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Immigrants and the Faith They Bring

by R. Stephen Warner

R. Stephen Warner is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and coeditor of Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration (Temple University Press). This article is adapted from a chapter written for A Nation of Religions, a forthcoming book edited by Stephen Prothero. This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 10, 2004. pp. 20-23. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


As most everyone has heard, immigration is profoundly changing the contours of religion in America. Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them from what used to be known as the Third World (relatively few from Europe), stream into the country every year, bringing their religious identities with them. The number of immigrants who have arrived since 1965 exceeds the millions who came at the turn of the last century.

The Immigrants’ places of worship, identified by signs in strange languages, dot the landscape from coast to coast. Their religious festivals and celebrations are written up in the press. Their children are noticeable on college campuses. Their presence challenges the religious establishment to make room for new partners in interfaith councils and in ongoing debates about the relation between church and state.

All this is true. What many people have not heard, however, and need to hear, is that the great majority of the newcomers are Christian. Some are adherents of other great world religions (Including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism). A larger number profess no religion. A few practice indigenous religions. But most are Christian. This means that the new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.

The religious sites built by Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are surely a dramatic presence. Magnificent Buddhist temples in California and Maryland, ornate Hindu manders in the outskirts of Los Angeles, Nashville and Pittsburg, and grand, austere Islamic centers in uptown Manhattan, outside the Washington beltway and in the suburbs ringing Chicago -- all these offer visible support for the argument of Harvard professor Diana Eck that the U.S. has become "the world’s most religiously diverse nation."

Yet the facts are more complicated. Among countries of historic Christendom, France, Germany and England have proportionately far more Muslims than does the U.S. India, the home of Hinduism, has many more Muslims and Christians than the U.S. has Hindus and Muslims. South Korea, the historic bridge across which Buddhism traveled to Japan, now has nearly as many Christians as Buddhists. Indeed, a half century ago, the proportion of Jews in the U.S. population was quite a bit greater than the combined proportion of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists today. The single paragraph devoted to Christian Immigrants by Eck in her much-noticed book A New Religious America obscures the fact that the new immigration is bringing about not so much a new diversity among American religions as diversity within America’s majority religion.

It should have been obvious all along that most post-1965 immigrants are Christian. The largest single "sending country" is, of course, Mexico, an overwhelmingly Christian nation. Millions of other new immigrants from the Western Hemisphere stem from predominantly Christian countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, Ecuador and Brazil. (Some of the new entrants from these countries to the U.S. are technically "refugees, not immigrants, but their numbers are included in the totals that concern religious demographers.)

Many immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere also stem from predominantly Christian countries outside of Europe, such as the Philippines, ancestral home to the second-largest Asian American population, and Ghana, one of sub-Saharan Africa’s several rapidly Christianizing nations; Many also come from Christian sectors of such religiously mixed countries as Korea, Vietnam, India and Lebanon. Many of the Europeans come from former Soviet bloc countries like Poland, Russia and Ukraine, which is where the U.S. gets many of the immigrants who profess no religion, but also the source of Eastern Orthodox Christians (and, of course, Jews).

As a rule, people who leave their country represent a biased, not a representative, sample of their compatriots. The sampling processes, if we can use that term, are complex. In general, younger people are most likely to emigrate. But each country has a different story. The population of South Korea, for example, is about one quarter Buddhist and one quarter Christian. (How Christians became so numerous is itself a big story.) But half of those who emigrate from Korea to the U.S. are Christian, stemming from the more urban, educated and less settled segment of Korean society (Many had earlier been refugees from the communist north.) Another half of those who arrive with no religious identity later become Christian. The end result is that 75 percent of Korean Americans are Christian.

As a former French colony, Vietnam had a flourishing Catholic population before the U.S.-backed regime in the south lost its lengthy war with the north. Not surprisingly, many of the first refugees were educated, middle-class Catholics, some previously refugees from the north; these people are disproportionately represented among Vietnamese Americans today.

To cite another example, as a result of the bitter struggle between an Palestinians many Christians are leaving the Holy Land. Consequently Christians are over-represented among Arab Americans. In yet another instance, America’s need for nurses has been answered by immigration from India (among other countries), where, because of both caste taboos and uneven educational opportunities, nurses are especially found among the traditionally Christian people of the state of Kerala.

