Race, Immigration, Ethnicity, and Religion in America
Summary and Keywords
In 2010, immigrants represented 13 percent of the United States population, and almost one in four American children lived at home with an immigrant parent. Over half of the population growth in the United States from 2000 to 2010 was due to the increase of Hispanics, and currently, the highest number of immigrants come from Asian nations. This influx of immigrants has not only increased the percentage of people of color in the United States, at 28 percent, but has also dramatically altered the religious landscape of the country. The decline in the number of American Christians signals this shift, as does the growth of the religiously non-affiliated, Hindus, and Muslims. In the past century, sociologists have accounted for religious change by employing theories of secularization, assimilation, and modernization.
For more recent religious change in regard to ethnicity and race, however, four processes are more salient: (1) the religious marketplace, (2) globalization, (3) multicultural discourse production, and (4) racialization. The religious marketplace continues to cater to spiritual consumers who have become increasingly diversified with the influx of new immigrants and the rise of “spiritual but not religious individuals.” The United States has thus remained a religiously vital context, with a strong supply of religious groupings. Globalization has spurred more transnational religious networks, which have increased the flow of religious personnel, ideas, and organizations across borders. New immigrants, furthermore, enter an American host society that is segmented economically. Consequently, ethnic groups do adapt to their neighborhoods, but in different contexts and in dissimilar manners. With the increase in multicultural discourse, ethnic groups may choose to retain their ethnicity and religious heritages for symbolic pride. Finally, race, as a central organizing concept in the United States, is a basis by which religious groups mobilize for spiritual interests. As religious groups become racialized, such as how Islamophobia targets persons with similar physical features, they respond with reactive solidarity.
With the influx of immigrants since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, not only has the ethnic and racial composition of the United States changed dramatically, but also the religious landscape has been significantly altered. As immigrants bring their own spiritual traditions, they have made the United States more religiously pluralistic and less Christian. At the same time, they have also revived and impacted American Christianity. Through the processes of racialization and transnationalism, within a political context of multiculturalism and religious disenfranchisement, these groups have developed new, hybrid formations of American religiosity.
This essay aims to highlight these sociological processes and the new research questions they raise. First, we provide an overview of the ethnic, racial, and religious demographic changes in the past decade. We then review three ways in which immigration has altered America’s religious landscape. Second, we examine how transnational ties enable immigrants to sustain their traditions and make religious innovations. Third, we consider the intersection of ethnicity and religion, and how groups have related these two key, socially constructed groupings. Finally, we consider how race in the United States continues to structure religious formations.
Demographic Overview: Diversification, De-Europeanization, and Secularization
Out of the nearly 320 million people residing in the United States in 2014, over 42 million, about 13 percent were immigrants. When the children of immigrants are included in these counts, the numbers nearly double to 81 million, or 26 percent.1 Stated differently, more than a quarter of the U.S. population comprises immigrants and their children.
Ten sending nations account for roughly 60 percent of the U.S. immigrant population.2 Mexican immigrants make up 28 percent of the immigrant population. India, China, and the Philippines, in order of their numeric contribution, each respectively supplies about 5 percent of the U.S. immigrant population. El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba, and South Korea make up the subsequent tier, each supplying about 3 percent of the immigrant population, while the Dominican Republic and Guatemala each provides about 2 percent of the immigrant population. These recent trends stand in stark contrast to immigration patterns prior to the enactment of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act. The Hart-Celler Act expanded the number of immigrants coming to the United States, eliminated race-centric national quotas, and encouraged an increase of upwardly mobile immigrants by facilitating the migration of professionals. As a point of contrast, in 1960, nine of the top ten sending countries, contributing about two-thirds of the immigrant population, were European nations. Mexico was the sole non-European sending nation ranked in the top ten. While immigrants of Mexican origin have had a sustained a migration stream for several decades, this too is changing. Political and economic forces have curbed migration from Mexico, while China and India have become the most prolific sending nations.
Recent immigration patterns have influenced the United States religious landscape via three key trends: (1) the diversification of U.S. religions through the growing presence of non-Christian religions, (2) the “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity, and (3) the growth of the U.S. nonreligious population.
