Wine and the Varieties of American Religious Life
Innovation and diversity have been the hallmarks of American religious history. This is due in part to the provisions of the First Amendment regarding the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment strictly prohibits the government from establishing a religious institution, thereby assuring religious groups that they will compete for members on a level playing field. More importantly, the First Amendment also stipulates that an individual's right to the free exercise of religion is one of the most fundamental principles of the nation's legal system. These constitutional provisions have had a long-lasting influence on the nation's religious life. They created a competitive religious environment that encourages experimentation and pluralism. There are, for example, currently over 2,000 different religious groups in the United States. To survive in America's free-market religious system, each and every one of these religious groups must be successful at performing two essential tasks: providing both potential and current members with some form of religious experience and fostering a sense of communal belonging. It is also important for each group to execute these tasks in a distinctive way. That is, groups must differentiate themselves from one another. They must provide an experience of the sacred and foster group cohesion in a manner that distinguishes them from competitor organizations and thereby create a unique style of spirituality.
The fact that American religious groups "compete" in an open spiritual marketplace encourages them to be keenly concerned with forming and preserving distinct identities. Religious groups are only able to endure over time by devising strategies for fostering