangelicals take seriously the traditional definition of the term, and make significant efforts to convert non-believers to Christianity. Finally, Evangelicals usually believe that their religious lives should intersect with every aspect of their personal lives.

The term Evangelical has also taken on three other connotations, which are true of many, but certainly not all, Evangelicals. First, Evangelical worship often reflects traditions established by the Pentecostal movement – it tends to be contemporary and lively. Second, some Evangelical movements preach a “prosperity gospel,” promising rewards not only in heaven, but in this life as well. Third, Evangelical Christianity has generally been associated with conservative politics. It has been said, somewhat sarcastically, that the most accurate definition of an Evangelical is “white, Christian, and Republican,” and Evangelicals are certainly a force to be reckoned with in Republican politics. That said, the political ideology of the movement may be shifting somewhat. Many younger Evangelicals tend to be far less conservative than their parents and grandparents, particularly regarding such issues as gay rights and climate change.


Non-Religious Americans

About 23% of Americans do not identify with any particular religious group. Of the three categories of non-religious individuals, 16% identify as unaffiliated, 4% as agnostic, and 3% as atheist.


Other Religions

Judaism has long been the largest non-Christian religion in the United States. About 40% of the world’s Jews live in the U.S., and they make up about 2% of the country’s population. Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus each account for about 1% of the population. All other religions collectively account for around 2%.


Cited and additional bibliography:

Chokshi, Niraj. 2013. “Religion in America’s States and Counties, in 6 Maps.” Washington Post. December 12, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/12/12/religion-in-americas-states-and-counties-in-6-maps/.


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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