Diversification: Beyond Protestant, Catholic, Jew
The U.S. religious landscape has been diversified by the arrival of immigrants who identify with faiths outside of the Judeo-Christian constellation. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists occupy increasingly visible and prominent spaces in U.S. society. Sikhs have increasingly gained attention as well, in some notable instances being victimized because of religious mislabeling, a phenomenon that increased post–9/11.3 Buddhism has grown numerically in correlation with immigration from Asia, but Buddhism also claims an increasing percentage of non-Asian adherents in the United States. Finally, the growing presence of Muslims presents an important case study due to the racialization of this religion and will be discussed later.
When considering the distribution of religious affiliations by ethnic group, Asian Americans are most varied in their contribution to religious membership outside of Christianity and Judaism. The Asian American population is 6 percent Buddhist, 16 percent Hindu, 6 percent Muslim, and 31 percent nonreligious.4 Also of note, 2 percent of the U.S. black population, both immigrant and foreign born, is Muslim, and 18 percent is nonreligious. For the four largest racial groups in the United States, Asian Americans, blacks, Latinas/Latinos, and whites, Christianity as a whole still constitutes a substantial grouping, albeit a shrinking one. As a point of comparison, 33 percent of Asian Americans identify with a Christian tradition, with Catholicism as the largest affiliation (17 percent). Among African Americans, 76 percent identify with a Christian tradition, with 53 percent identifying with a historically black Protestant institution. Almost three-quarters of Latinas/os (73 percent) identify with a Christian tradition, with 48 percent self-labeling as Catholic. Finally, about two-thirds of whites (67 percent) identify as Christian, with 29 percent identifying with Evangelicalism, and equal numbers identifying with Catholicism and mainline Christianity (19 percent each).
De-Europeanization: The Changing Face of U.S. Christianity
Despite the diversification in religious traditions brought about by immigrants to the United States, most immigrants are of Christian origin, as just described. In part, this Christian character correlates with the high levels of immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean. Immigration is not necessarily de-Christianizing the United States, but is rather changing the face of U.S. Christianity in a manner described by Warner as a “de-Europeanization” process.5,6 The Christianity embodied by immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia illustrates how immigrants are innovators of American religion. Immigrants are influencing the currents of U.S. Christianity in two primary ways: by transforming existing U.S.-based institutions, and by founding new, independent institutions and movements.
The Catholic Church in the United States, given its longstanding and current engagement of immigrants, provides one of the most important case studies in how immigrants are served by U.S.-based institutions and how they in turn influence U.S. institutions. With particularly high numbers of Catholic adherents in Latin America, and most Latin American immigrants identifying as Catholic, the Catholic Church has increasingly recognized that an investment in Latinas/os is an investment in the future of the church. Immigrants, in general, have helped the Catholic Church stave off the decline faced by its mainline Christian neighbors.
One major example of Latina/o influence on the Catholic Church in the United States is the growth of the Catholic Charismatic movement in the United States.7 This immigrant-fueled movement provides increased opportunities for lay leadership, exhibits egalitarian styles of participation across gender lines, and employs spirited, informal worship repertoires. Indeed, the Catholic Charismatic renewal is one reflection of global revivalist movements finding a home via immigrant participation in the United States.
While reviving parishes, increasing participation, and renewing worship, new demographic shifts related to immigration have also created conflict and necessitated change within religious institutions, including the Catholic Church. Congregational shifts may amplify tensions between immigrants and non-immigrants, across ethnic and class lines, and between leadership and laity. Some of the negotiations that take place along these dimensions are documented in Sullivan’s ethnography of St. Catherine’s, a parish in Houston increasingly diversified through migration.8 Recognition of newcomers’ presence, affinity across groups, and a perceived investment from formal leaders tend to ensure a more positive parish experience in cases such as St. Catherine’s. In relation to leadership, David Lopez notes that some ethnic groups experience a social gap that has historically existed between priests and parishioners, in part due to mismatches of ethnic backgrounds between priests and their flocks.9 However, with increasingly diversified classes of clergy joining the ranks, prospects are improving in this regard. Catholic scholar Hosffman Ospino argues that successful churches employ a model described as a “community of communities,” which allows individual ethnic and immigrant groups to retain salient forms of ethnic expressions while being part of a larger multicultural parish.10
The second major change brought about by Christian immigrants is the establishment of their own religious bodies and movements, outside of the purview of U.S.-based institutions. Allen Kim, for example, examines how the Father School Movement, an Evangelical movement based in South Korea, aims to teach Korean immigrant fathers in the U.S. principles of fatherhood that emphasize emotional expressiveness.11 The Father School demonstrates how immigrant- and transnational-based religious movements fill a unique niche in the religious marketplace. By emphasizing a parenting style more akin to Western norms while simultaneously highlighting traditional Korean gender roles, the Father School provides participants with a toolkit that facilitates adaptability and ethnic solidarity.