The same principle of nonrandom selection is responsible for part of the non-Christian presence in the U.S. For example, the population of India is about 12 percent Muslim, but because of both "push" factors in India and "pull" factors (especially economic opportunities) in the U.S., the proportion of Muslims among Indian Americans is probably higher than that for the same reasons -- push and pull factors -- Jews are greatly over represented among migrants from the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the religiously biased selection principle operates primarily in favor of Christians.

Another factor leading to the diversification of American Christianity is widespread conversion among some immigrant groups, notably the Chinese. Those from mainland China are likely to have no religious identity upon entry. In the U.S. they encounter ethnic Protestant churches in which several Chinese languages are spoken and family-oriented. Confucian values are taught. Despite initial misgivings, many immigrants find that they can affirm both their traditional Chinese identity and an emerging American identity in such churches. In response to evangelism on the part of fellow Chinese, some Chinese, especially those from Taiwan, reassert their residual Buddhism. But Christian converts predominate to the extent that an estimated one third of Chinese Americans, across all generations, are now Christian.

The above claims have been qualified with words like ‘many." "some" and "estimated." Unlike Canada, Great Britain, India and the Philippines, the U.S. has no religious census. Sociologists can speak of the age, sex and racial composition of the U.S. population with some precision, based on government counts. But for religion, researchers have to rely on other sources, each with its own limitations.

One source is the "roll data" kept by religious bodies themselves, which vary in quality from the clearly defined, meticulously updated and publicly available membership records of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to the much less reliable numbers put forth by many historically African-American denominations. Catholic data vary in quality from diocese to diocese.

In the case of Islam, one of its ethical strengths turns out to be a drawback in gathering numbers. A Muslim does not "belong" to a particular mosque, which means there is enormous racial, ethnic and class diversity in a congregation that gathers for Friday prayer -- in contrast to the homogeneity of most Protestant congregations. But when asked to come up with numbers, Muslim organizations at best can sum up estimates of attendance based on the huge, Easter-sized crowds observing Eid al Fitr at the close of Ramadan. No comprehensive roll data for American Muslims exist.

The other source for religious demography is "poll data" drawn from individuals’ answers to questions put to them in surveys. Polls vary greatly in quality. The best data on religion come from the General Social Survey, administered through face-to-face interviews to a representative sample of some 1,500 English-speaking adult Americans every other year. The GSS asks hundreds of questions and provides rich information, but the numbers surveyed are insufficient to reveal much about small immigrant sub-populations.

The opposite extreme was taken by the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, which asked just a few religion questions of more than 50,000 adult Americans, also English-speaking, reached by random telephone dialing. Specialized surveys were taken in 2001 and 2002 of Hispanics and Asians, using Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese for the interviews, and one careful, random-sample survey, asking about religion among other things, was conducted in 1967 and 1998 based on INS records of legal immigrants in 1996.

Within a reasonable range of error, the poll data tell a consistent story: two thirds or more of new immigrants are Christian, no more than one fifth affirm any non-Christian faith, and as many as one sixth claim no religious identity at all. When these figures are compared to the 75 to 80 percent of the population at large who affirm one or another variety of Christian identity and the roughly 5 percent who are other-than-Christian. It is clear that the new immigration is diversifying American religion. But the case should not be overstated.

In particular no evidence supports the notion, cited in some newspapers and some pulpits, that there are more Muslims than Presbyterians in the U.S. Yes, the number of members claimed by the relatively rigorous counts of all the Presbyterian bodies in the country -- around 3.5 million -- is less than the 6 or 7 million figure claimed by some Muslim spokespersons. But in surveys, many more Americans call themselves Presbyterian than the Presbyterian churches claim. According to poll data. there are 10 to 11 million Presbyterians. Meanwhile, no national survey shows the Muslim population of the U.S. to be greater than 1 percent, or around 3 million at most. In other words, while poll data indicate that there are three times as many self identified Presbyterians as enrolled Presbyterians, there are half as many self-identified Muslims as are claimed by these Muslim leaders.

At the same time, we can reliably estimate from poll data that there are as many Hispanic Protestants in the U.S., some 8 million, as the number of Jews and Muslims put together. The massive demographic action is found among Christians.

The point is not to celebrate Christian growth nor to denigrate Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus, who have become integral constituents of the American religious system. Muslims In particular are a key electoral constituency in such swing states as Michigan (as Jews are In Florida). Any tendency to triumphalism on the part of Christians should be chastened by the equally dramatic, recent defection of millions of American Christians to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated (not just to the "unchurched." but to the unabashed "no religion" column).

