Keeping the Promise of Religious Freedom
By Diana L. Eck
Two of the bedrock principles of the United States are religious liberty and the separation of church and state. At the time the Republic was founded more than two centuries ago, the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christians. Since that time, however, as the author of this article documents in her book, A New Religious America, the United States has become the world’s most religiously diverse society, especially during the last several decades.
Diana L. Eck is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies on the faculty of arts and sciences and a member of the faculty of divinity at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The huge white dome of a mosque with its minarets rises from the cornfields just outside Toledo, Ohio. You can see it as you drive by on the interstate highway. A great Hindu temple with elephants carved in relief at the doorway stands on a hillside in the western suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee. A Cambodian Buddhist temple and monastery with a hint of a Southeast Asian roofline is set in the farmlands south of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The religious landscape of America has changed radically in the past 40 years, a change gradual and colossal at the same time. It began with the “new immigration,” spurred by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, as people from all over the world came to the United States and became citizens. With them have come the religious traditions of the world – Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Zoroastrian, African, and Afro-Caribbean. The people of these faiths have moved into American neighborhoods, tentatively at first, their altars and prayer rooms in storefronts and office buildings, and basements and garages, nearly invisible to the rest of us. But since the 1990s, their presence has become evident. Not all Americans have seen the Toledo mosque or the Nashville temple, but they will see places like them in their own communities. They are the architectural signs of a new religious structure in the United States.