New immigrant groups thus have created new demands for the American religious marketplace, which have been quickly filled by religious entrepreneurs and organizations. For example, the IURD, a neo-Pentecostal church founded in Brazil, carved out a unique niche for itself among Latina/o immigrants in the United States. In Brazil, the movement was known for its prosperity gospel preaching coupled with direct criticism of Catholic and Afro-Brazilian religious practices. It proved to be competitive in Brazil’s religious marketplace by addressing the “spiritual, health, and financial issues” of the poor and marginalized.12 According to Todd Hartch, IURD leaders similarly made inroads in the United States by spreading their message to Spanish-speaking Latinas/os.13 The use of mainstream Spanish-language television networks enhanced the church’s visibility and thus its ability to disseminate its message among working-class Latina/o immigrants.
Religious Nones: Religiously Unaffiliated Immigrants
While some immigrants appear to embody the theologizing thesis, the notion that religious participation becomes more salient upon migration, some immigrants are also contributing to the growth of the nonreligious population. Contrary to the theologizing thesis, some scholars, such as Massey and Higgins, contend that the migration experience alienates immigrants from religious communities.14 Some immigrants fall into the nonreligious category due to diminished religious participation, even as they continue to hold to certain spiritual beliefs or values.
Movement toward religious non-affiliation is not merely an instance of individual shift, but rather one of generational change as well. The children of immigrants are more likely than their parents’ generation to identify as religiously unaffiliated. This is certainly the case among Latinas/os, where the share of religiously unaffiliated U.S.-born Latinas/os, 23 percent, significantly surpasses the 15 percent of first generation co-ethnics who identify as such.15 Asian Americans display a similar trend, with 31 percent of those who are native born identifying as religiously unaffiliated compared to 24 percent of their foreign-born co-ethnics identifying in this way.16
Indeed, the largest group of nonreligious, Asian Americans, come without affiliation to any Western religion. Chinese and Japanese, for example, often practice more than one religious tradition, such that identifying with only one religion is inapplicable. Further, Chinese originating from the People’s Republic of China hail from an officially secular nation. Finally, Asian professionals often come through selective immigration as professionals in science and technology. These college-education individuals are also more likely to identify as nonreligious. Survey data suggest that nonreligious populations are also growing in Latin America, and immigrants to the United States from this region, in turn, reflect this trend.17
Transnationalism and Religion
Parting ways with the markedly assimilatory tone of scholars from a previous century, research from the last decade examines religion’s role in simultaneously assisting immigrants with maintaining ties to the homeland even as they establish their place in the host context. As Levitt contends, religion often preserves transnational linkages even as it facilitates assimilation.18 Questions do remain, however, as to how transnationalism and assimilation function in tandem, and to what extent they begin to constitute an adverse relationship, if at all, especially for later-generation ethnics. This section examines how transnational religion helps to sustain homeland orientations through both performative practices and structural ties. Performative practices are the ritualistic repertoires and behavioral norms, expressive components, tied to specific religious traditions. Structural ties are the network connections that sustain the flow of resources at both the individual and group level, as well as formally and informally.
A defining characteristic of transnational religious performative practice is a salient homeland orientation. Religious traditions oriented toward a homeland abroad base a substantial number of their norms, standards, and practices on traditions perceived to be from the sending context. Some brands of Latina/o Catholicism, for example, base their spiritual traditions on homeland practices, such as venerating local iterations of the Virgin Mary, or commemorating particular saints memorialized in specific regions.19 Elaine Peña notes the extensive investment that a Mexican immigrant community in the Chicago area has made to re-create a shrine to the Virgin Mary, which is the focal point of Marian devotion in Mexico.20 These performative practices allow immigrants to re-create spaces reminiscent of their sending context; in the process they solidify an extensive network of co-religionist co-ethnics.