The point is that Christianity is not for European Americans to define, speak for or even disown. Millions of new immigrants are redefining what it means to be Christian. In the U.S. they are joining African Americans, who continue to be the American church’s sturdiest pillar in coloring American Christianity.

The impact of immigration is greatest among Catholics, a majority of whom may be Hispanic at some point later in this century. (To a remarkable extent, immigrants are replacing native-born defectors.) Not only are masses said in Spanish in thousands of American parishes, but some parishes are influenced by Latino religious styles. The piety is more devotional, more home-centered and less parish-centered, more visual and less verbal than the rites inspired by Vatican II. Mexican-American public celebrations -- from the December 12 feast day of the Virgen de Guadalupe through Good Friday Via Crucis pageants to the observance of El Día de los Muertos. In early November -- give Catholics a new presence in local newspapers and television. Because the Virgin has appeared to the faithful in many countries at many times, she is celebrated somewhere in the U.S. throughout the year -- in February among Maya Indians in Los Angeles, in July among Haitians in New York, in September among Cubans in Miami.

Catholic scholars have referred to such rites and feast days as reflecting the "Inculturation" of pre-Christian symbols and traditions. In cultures influenced by African religiosity the inculturation of pre-Christian elements is particularly profound. In Haitian voodoo, African-origin deities "walk with" the Virgin Mary or another Christian saint, the venerated person having two cultural sides.

Since surveys typically allow only one answer to the religion identification question – "Are you Protestant, Catholic or Jewish?" -- poll data surely underestimate the number of American practitioners of Afrocentric religions like voodoo and Santeria. But because such religions are inextricably mixed with Christian traditions -- most Haitians, for example, are located somewhere on a voodoo-Catholic continuum -- the number of Christians is not at the same time overestimated. These people can be said to practice two religions.

Protestants differ on the legitimacy they are willing to accord to the practices of inculturation. Haitian evangelicals reject voodoo out of hand, while some Mexican Pentecostal services feature mariachi bands and images of the Virgin. Pentecostalism appears to have been rapidly indigenized in Latin America. Africa and Asia precisely because of its capacity to absorb and express local cultures -- which are then brought to the U.S. by Pentecostal immigrants.

More broadly immigrant Protestant congregations are carriers of home-country cultures in matters of music, language, dress and food, if not in specific religious symbols. Even the typically dignified worship of Chinese evangelicals is distinctly Chinese. Although some immigrant Christians of color descend from people originally evangelized by Europeans, in most cases the faith has been long carried by indigenous communities. White American Protestants might learn from the example of Latin American, Asian and African ways of being Christian how inculturated their own religious observances are -- for example, how European are their celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Such Christians can learn from immigrant Christians how universal is the faith and how relative is one’s embodiment of it.

Immigrant Christians tend to be conservative in matters of religious and moral culture. Among Protestants, the influx of Pentecostals and evangelicals greatly outnumbers the adherents of mainline (or, better, "historical") denominational traditions. Many Catholics come from countries little affected by Vatican II liturgical reforms. Eastern Orthodox Christians come from "autocephalous" national churches deeply interwoven with local traditions. Family practices, gender attitudes and sexual mores are typically more supportive of parents’ prerogatives, less in tune with feminist assumptions, and decidedly less accepting of homosexuality than is the case form any white American religious communities.

Yet It is a mistake to equate religious conservatism with political conservatism. A recent study of Hispanic churches revealed a consistent pattern among this group (the largest of America’s minority groups, one continually replenished by immigrants): Hispanics, whether Catholic or Protestant, tend to be conservative on issues of sexual morality but liberal on issues of the economy and minority rights. They are less likely than African Americans to identify with the Democratic Party but most vote Democratic. Hispanics -- who, strictly speaking are an ethnic rather than a racial group, composed of people who self-identify as white, black, mixed and "other" -- are historically linked to colonized and subordinated peoples and are unlikely to be complacent about governmental provision of social services. Across the board, new immigrants bring a more communal, less individualistic perspective to our society. Therefore Americans who struggle for economic justice should not regard these religious conservatives as their enemies. If they do, they will wall themselves off from potential allies.

Above all, the new immigrants make it decreasingly plausible for Americans to think of Christianity as a white person’s religion. Both Immigration and selective conversion are decoupling religion and race. American Buddhists areas likely to be white as Asian. The U.S. Muslim community mixes African Americans, Bosnians, South Asians and people from the Middle East. And although it may not be apparent in many congregations, American Christians are increasingly people of color.


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