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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, as is demonstrated by the striking growth of America's Jewish population in the previous great wave of immigration, between 1880 and 1924. (The "Judaeo-Christian" concept was an innovation of the 1940s.) Isn't it conceivable, then, that our emerging polychrome nation might come to acknowledge Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism just as wholeheartedly (if only grudgingly, and after a great deal of discrimination) as it has come to accept the Jewish presence? And wouldn't this bring about the eclipse of the well-known "Judaeo-Christian" scheme with which we have been so familiar for the past half century?

According to some writers, this is already happening; we simply haven't noticed it yet. So argues Diana Eck in her book, A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. Coming at a time when many Americans have been eager to affirm the tolerant, inclusive character of the nation, Eck's enthusiastic vision of a new religious landscape has achieved wide and almost uniformly favorable publicity.1

However attractive one finds this notion, it suffers from one crucial defect: it is simply not accurate as a description of the state of things. In religious terms, the United States is not now, and never has been, a terribly diverse nation, nor are any likely changes going to make it so. When we boast of our Judaeo-Christian character, we are speaking of a land in which Jews make up perhaps two percent of a population that is overwhelmingly Christian. When Eck envisages "the world's most religiously diverse nation," she is contemplating an America that, within 20 years or so, may include a non-Christian population of at most six or seven percent, a figure that includes all Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, and Sikhs. That is about as diverse as most European lands, and far less so than the pattern that prevails in much of Africa or the Middle East.

Political factors go some way to explaining why Americans need to exaggerate their religious diversity. For liberals and secularists, the reasons are obvious enough, since the prospect of future growth by non-Christian religions can be used to deter Christian activists from trying to breach the wall of separation between church and state. In effect, Christians are under warning: today you may want to see a pastor leading graduation prayers, but just wait 20 years. Do you really want an imam or a Taoist priest fulfilling the same role? Far better to retain the neutrality of the public sphere.

There is, too, a quite innocent popular tendency to exaggerate the impact of the exotic, to see a few mosques, for instance, to note some women in their all-covering chadors, and to assume that Islam must be the religion of the American future. Yet the absolute numbers are often less impressive. I still treasure the scare-mongering title of a book that Wendell M. Thomas published as long ago as 1930: Hinduism Invades America. Thomas's claim about the imminent Hindu upsurge was not true then, nor can we legitimately speak today of the United States as the world's most religiously diverse nation.

All of which is not to deny that the mass immigration which began in the 1960s may have a transforming effect on American religion—but that impact will be most strongly felt within the Christian community. What one would never guess from Eck's book is that the new immigration is substantially Christian, and hence is bound to change the face of the American church.

If such an ethnic change had occurred 40 or 50 years ago, white Anglo Christians would have viewed the new arrivals in terms of their potential as subjects for mission, but today, that presumption seems inappropriate. Often, it is the immigrants themselves who come from confident Christian societies, and if anybody is going to be doing the evangelizing, it may well be the new arrivals. Many of these new Christian communities are marked by a more traditional and charismatic kind of faith, with an emphasis on direct supernatural involvement in everyday life. As such new populations grow, so also might their particular styles of faith and worship.2

These potentially far-reaching changes can be glimpsed in several of the essays in the superb collection New York Glory, which takes a potentially off-putting format (the edited collection of scholarly essays) and turns it into a lively and quotable anthology of the urban religious experience. The book's two dozen chapters cover themes such as denominational restructuring, issues of assimilation and conversion, and the changing role of gender, all viewed across a broad interfaith spectrum. Apart from the usual suspects—the so-called Great Religions—the book also covers less familiar religious communities, including the Yoruba and Rastafarian. Yet we are never allowed to forget that even here, in Babylon-on-the-Hudson, the new ethnic presences are predominantly Christian. As coeditor Tony Carnes notes at the outset, over 70 percent of new immigrants to New York are Christian; over half of all Asian immigrants are churchgoers.

My main criticism of this gem of a collection is that not enough of the essays explore the life of the new Christian congregations, but even what we have is highly suggestive. Excellent case-studies explore the dilemmas of the Mormons and the Seventh-day Adventists in absorbing the new immigrant faithful and accommodating their social and linguistic needs. Several other chapters explore Catholic issues, inevitably given that church's traditional strength in the New York region.

One key pressure point in years to come will be the struggle for Latino souls between Catholics and Pentecostals, a conflict that will decide the Catholic Church's political and social influence in the changing city. Will that church try to keep the Latino faithful by respecting their traditions and cultural identity? Much is to be learned, perhaps, by observing the difficulties past bishops had in keeping older ethnic communities within acceptable bounds, an issue that emerged especially with the Italians. But while we know older ethnic communities would eventually assimilate and Americanize, we can be far less certain of this prospect where the newer migrants are concerned. Conceivably, much of what we think we know about the gradual mainstreaming of immigrant churches over time is no longer relevant.

Since relatively few of the essays in New York Glory address the rising churches that will obviously play such an important role in decades to come, it is a little baffling that so much of the specifically Christian material relates to denominations that are well-established but (frankly) declining. It is difficult to justify a chapter on New York's Episcopalians while not including something on (say) the Assemblies of God. Another chapter is devoted to the theme of "Feminists, Religion, and Ethics." The topic sounds promising, since women's attitudes are likely to be pivotal in shaping the fortunes of the newer churches, but Susan Farrell's chapter is actually a survey of anti-hierarchy Catholic polemic, very much an expression of Élite academic liberalism. It could usefully have been replaced by a case-study of a new Chinese or Korean church.