The structural ties of transnational religion provide an important channel by which immigrants exchange social and cultural capital in the host context.21 Vasquez and Knott22 along with Levitt23 note that some immigrants seek guidance on spiritual direction and religious organizational structuring from organizations based abroad. As detailed in research on Pentecostalism by Miller et al., a growing number of U.S. immigrants from Central America identify with neo-Pentecostal movements based in El Salvador and Guatemala.24 Solorzano corroborates Miller’s work when he details the emergence of Llamada Final, or Final Call, a neo-Pentecostal ministry founded in the Los Angeles area by an immigrant pastor from Guatemala. The ties to Latin America, along with the panethnic milieu embodied in the U.S. churches, have enabled the movement to generate innovative and influential forms of worship in the fields of music and dance. The varied ties are thus a source both of innovation and of influence.
Just as financial remittances proceed from the United States back to immigrants’ homelands, religious remittances may be exchanged across borders. Ethnic religious bodies in the United States may help to sponsor religious work for their co-ethnics in the homeland. Conversely, religious leaders in the homeland may visit the United States to spur congregational support of ecclesial work abroad or to reinforce particular messages, beliefs, and practices. Afe Adogame, for example, argues that scholars have erroneously characterized African Christianity as being overly dependent on Christianity in the West.25 In his case study on the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria, Adogame highlights how religious remittances from Nigeria have helped to establish a strong ministry in the United States. He also notes how religious remittances may involve the movement of people across borders for the purpose of religious service. Leaders from abroad arrive in the United States to lead stateside ministries. Migrants return to Nigeria, sometimes to partake of religious gatherings, but other times to re-settle in the homeland. All the while, cultural capital is being exchanged across borders.
Ethnicity and Religion
The interaction between ethnicity and religion has been the subject of an ongoing conversation in modern sociology for nearly as long as the discipline has existed.26 In her recent literature review of both concepts, Rebecca Kim makes the astute observation that theories of ethnicity and of religion parallel each other in (1) their foci, (2) their hypothesized processes of change, and (3) their weaknesses.27 In terms of theoretical concerns, she notes that researchers have addressed two perennial questions: Why does the United States remain so religious? Why are American congregations so ethnically and racially segregated? Both questions arise from classic assimilation and secularization theories, which assume the decline of these group boundaries due to the homogenizing and rationalizing forces of modernization. In contrast, critiques of these theories underscore other sociological processes—that of immigration, cultural retention, and racialization—among people of color that maintain ethnicity and religion. This section not only compares theories of ethnicity and religion, but considers how these groupings are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. In particular, it highlights three ways in which ethnicity and religion intersect.
Modernization and its forces of urbanization, rationalization, and pluralization are assumed to challenge ethnic and religious groupings and lead to their decline. Robert Park, in his model of assimilation, theorizes that contact and competition with other ethnic groups in the United States result in the accommodation, and eventual assimilation, of new immigrant groups.28 Likewise, Peter Berger, in his secularization thesis, hypothesized that rationalism and pluralism challenge the “sacred canopy” of religion so that religion declines in authority within modernized contexts. Religion, as a worldview that provides order and meaning in life, is challenged by scientific discourses and the diversity of religious options in the United States.
Likewise, the continuing salience of both these groupings in the United States has been explained to be a result of similar forces—that of marketplace competition and rational choice. Ethnic groupings have been revitalized not only with ongoing flows of co-ethnic immigrants, but also by ethnic competition over resources, housing, and jobs.29 Groups find it rational to achieve solidarity and mobilize together in order to pursue ethnic, material interests. Likewise, the open religious marketplace in the United States spurs competition among religious groups to attract spiritual consumers.30 Suppliers of religion, such as denominations and churches, which offer better spiritual goods, gain greater market shares of adherents. Ethnic and religious individuals, in this framework, are rational decision-makers who make choices about the costs and benefits about retaining ethnic or religious affiliation.
However, the religious and ethnic marketplaces are not necessarily open, but are structured and regulated by the state. Will Herberg noted that the separation of the church and state made religious affiliation the only state-legitimated identity. Arguing that ethnic assimilation had occurred for white immigrant groups who came in the early 20th century, religious affiliation became the primary sites of group identity. Consequently, he observed that at the turn of the mid-20th century, Americans identified primarily as Protestant, Catholic, or Jew.31 Stephen Warner also highlights how America’s open religious marketplace in the current context shapes ethnicity, but in a different manner. It spurs religious entrepreneurs to diversify and meet the demands of consumers, including their ethnic needs.32 In contrast to Herberg, Warner suggests that religion offers a legitimated social space for cultural pluralism, where groups utilize religious institutions to retain and transmit their ethnic traditions, language, and networks.33 In fact, religious organizations did not assimilate ethnic groups as much as Herberg predicted, but always had sites of cultural maintenance and ethnic organization. Notably, since the 1960s, the state has come to implement policies affirming multiculturalism and ethnic diversity.34 With both ethnicity and religion considered legitimated spaces in the United States for voluntary association and community organization, Americans now are socialized both to identify ethnically and religiously.
