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Philip Jenkins


Here for Good

Religion and the new immigrants

Anyone who has traveled in a bus or a subway in a major American city in recent years knows that the ethnic face of the country is changing dramatically. Once upon a time, when Americans spoke of ethnic diversity, they were usually referring populations derived from Europe. Of course, black-white relations constituted the intractable American Dilemma identified by Gunnar Myrdal, and immigration from China and then Japan began in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the melting pot that attracted so much attention in the 1930s or 1940s looks in retrospect like a rather limited affair.

Matters changed fundamentally with the 1965 Immigration Act, which effectively removed any ethnic or racial barriers preventing immigration and duly opened the United States to a floodtide of newcomers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The raw numbers are staggering. About five percent of U.S. residents today have immigrated just within the last decade. According to the Census Bureau, by 2050, a quarter of all Americans will claim Latino roots, and another eight percent will be of Asian stock. Mexican Americans alone should make up one-eighth of the U.S. population. Within just two or three years from now, both California and Texas will be "majority-minority" states, in which no single group constitutes an absolute majority of the population. The term may sound strange now, but get used to it: it represents the coming reality for much of the nation.

If, as Martin Marty famously declared, ethnicity is the skeleton of American religion, then this continuing revolution in our racial and linguistic identity should have immense consequences for the nation's religious beliefs and practices. Indeed, some observers have been tempted to imagine a thorough transformation in America's traditional religious coloring.

At first glance the notion is not entirely implausible. Immigration can sometimes cause a substantial increase in the adherents of a religion hitherto little known in a given country, ...

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