This criticism apart, at least the contributors to New York Glory recognize the central importance of religion to the city's very diverse cultures, and treat the phenomenon with respect for faith and its adherents. One of the near miracles of the burgeoning scholarship on the new immigration is the number of academics who deal with every aspect of cultural and social diversity but still manage to ignore the religious outlook by which so many immigrants define themselves. This especially applies to literary studies of the new immigrant fiction, in which faith and the faithful are so much in evidence.3 Even when personal religious identification might not be strong, churches and other religious institutions are still critical loci for immigrant social organization—just look at the crucial political and financial role played by New York's Korean American churches in Chang-Rae Lee's best-selling novel Native Speaker (1995). So why are most academics unable to recognize the phenomenon? Are they embarrassed to discuss it?

The lack of attention to matters religious is particularly startling in Nancy Foner's From Ellis Island to JFK, which compares the immigration experience in New York City during the two great waves of human movement, at the beginning and end of the twentieth century. The idea is well conceived, and the book writes itself in terms of the subjects for discussion—the nature of work, transnational ties, encountering prejudice, and so on. But the index contains no entries for churches, religion, Catholics (or Roman Catholics), or any related term. Religious schooling merits just a footnote. Jews are discussed, presumably because it was too difficult to find a way of referring to them that obliterated their religious identity. Conversely, I count almost 40 entries under "race." Based on what we know about the role of places of worship in immigrant life, whether in 1902 or 2002, this kind of omission goes beyond eccentric. (To appreciate the full significance of religious expression in the New York immigrant world, just read a classic of modern scholarship like Robert Orsi's The Madonna of 115th Street.)

Religion likewise features little in Mary Pipher's The Middle of Everywhere, an otherwise sensitive and rewarding account of the experiences of refugees on American soil. The religious factor would be all the more significant in this instance, because the very diverse exiles described (from Sudan and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Vietnam) find themselves in the deepest Midwest, in Nebraska, and it would be enthralling to trace the encounter between the various faiths, native and imported. It is also difficult to see how any account of the travails of refugees could omit the very significant role played by churches nationwide, but Pipher remains resolutely secular. (Encountering liberal intellectuals and the U.S. media, it is scarcely surprising that migrant newcomers see the country as a godless society in urgent need of the fires of conversion!)

Pipher reminds us—as Eck does—just how widely dispersed is the new immigration. Both New York Glory and From Ellis Island to JFK quite understandably take as their subject New York City, which perhaps more than ever can claim to be a truly global metropolis. (Pope John Paul II has called it "the capital of the world.") Yet in some ways, it is in other regions of North America that immigration is having its most profound effects on religious life. This is most evident on the West Coast, where Asian American Christianity has to be seen in the context of the wider Pacific Rim region.4 And any plausible account of ethnic transformation must give pride of place to the growing Latino presence, which is even more evident in California or the Southwest than in New York City. Some cities in particular also deserve accounts of their own particular "glory." Houston, for instance, is the subject of an exemplary collection of congregational case-studies edited by Helen Rose Ebaugh and Janet Saltzman Chafetz.5 Houston's experience is all the more important since this city is the center of several African-derived churches with an overpowering drive to evangelize the nation.

Taken together, these local snapshots of American religion cast a rather surprising light on the whole notion of globalization. In one respect, Eck is right. Far from being merged into an undifferentiated stew, America's cities and communities are in some ways demonstrating quite as much local particularism as ever, though these local differences are often the product of diverse immigration patterns. To some extent, a knowledgeable observer can already identify the ethnic heritage of a given community by the pious symbols displayed on shops and cars: the Mexican Virgin of Guadelupe is already a familiar figure in much of the nation, but equally distinctive is the Cuban Virgin of El Cobre, or her Ecuadorean counterpart of El Quinche.6 Local ethnic distinctions are incomprehensible unless we pay due attention to the religious factors. In summary, American religion cannot be understood except in the context of the nation's immigration history, and vice versa. That truth seems so obvious that only a dedicated academic would be capable of missing it.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author most recently of The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity (Oxford Univ. Press).

Discussed in this Essay:

» Tony Carnes and Anna Karpathakis, editors, New York Glory: Religions in the City (New York Univ. Press, 2001).

» Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).

» Nancy Foner, From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration (Yale Univ. Press, 2000).

» Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town (Harcourt Brace, 2002).

1. I have already published a detailed review of Eck's book in Chronicles, January 2002, pp. 27-28.

2. R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner, editors, Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration (Temple Univ. Press, 1998); Jeffrey M. Burns, Ellen Skerrett, and Joseph M. White, editors, Keeping Faith: European and Asian Catholic Immigrants (Orbis Books, 2000).

3. Gilbert H. Muller, New Strangers in Paradise (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1999).

4. For Asian American churches, see Fenggang Yang, Chinese Christians in America (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1999); Ho Youn Kwon, Kwang Chung Kim, and R. Stephen Warner, editors, Korean Americans and Their Religions (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2001).

5. Helen Rose Ebaugh and Janet Saltzman Chafetz, editors, Religion and the New Immigrants (AltaMira Press, 2000).

6. Thomas A. Tweed, Our Lady of the Exile (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).

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