Ethnicity and Religion: The Interrelationships
Whereas Herberg and assimilation theorists hypothesized the decline of ethnicity, it is now an important factor in most areas of American life, including religion. And although secularization theorists foresaw the decline of religious authority in society, religious affiliation continues to provide identity, meaning, belonging, and liberation for its members.35 Russell Jeung, Carolyn Chen, and Jerry Park theorize that American ethnicity and religion intersect to create four main types of identity: (1) religious primacy, in which religious affiliation transcends ethnic identification; (2) ethnoreligious hybridization, where groups selectively combine aspects of their ethnic and religious heritages; (3) familistic traditioning, which include minority religious practices primarily in the home; and (4) racialized religion, where religious groups organize around panethnic boundaries.36 This section examines the first three types, and the fourth type will be discussed later in the race section of this article.
First, religious primacy operates according to Herberg’s thesis, that religion would transcend ethnic distinctions and group individuals along religious boundaries. Gerardo Marti describes how one multiethnic Baptist congregation in Los Angeles remains unified precisely because it renders ethnic differences moot and instead privileges the members’ common Christian identity.37 Likewise, in their review of research on Islamic communities in the West, Voas and Fleischmann find that qualitative studies reveal how the Muslim second generation tend to seek a “cultureless Islam” shorn of ethnic culture.38 These children of immigrants find that ethnically specific forms of Islam are barriers to community building with other Muslims, and instead desire to return to “real Islam.”
Second, ethnicity and religion are combined to create hybridized, ethnoreligious communities. In his history of Mexican Catholics in Houston, Roberto Trevino argued that the intertwining of Catholicism and Mexican heritage provided Mexican Americans a singular identity to address their minority status in that city.39 In the same way, Filipino Catholics merge Filipino traditions and concerns with their Catholicism. Joachin Gonzales writes how Filipino Americans “filipinize” their Catholic religiosity through choosing particular types of ministry and charity, especially the practice of sending balikbayan boxes of goods back to relatives in the Philippines. At the same time, the church helps to reinforce and pass on Filipino values, such as utang na loob, a debt of gratitude, and bayanhihan, mutual cooperation for the common good.40 Ethnoreligious organizations have an easier time competing for consumers, because they offer both spiritual and ethnic goods.41 This capacity to supply these needs explains the persistence of segregated congregations.42
Finally, familial traditioning comprises minority religions that are most home based instead of congregationally based. These religions, such as Hinduism and Chinese Popular Religion, reinforce ethnic traditions and cultural norms as they are often ancestral traditions transmitted transnationally. Khyati Joshi illustrates how Hinduism continues to provide an ethnic identity and moral compass for Indian Americans, even among those who claim that they are nonreligious.43 However, without institutional support and professional religious personnel, these traditions are at a disadvantage in the American religious marketplace. Russell Jeung hypothesizes that without institutional and cultural support of Chinese Popular Religion, Chinese in the United States are much less likely to maintain ancestral veneration practices as they do in other overseas Chinese communities.44
Race and Religion
The significance of the color line—and increasingly, color lines—in the United States has long been a critical subject of scholarly interest. In their critical assessment of research on race and religion, Michael Emerson, Elizabeth Korver-Glenn, and Kiara Douds rightly start with W. E. B. Dubois, who wrote how (1) race is spiritualized, and (2) religion is racialized.45 These two points were empirically significant in the late 18th century, and they remain theoretically relevant for the 21st century. For the first point about how race is spiritualized, studies have examined how religion “does race,” that is, how religious organizations and individuals talk about, frame, and perform race matters.46 Religion, as the independent variable, has measurable racial effects on a range of matters. Some effects are positive, such as inspiring social movements, urban development, and political empowerment,47 while others are negative in that religions may perpetuate prejudice, inequality, and segregation.48 In terms of the second point, researchers have studied how race is a major construct that has structured religious segregation and integration, its organizations, and even its theology.49 Race and the process of racialization shape religion, including how Islam is perceived50 and how multiracial congregations develop.51 Thus, the interplay of race and religion has led to a distinct line of inquiry: How do racialized religious groups and religiously inspired racial groups organize themselves and mobilize?52 How do discourses of both race and religion frame how individuals self-identify and relate to others?53
Racialized Religions: Islamophobia and White Christian Privilege
The racialization of religion is currently best exemplified by how Islam has been perceived in the United States with a particular physical appearance and with associated behavioral characteristics related to terrorism. Nasar Meer, in the introduction to a special issue of Ethnic and Racial Studies, asserts that religion, and in particular Christianity, provided the vocabularies for race regarding its early discussions of the Moors and the Jew. He continues to argue that the racialization process itself utilizes not only somatic markers, but also cultural ones such as religion.54
