A Changing Religious Landscape

The religious landscape of America is changing. In the past fifty years, new immigrants have arrived from all over the world seeking political freedom and economic prosperity. They have come with their cultural and religious traditions, their Qur’ans and Bhagavad Gitas, their rituals, prayers,  and forms of mediation, their songs, dances, and arts. They have put down roots in American soil and created community centers and sacred spaces.

At first, many of the changes in America’s religious landscape were relatively invisible. There was no new architecture to catch the eye of a passerby. New Islamic communities met in a former U-Haul dealership in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in a former mattress showroom in Northridge, California, or in a huge urban movie theater in Chicago. In Denver, ranch-style suburban homes became Vietnamese Buddhist temples, with a few monks residing in each. Boston Hindus rented a Knights of Columbus Hall for weekend worship. Sikhs converted a former church in Queens, New York into a gurdwara, while Jains worshipped in an old suburban church in Norwood, Massachusetts.

Today, however, the visible architectural evidence of America’s new religious diversity is unmistakable. New landmark mosques have changed the skyline of American cities. We can see the dome and minaret of a mosque rising from the cornfields outside Toledo. We can see spectacular Hindu temples with ornately carved temple-towers in Nashville, Atlanta, Houston, and in dozens of other cities. We can visit the Hsi Lai Temple built on a hillside in Hacienda Heights, California. It is the largest Buddhist temple in the western hemisphere and but one of many landmark Buddhist temples and monasteries across the county.

Of course, Christianity has also become more complex with new immigration: Chinese, Korean, African, Indian, and Hispanic churches of every denomination. There are other dynamic currents too: Second Baptist Church, a megachurch in Houston, has campuses all around the city, while Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California is part of a spirited Pentecostal revival. And American Judaism is also changing with new Jewish immigrants from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, with the ultra-orthodoxy of the Hasidim and the new spirituality of Jewish Renewal communities.

In every state and major city in the U.S. there are new religious neighbors today--not just metaphorical neighbors around the world, but next door neighbors. A Lutheran church and a Buddhist temple are right across the street from one another in Garden Grove, California. A Muslim community center, a Ukrainian Orthodox church, a Disciples of Christ church, and a Gujarati Hindu temple are virtually neighbors in Silver Spring, Maryland. A mosque and a Lutheran church are next-door neighbors in San Diego. Interfaith initiatives and interfaith councils build on this new reality in countless cities and towns across the nation.

Over the decades, our many religious communities have transformed what America looks like, from sea to shining sea. We just need to open our eyes. Mapping this new religious landscape is a challenge and an opportunity for all of us--for students, citizens, and leaders in every city and town. 

(Learn more about Local Mapping Projects and Landmarks of Multireligious America on the Landscape page.)