The Causes and Targets of Religious Persecution in the United States


To a significant extent, it can be said that religion is the foundation of a person’s overall identity encompassing his or her morality, world view, self-image, attitude towards self and others. Thus, religious differences are often seen as impactful factors in the cultural, social, and personal context. Although differences among human groups categorized by the society are encouraged to be celebrated, it’s also the very cause that alienates and represses cultures just like religion. Religious persecution is one of the most long standing, recurrent, and growing forms of discrimination in response to religious beliefs and affiliations and even the lack thereof and may take violent forms. 

At the institutional level, it may be triggered by the State when a particular religious affiliation is deemed a threat to the interests and security. This was a serious case in colonial America where there numerous accounts of manslaughter due to religion such as the Fort Caroline Huguenots (French Protestants) slay by the Spanish Catholics who were then controlling modern-day Florida. 



In 1791, James Madison authored the Bill of Rights and under it is the First Amendments which is aimed to resolve the issues of religious persecution by giving constitutional protection to freedom of religion — that is establishing respect to a person’s religious belief/s, the right to change religions, and the liberty to practice religious beliefs and practices either in private or public (or any outward appearances). Not long after, this was extended into the Fourth Amendment which specified prohibition of any form of discrimination towards any religious group. 

Aside from that, the United Nations released a Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Article 18 which reads:

“Everyone has the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his or her religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”

Religious persecution can take on many different forms.



First is religious cleansing or confusingly called ethnic cleansing. It has been pointed out that there are suggestions of unclear distinction between the two terminologies. Ethnicity is a category of people who identify with each other in terms of similarities namely language, history, society, race, religion and many others. Thus ethnicity includes religion as an umbrella term. In this case, the cleansing or removal of a population is ethnic specified under religion. It’s the attempt or the process of making ethnically homogenous geographic areas through displacement. Cleansing, in this context, involves destruction of temples and other houses of worship, monuments, or cemeteries — any that relates to the specific religion is removed or destroyed.

History’s largest cleansing was the removal of an estimated ten million Germans from Eastern Europe. The final decision was taken by the United States, U.S.S.R., and Britain in 1945. 

Since the early modern period, a number of religious cleansings have been intertwined with its ethnic elements – an example of this is when different ethnic groups rather coincidentally belong to different religions or denominations as well. As such cases of ethnic cleansings cannot be fully cited or explained as a product of religious differences alone. Since religion is a central marker of ethnic identity, conflicts delving particularly or in majority due to religion are characterized as “ethno-religious conflicts”

This has been a very controversial form of persecution as its methods are closely that of genocide but defenders argued that the intent of cleansing is different from genocide which is wipeout by slaughter just like the Holocaust wherein six million Jews were killed under the Nazi regime. Although ethnic cleansing can be performed through genocide. 

Another form of religious persecution is under the basis of heresy and blasphemy. This is the public renunciation of a part of a religious doctrine and those that were found guilty were labelled dissenters and might face imprisonment or to a lesser extent, payment of fines. One notable example of this in the context of U.S. history is the banning of non-Puritans in 1600 Massachusetts Bay Colony by Puritans who came in from England to escape religious persecution (as there was largely a religious war happening between the Catholics and Protestants). 



There are religious persecutions that were done largely for secular or political reasons rather than religious offenses. Between 1535 and 1681, there were more than 300 Roman Catholics executed for treason by the English governments. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued Regnans Excelsis, a papal bull that absolved Catholics from any responsibilities or obligations they have to the government but was met by a dramatic worsening of persecution of Catholics in England. In another case, Mary I of England had religious motivations to purge heresy which has led to the death of 290 Protestants between 1553 to 1558 by burning at the stake.

What are its causes?

Although religious persecutions can be seen as a direct result of the religious beliefs or the idea that religious identities are the primary motivator of conflicts that spanned in the post cold-war decade, there was little evidence to prove such correlation. Instead religious regulation – legal and social restrictions emplaced on religious freedom – is far more significant to cause such persecutions. 

