You can see the changes. A drive through suburban Lake County, IN, an hour from downtown Chicago makes you feel like you are somewhere between the set of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story and the movie Hoosiers. Cultural and religious diversity would probably be the last two things on your mind in a region known more for its steel industry than its sacred space.
Yet a quick glance to the east side of Colorado Street heading south makes you question your assumptions. Neatly tucked between farm land and homes sitting on lots of an acre or more, you see two structures that cause you to scratch your head and wonder, “Am I really in Indiana?” The Northwest Indiana Islamic Center and the region’s Sikh Temple of the Sikh Religious Society of Indiana sit side by side. They provide a visual reminder that suburban America has changed.
In fact, much has changed. Religion in America is alive and well, but it’s different. Although Christian churches continue to dominate the religious landscape in the United States, there are new religious neighbors. Cultures and religious traditions that once existed “somewhere over there”, have moved beyond the large cities of the U.S. into the suburbs and exurbs, places where evangelical mega-churches have flourished for decades.
Today, the United States is arguably the most religiously diverse place on the planet. And if the ethnic makeup of the U.S. stays its course for the next half-century, religious diversity will grow exponentially. The Census Bureau predicts that minorities will become the majority in the U.S. within 40 years. Religion in America could have a more robust Latino-Catholic flavor, with Hispanics numbering one in three U.S. residents by 2050. American religious geography will also include influences from Asian Indian cultural traditions. In Bible Belt states like Georgia, Hinduism is one of the fastest growing religions with more than 40,000 Hindus in the state, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. By 2000, Islam had already surpassed Southern Baptists in Chicago, with more than 120,000 adherents. Less than 10 years later, Chicago’s Muslim population is estimated to be around 400,000. The big new thing is that this diversity is increasingly found in suburbs. Throughout the country’s history, the places where religious and cultural diversity have been most concentrated were her cities. In fact, this has been the case around the globe. Immigrants journeyed to urban contexts en masse. The city provided the best place for jobs, people networks, and ethnic and cultural affinities. And, a smorgasbord of religious enclaves in the city made it easy for spiritually-minded people to connect and worship with other adherents in their particular tribe.
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