Early in their history, Americans rejected the concept of the established or government-favored religion that had dominated — and divided — so many European countries. Separation of church and state was ordained by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
One of the first permanent settlements in what became the North American colonies was founded by English Puritans, Calvinists who had been outsiders in their homeland, where the Church of England was established. So Protestants were the dominant religion in the early days. Today America is one of the most diverse religious societies in the world.
In 1990 Protestants of all denominations numbered 140 million; Catholics, 62 million; and Jews, 5 million. The Islamic faith also has 5 million U.S. adherents, many of whom are African-American converts. It is estimated that the number of mosques in the United States — today, about 1,200 — has doubled in the last 15 years. Buddhism and Hinduism are growing with the arrival of immigrants from countries where these are the majority religions.
America has also been a fertile ground for new religions. The Mormon and Christian Science Churches are perhaps the best-known of the faiths that have sprung up on American soil. Because of its tradition of noninterference in religious matters, the United States has also provided a comfortable home for many small sects from overseas. The Amish, for example, descendants of German immigrants who reside mostly in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, have lived simple lives, wearing plain clothes and shunning modern technology, for generations. Some small groups are considered to be religious cults because they profess extremist beliefs and tend to glorify a founding figure. As long as cults and their members abide by the law, they are generally left alone. Religious prejudice is rare in America, and interfaith meetings and cooperation are commonplace.