Religious Regulation



The First and Fourth Amendments of the United States brought upon in the Bill of Rights for the constitutional protection of religious liberty is somehow a form of religious regulation in context that the Supreme Court rules that this protection to respect and prohibit discrimination of any religious practices is still regulated by other federal laws that it will touch such as marriage (polygamy). In addition to that, there are also social pressures coming from competing or rival religions as well as social movements that can prompt the increase, improvement, or changes in regulations. Conversely, the lack of religious regulations or weak implementation of such regulations may put imbalance in power which may ultimately cause persecution.

Over a decade counting from 2007 to 2017, there was an observed increase in the government regulations – or specifically restrictions – imposed on religions through laws, policies, and state actions. This has caused increased social hostilities encircling religion which includes violence and harassment by private individuals and/or organizations. Worldwide, the latest data and research show that 52 governments impose high level restrictions on religion. 

Imposed government restrictions have increased in two specific ways.  First is the increased imposition – meaning more laws and more restrictive clauses – of laws and policies. Since the First and Fourth Amendments are not absolute, they can be maneuvered or navigated through other means such as establishment of such federal laws. Second is the government favoritism of religious groups which is visible through funding of any religious type activities or just the religion in itself (in general). 

In the Americas where there is a declared stronghold of religious freedom rooted in the Constitution, there was an observed significant increase in the imposed government limit on religious activities. Citing from the data provided by Pew Research Center, in 2007, 16 governments in America have been reportedly interfering with religious worship and shot up to 28 by 2017. In terms of government harassment in America, there was an observed sharp increase between 2015 and 2016. During the span of one year, from 28 countries experiencing limited harassment, the numbers increased to 32. For instance in Cuba, a protectorate of the United States, there were reported government threats made towards religious groups who are advocating for greater religious and political freedom. 

In addition to that, the U.S. ranked among the highest scoring countries in 2017 in the category of countries with high levels of individual and social group harassment. This is mainly in apart a result of the “Unite to Right ” protest in Charlottesville, Virginia wherein white supremacites revolted to remove a Confederate Statue from a park. During this, there were a lot of anti-Semitic and racist comments with raised swastika flags and chants of “Jews will not replace us!”




Religion is one important aspect of a nation’s social and cultural identities and differing religious beliefs can be perceived as a threat to a national or cultural identity. A strong religious identity can contribute to a form of exclusive nationalism and historically speaking the emergence of religious authorities pre-date the structures of government which can develop ties to a single particular faith.




This is considered as one of the key factors that contribute to the restriction of religious freedom or in a more serious matter, religious persecution. Although this one can be more attributed to dissenting groups rather than stemming from the government. It often results with groups who feel marginalized and would like to fight or assert for a strong sense of identity comparably greater than any other group. 

Who are the targets?

Despite the long heritage of America in pursuance of religious liberty, it still has its lapses and cannot assure full protection of religious individuals or groups or even non-religious ones to any discrimination. In 2017, the Trump government has addressed the sudden surge in ant-Semitic attack happening all over the country. In 2015, the FBI reported 21 percent of the 5,850 recorded hate crimes were only based on religion. 


The United States constitutes for the largest population of Christians in the world with nearly 205 million which is around sixty-five percent (65%) of the total population. It has been increasingly declining over the years with 75% in 2015, 78% in 2012, a big chunk of 81.6% in 2001 and during the 1990s even reached 85%. 



In 2019, Pew Research Center released its data with a rough count of nine-in-ten of Congress representatives or that’s eighty-eight in percentages are Christians Though numbers may have declined, they constitute an overrepresentation of Christians in the legislative sector. In historical addition, almost all U.S. Presidents were Christians including the now president, Donald Trump. These presidents have sworn their oath to office with the use of the Bible and traditionally seal it with “so help me God”. The two most notable presidents who did not have any religious affiliations were Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Also, John Adams was the first and only president to swear his oath to office on the Constitution rather than the Bible.

