Sherwin Pomerantz

The Rise of Islam in the United States


It should not surprise anyone that according to a recently concluded Gallup Poll, 77% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, making Christianity the largest religion in the United States. But, when looking at the religions people identify with outside of Christianity, the results get pretty interesting.

The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB), which sponsors the US Religion Census every 10 years, mapped out the religions Americans adhere to across the country.  ASARB also looked at the second largest religions across each state based on census data.

The results of that data show that Islam is the second largest religion in 20 states, mainly across the South and Midwest, while Buddhism is the second largest religion in 13 states, mostly in the West. Judaism is the second largest religion in the District of Columbia and 14 states, mostly located in the Northeast.  Hindu and Baha’i are also represented as the second largest religions in Arizona and South Carolina respectively.

But looking at which states fall into which category is even more interesting.  As expected Judaism is the second largest religion in the six New England states as well as New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Missouri and Minnesota.  The last three are, of course, a bit surprising.

Islam, however, is the second largest religious preference in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida.  Effectively the entire south, upper Midwest and many of the Great Lakes states are included in this category.  So while everyone recognizes the large Muslim population in a place like Michigan it is certainly surprising to see this ranking in places like Indiana, Nebraska and the Dakotas which are generally thought of as solid bastions of Americana.

Actually once you look at the map by counties it is clear that there are large Muslim representations as well in California, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico, but not enough to tip the state scale.

Mark Silk of Religion News Service however disputed the census data on the second largest religions, pointing to a 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Study that shows Judaism as the second largest religion.  Altogether, Jews come in second in at least half the states (not 15); Muslims, in at most a dozen (not 20), and Buddhists, in the remainder (throughout most of the West).

The reason for the principal discrepancy (between Jews and Muslims) is that the U.S. Religious Census relies on reports of actual synagogue membership, and many self-identified Jews don’t belong to synagogues; while the reporting Muslim bodies provide estimates of mosque membership.  Silk also noted that the Pew study found other religions represent less than 5 percent of Americans’ religious affiliations, while more people (about 16 percent) don’t even identify with any religion.

And what to make of all of this?  If one takes the recent Pew Study of American Jews which shows a high incidence of non-identification with religion together with the increasing number of Muslims in the United States some obvious conclusions can be drawn, to wit:

  • Independent of their absolute numbers, the level of commitment to the Jewish religion by the vast majority of Jews in the US is in decline.
  • The level of influence of the Jewish community in an increasingly multi-cultural US is probably in decline as well.
  • The increasing Muslim population throughout the country augurs well for an increase in the political influence of that community over the coming years.

In the 1950s, when I was growing up in New York, it was common for Jewish kids to hear their parents whispering about current events: “Is it good for the Jews?”  Apparently, the whispering is still going on, prompting London literary agent Johnny Geller (who wrote a book on this topic) to come up with a formula to answer all the questions. Here’s how it works: anti-Semitic factor + impact on the world x the level of Jewishness = The Tzurus (i.e., trouble) rating which you then divide by seven with lower numbers being bad for the Jews and higher numbers good.

Based on this formulation if the anti-Semitism in the US increases, and the American Jewish community’s influence wanes while the level of Jewishness decreases, when you divide it by seven the number becomes small enough to signal one thing: Tzurus.  So, now we have something else to worry about.


About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 32 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Former Chairperson of the Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.