Similarly, Junaid Rana, in his study of Pakistani Muslims, discusses how this entire region seems to have been shifted geographically to become part of the Middle East, and with that shift becomes part of a threat to the United States.55 This racialization has both discursive and political elements. In the American imagination as conceived by the War on Terror, Rana explores how Islam has become a threat to white Christian supremacy. Anti-immigrant racism, combined with Islamophobia, collapse people of different nationalities, ethnicities, colors, and even religions into a singular, racialized category—Muslims who are associated with fear and terror. This racialization justifies state-sanctioned policies of further racialization, such as the Patriot Act, that enact the containment, detainment, and deportation of perceived Muslim terrorists. This process is not confined only to the United States, but part of global racial system in which labor flows include particular types of migrants.
Just as Islam is racialized in its association with terrorism, white Christian privilege is another form of racialization. Abby Ferber highlights the intersectionality among white privilege, color-blind ideology, and Christonormativity, the normalization and domination of Christianity as the dominant religious culture in the United States.56 Similar to how whites have greater access to resources because of their group membership, Christians receive more benefits and advantages than non-Christians in American policies, schools, and workplaces. One clear example of this white Christian privilege is the representation of Jesus and other biblical characters as white. Color-blind ideology masks both white and Christian privilege by employing the assumptions that racism is a thing of the past and inequality is the result of natural processes. Ferber concludes that both these forms of domination must be rendered visible and examined to dismantle these racial ideologies.
Spiritualized Races: Panethnic and Multiracial Movements
As noted earlier, Jeung, Chen, and Park identified four dominant types of how race, ethnicity, and religion intersect. The fourth type, racialized religions, included panethnic religious movements organized along racial lines. Not only do these churches and parachurches utilize racialized group boundaries, but they also sacralize and spiritiualize the races as well. Latina/o religious movements illustrate the spiritualization of this panethnic grouping of Spanish-speaking peoples.
Milagros Pena and Edwin Hernandez’s ethnographic work of twenty-eight faith-based organizations demonstrates both the spiritualization of race and racialization of religion.57 First, they note that community organizing by churches and parachurches sacralizes and empowers the panethnic grouping, Latinas/os. In drawing together the formerly disparate groups of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans, the faith-based groups built new racial solidarities that were deemed to have shared spiritual and political interests. Second, they note how racial formation as Latinas/os activates these groups to support particular ministries. Issues of employment, housing, and immigration orient these organizations’ ministries and leaders to concerns of racial justice and Latina/o mobilization.
Interestingly, significant research has gone into the study of multiracial churches and how they privilege, in a religious way, either color consciousness or color blindness.58 For example, the sociological study United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race suggests that a color-conscious theology of oneness can counter the colonization and cultural assimilation of minorities in the United States.59 Gerardo Marti’s analysis of musical worship at multiracial churches also highlights how corporate singing, conspicuous diversity, and genuine inclusion might make interracial communities more socially integrated and spiritually meaningful.60
Scholars of immigration and assimilation theory have, in the previous century, greatly influenced how conversations on immigration, race, ethnicity, and religion are framed. Those of a bygone era focused on the processes by which predominantly European immigrants incorporated into U.S. society. Religion was identified as an important aspect of the assimilation process, both as a variable affected by the process of assimilation, and as a vehicle through which adaptive identities were formed in the receiving context.61
Early theories of ethnic immigrant assimilation bowed to an idealized image of immigrants culturally mirroring white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.62 The expectation was that ethnics would be kneaded into the mass of “White Protestant, middle class clay.”63 The assumed trajectory was a fairly straightforward one, labeled as “straight-line” assimilation.64
In his famous work Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Will Herberg offered an important caveat regarding the role of religion in the assimilation process of immigrants and their descendants.65 Herberg, employing a classic assimilation theory framework, argued that immigrants’ religious identities would typically persist and even increase in salience through the process of assimilation. He saw religion as being the primary space of identity persistence for immigrants, creating a “triple melting pot” based on religious affiliation. While some religious assimilation would take place under this view, religion would also provide continuity to previously held ethnic identities.
