Culture Opinion

In 2012, the rise of a new religious America

The first Hindu elected to the House of Representatives, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, will take the oath of office in a few weeks — and she has chosen to place her hand on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text of her tradition.

Meanwhile, the woman she replaces in Congress, Mazie Hirono, will be sworn in as the first Buddhist elected to the U.S. Senate.

Welcome to the new religious America.

Religious diversity, of course, has long been part of the American landscape. But in 2012, religious minorities became newly visible and vocal in a society historically dominated by the symbols, values and leaders of the Protestant faith.

Now that Protestants are no longer in the majority — as reported in a study released by the Pew Forum in October — even the term “religious minority” will need fresh definition in our newly minted minority-majority nation.

The electoral victories of Gabbard and Hirono are just two of many recent signals that demographic shifts and changing attitudes are rapidly transforming America’s increasingly crowded public square.

Consider, for example, that for the first time in our history, none of the presidential or vice presidential candidates of either major party was a white Protestant.

Even more remarkable, the Mormon candidate not only received nearly half of the popular vote, but Mitt Romney was also supported in large numbers by evangelical voters who polls previously told us would not vote for a Mormon.

Religious affiliation (or lack thereof) is still a factor in public life. But the level of voter acceptance of candidates affiliated with historically unelectable faiths is growing.

When Congress convenes in January, significant numbers of politicians from groups with long histories of discrimination in America — notably Jews, Catholics and Mormons — will fill both chambers, many in leadership positions.

And let’s not overlook the fact that the current U.S. Supreme Court is made up of six Catholic and three Jewish justices and — another first — no Protestant.

Not surprisingly, there has been some backlash and resentment from those who don’t like the changing religious face of America — or who fear a falling away from the “Christian nation” they believe we are intended to be.

In 2012, American Muslims continued to be prime targets of both resentment and fear with debates in many state legislatures over anti-Shariah bills and protests in many communities over the building of mosques.

The most tragic religious-bias incident occurred on Aug. 6 when a white supremacist gunman attacked a Sikh temple in Wisconsin (perhaps in the mistaken belief that Sikhs are Muslims), killing six and wounding four.

But 2012 was also the year that American Muslims joined by many interfaith coalitions pushed back, defeating or stalling anti-Shariah legislation in a number of states and defeating several anti-Muslim candidates at the ballot box, including Florida Congressman Allen West.

The growing visibility and strength of America’s religious diversity is good news for religious freedom. The First Amendment affords legal protections, but it cannot fully prevent people in the majority from imposing social discrimination and political exclusion on those in the minority.

As James Madison argued at our nation’s founding, religious freedom is best secured in a society of many faiths and beliefs — with none in the majority. “For where there is such a variety of sects,” wrote Madison, “there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”

Religious diversity, in other words, helps level the playing field, giving people of all faiths and none freedom to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

In religion, as in economics, monopolies stifle growth and innovation. That’s why the end of the Protestant hegemony in America will be no loss for religious people of any tradition, including Protestants.

On the contrary, as domination of one faith recedes, freedom for all faiths and beliefs expands — moving us ever closer to fulfilling the promise of religious liberty under the First Amendment.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

About the author

Charles C. Haynes

Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.


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  • There’s nowhere near the rise of any form of “new” religion in this country as there is a rise in non-association with religion altogether. If the louder, mean-spirited political evangelism of the religious right, especially in the South, is considered any break from Protestant hegemony or growth in respectable religion of any form, that’s the proverbial counting of the chickens before they hatch. Let us hope, let us demand, that literacy, respectability, and a genuine reflection of Jesus, not a hatred of differences, be the core of any serious growth considered Christian.

  • In the past election they became even more hateful and un-Jesus-like than ever before. It is long past the time when those who claim to be followers of the Palestinian preacher begin acting more according to the precepts of their leader and less like the uncharitable, dishonest, crude, and cruel followers of Constantine who added politics and slaughter as a way of resolving differences of opinion and belief in the early churches.

  • I agree that the millions of Evangelical Christians who voted for MItt Romney is a positive sign of religious tolerance toward a minority group. Many pastors had expressed the fear in 2008 that a Romney nomination, and even more a Romney election, would make Mormonism “legitimate” (see an interview recorded in Hugh Hewett’s book on the Romney candidacy). Whatever “legitimacy” comes from having the approval of almost half of American voters has certainly been achieved, but I don’t see it as having negative consequences for other Christian denominations, except perhaps for those pastors who persist in vocal denunciations of Mormons and their beliefs. Their congregants appear to be more tolerant than many of their pastors.

    The fear of some pastors that a “legitimate” Mormonism would be more threatening to them is unlikely to be true. The barriers to a Baptist becoming a Mormons are mostly on the Mormon side, which asks new converts to not only make commitments to very distinctive theological propositions, but also a major change in lifestyle, including abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea, strict sexual morality within marriage, and major contributions of personal time and financial resources in a church that is run by part time amateurs right up through the regional leadership. Discarding irrational prejudices against Mormons is not going to lead to a leap in Mormon conversions.

    However, what is likely to make a difference is the surge in the number of Mormon missionaries that is taking place as the minimum age for mission service has been lowered to 18 for young men and 19 for young women, inviting many more to enter missionary service immediately after high school rather than in the middle of college or careers or military service. Within 5 to 10 years the number of Mormon missionaries will likely double, and with it the number of people converted to Mormonism each year. Along with the much higher Mormon birthrate, it is likely that the number of Mormons in the US will more than double by 2030 to 12 million, and double again to 25 million by 2050, possibly becoming the largest single denomination in the US as Catholics, Methodists and Southern Baptists continue shrinking. Some pastors will become alarmed at this trend, even as they find that the growing number of Mormons in their communities forces them to be more friendly to a group that has political clout.