In its centuries-long growth and establishment, Christians have spread throughout the world and became the most popular religion with billions of followers in tow.  Before that time, Christians have been subject to persecution. As early as 16 A.D., Christians were persecuted by then Emperor Nero wherein a colossal fire broke out of the city of Rome, destroying the city and killing the citizens (Christians) as well. In September 2009, Christians were reported to receive an estimated 80% of all acts of religious persecution making them the most persecuted religion. 

Although there are opinions that Christians are not really targeted by persecution rather they have a persecution complex and adding to that, American Christian are actually perceived to be privileged. Under that pretense, an assumption that conservative Christians in the United States can turn into a “persecution” narrative may be true as the presidency of Donald Trump is also a symbolism of their continued power and to an extent, vulnerability to corruption. But to cite it as a privilege is a bit far-fetched as any imbalance in power or growing visible bias towards Christianity may lead to more violent religious persecutions. And in turn, may unravel a twisted and complicated turn of events. 

Christians remain to be a religion persecuted for its religious beliefs and is protected now by the Constitution albeit not in all particular extents or stretches that may overlap with federal laws. 



One of the most targeted groups are the Jewish people which has marked a nine percent increase in hate crimes received in 2014. 

In 2017, Hillary Clinton called out on Donald Trump. Regarding the anti-Semitic acts targeted against Jews after a reported more than 170 Jewish graves found toppled at a Missouri Cemetery. Aside from that, the Jewish community is also consistently getting online hate. In the same year, the Associated Press also reported that the Southern Poverty Law Center counted a total of 1,094 bias-related incidents after Trump’s election in November where 33 were against Jews.

They also said that the New York police recorded 31 hate crimes against Jewish people during the same period which is double the number compared in 2016. In the media sector, the top 10 most targeted journalists are all Jewish and has received 83% of the anti-Semitic tweets which has reportedly gained 45 million impressions on twitter. 

In the 2019, Pew Research Center survey among American adults, roughly sixty-four percent of them or two-thirds said that Jews face discrimination in the U.S. which is a substanti 20% markup from the 2016 survey. Although, 39% of the 64, a majority, pointed out that Jews were subject to SOME discriminations as opposed to the minority vote that said they were subjected to a lot of persecutions. This also relates to the question whether religion affects an individual’s ability to get ahead in the U.S. One in every five American adults say that being Jewish hurts an individual’s chance while there are slim majorities that say that being Jewish neither helped nor hurts. 



Muslims living in America are faced with discrimination and in a 2019 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 56% of American adults affirmed that Muslims are being discriminated against a lot. Firsthand, Muslims reported that they have experienced being treated with suspicion like being singled out in airport security according to a 2017 survey of Muslim-Americans. 

Studies also showed the Democrats are more likely to say that Muslims face discrimination with 92% compared to 62% of Republicans. In another survey asking whether being a Muslim hurt their chances a little to get ahead in life in the U.S., six out of ten U.S. adults affirmed this while 31% said that being a Muslim hurts their chances a lot. Aside from that, FBI hate crime statistics also reported a 67% of attacks directed against Muslim Americans in 2015. 

Aside from the individual attacks to Muslim-Americans, across United States,  there were also multiple reports of crimes targeted against the Muslim communities. This involves vandalized mosques, denouncement of Islam by loca goverment officials, as well as state laws debating anti-Muslim laws. 

In one instance after the Oklahoma City bombing, resident of Middle Eastern descents as well as African American Muslims were subject of initial rage at Muslim terrorists – a stereotype endured by many Muslims until today.  Three days after the bombing, the Arab American Institute has recorded more than 200 serious hate crimes against individuals identifying as Muslims. The same was true following the wake of the 9/11 attacks wherein several Sikh men wearing turban as a part of their religious mandate have been subjected to attacks. On another instance, a well-known Bollywood actor by the name of Shahrukh Khan was held for several hours and was asked questions described as humiliating due to. His common Muslim surname. 

The First and Fourth Amendments of the Bill of Rights aimed for the constitutional protection of religious liberty but this has not stopped any religious persecution towards individuals or communities. Today, America still faces the struggle of living up to this freedom. 

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