People have long lamented the homogenization of American culture, and some might be tempted to extend this narrative to American religion. After all, like chain stores, the ubiquitous signs of Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and other "typical" churches found in almost all American towns give an illusion of homogeneity. This feeling is heightened by the fact that while many people go out of their way to try a local restaurant, few people go out of their way to explore different types of religion. So, if you attend a Baptist church (or a Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) and you see those same churches all over the nation, it is easy to conclude that things really are about the same wherever you go. But underneath this veneer of homogeneity lies a rich and varied topography of American religion.
It was this diversity that led us on a road trip across America's religious landscape. Spending six weeks and nearly 7,000 miles in a rented Dodge Charger, we weaved through the country exploring churches in small towns and rural areas as well as the megachurches, storefronts, synagogues, Islamic centers, Eastern temples and other places of faith in cities. Through the thousands of pictures we took and the numerous conversations we held, our goal was to experience, and ultimately share, the unique geography of American religion. The full story of our journey can be found in "Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America's Religious Landscape," but here we share some of the highlights from our trip.
What became clear during our trip was that the distinctive features of America's religious landscape are the product of a complicated, unique and often-misunderstood history. Immigration has understandably had a persistent role in shaping America's religious geography. Catholics began arriving in large numbers by the middle of the 19th century and settled in Boston and other east coast enclaves, while Chinese and Japanese immigrants began to shape the religious composition of San Francisco and other west coast communities. Religious innovation and creativity has also played its part in America's geography. For instance, the Mormons -- members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- originated in New York before eventually fleeing to Utah to avoid the hostilities of the larger culture.
The same forces are still at work today. Hispanic immigrants, not to mention Asian, African and Middle-Eastern immigrants, are reshaping the religious landscape once again. Religious groups are also still innovating, establishing megachurches and so-called 'parachurch' nonprofit organizations. As in the past, these changes are not scattered like darts thrown at a map. Instead, contemporary social, economic and demographic forces are carving distinctive features into the map of American religion.