I believe that religion in America is so diverse because it emphasizes the intimacy of religion, community, and identity. One of the most frequent annoyances of my childhood was the fact that my parents always lingered at church after Sunday morning mass for up to and beyond half an hour at a time. What I failed to realize then, however, was that mass was a social occasion for my parents. Most of their friends also went to the same mass and naturally they wanted to stay and socialize afterwards because they felt comfortable amongst a community of like-minded white Catholic suburbanites. Although this example appears contrary to the idea of religious diversity, it demonstrates the reasons for that diversity. My parents constructed their religious identity in relation to their societal groupings by finding a church community consisting of those in the same groups. This does not in any way question their religious convictions but simply explains the undeniable link between those beliefs and the somewhat homogenous, supporting community that mirrors their social identity. Therefore, since many Americans are so different from them, they are likely to choose other religious communities that reflect their own identities.
This three-way relationship is further demonstrated in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm X believes for much of the book that the Nation of Islam is the black man’s true religion because its theology reveals the black race’s ancient racial supremacy. By reclaiming this emboldening identity, he hopes the Nation will result in a unified effort by the black community to improve their social standing and return to a righteous superiority through moral improvement. In other words, the religion creates a community brought together by a unique shared identity, similarly to how my parents found a common identity in their religious community. Obviously, the Nation of Islam increased American religious diversity because not only was Islam a significantly underrepresented religion in America but the Nation was unlike any other sect of Islam. Therefore, the relationship between the goal of an improved racial identity and the new religious community that strengthened that identity lead to more diversity.
The close connection between community, religion, and identity is also visible throughout America today on a larger level than one autobiography or my personal experience. America is such a religiously diverse country because it is such an ethnically and culturally diverse country and those varying religions often are directly connected to a specific ethnic group, playing a role in defining and solidifying that group’s identity. Whether they are Muslims from the Middle East, Orthodox Catholics from Greece, or Buddhists from Japan, a shared cultural identity as reflected in community is the cornerstone of many American religions. Basically, because we, as Americans, are so different, we have a huge spectrum of different religions in order to have communities similar to ourselves.
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