Yet, Herberg’s thesis was brought into question as classic models of assimilation began to lose favor in the discipline. Research on white ethnics spotlighted the fact that many still maintained aspects of ethnic identity beyond religion, even after being incorporated into U.S. society.66 Glazer and Moynihan, for example, noted the continued distinctiveness of white ethnics in New York City. They affirmed the prominence of religion in distinguishing white ethnics, asserting that “to name an ethnic group is very much the same thing as naming a religious group.”67 However, they also identified a variety of markers that kept ethnic boundaries visible, including structural markers such as group concentration in particular occupational fields.
Gans further theorized that white ethnics maintained a type of symbolic ethnicity, one that was expressive in nature, but inconsequential to major life opportunities.68 For Gans, religion could be central to symbolic ethnicity. Gans argued that certain ethnic cultures were actually bound by “sacred” boundary markers, while others were united by secular boundary markers. Stated differently, there are “two different kinds of ethnic cultures, sacred and secular.”69 Gans proposed that sacred culture tended to persist more than secular culture as an ethnic identifier, though he conceded that religion too was altered in the U.S. context.
Marking the rise of the “new” post-1965 immigrants, the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s presented a dearth of research on immigrant and ethnic religion according to Massey and Higgins.70 Cadge and Ecklund attribute this in part to “skepticism about religion among social scientists.”71 Even during this supposed intertestamental period, a nearly canonical thesis was proposed related to religion and ethnicity. Smith argued that immigration was a “theologizing experience.”72 Various scholars would follow suit, affirming that religion and ethnicity become fused as the circumstances surrounding immigration predispose immigrants to increased religious participation, and religious spaces often serve as the primary means for sustaining ethnic ties.73 Detractors such as Massey and Higgins would later argue the opposite: that ties to religion are weakened by the experience of migration.74
Subsequent immigration scholarship has emphatically focused on post-1965 immigrants, consequently giving race a more prominent place in the conversation. Immigrants from a century past were more readily racialized as white, thus gradually gaining entry into white middle-class U.S. society.75 Current scholarship questions to what extent the experiences of post-1965 immigrants parallel those of European immigrants in light of diverging racial labels.76 In response, revised theories of assimilation have emerged, accompanied by more detailed understandings of religion’s role in immigrant adaptation.
Segmented assimilation is a model introduced to address the potential disadvantages experienced by nonwhite immigrants and their native-born progeny. Key proponents of this model, Portes and Zhou, argue that immigrant groups might experience diverging intra-ethnic trajectories, with some segments of the population experiencing downward trajectories more akin to the experience of the African American underclass.77 Scholars desiring to emphasize the sustained and overpowering effects of race conceive of a racialized minority model wherein some immigrant groups are unable to escape the gauntlet of racialization.78 Addressing the possibilities of racialization and sustained disadvantage, an emergent body of research explores religion’s role in serving as a ballast against the pitfalls of nonwhite immigrant assimilation.79 Often focusing on congregational settings, various scholars explore whether religious participation serves as a bridge or a boundary to assimilation.80 The segmented assimilation model figures prominently into this body of research. Warner extensively articulates the manner in which religious institutions serve as prime mechanisms for facilitating adaptive collaboration across generations. According to Warner, and a number of other scholars, religion serves the double role of preserving ethnic identity, and of providing new adaptive tools.81
Religious Diversification: Questions for Further Research
Rather than focusing on the religious experiences of immigrants as an isolated phenomenon, further research is needed to elucidate how recent waves of immigrants are influencing the religious marketplace in the United States. With regard to religions outside of Judeo-Christian traditions, what type of legitimacy are these traditions and institutions employing in order to engage the broader U.S. population? To what extent are these traditions vested in maintaining distinct ethnic and/or religious repertoires, and to what extent are they exhibiting institutional isomorphism, wherein they mirror Protestant congregational modes of organizing and worshiping?82 The manner in which religious traditions negotiate these realities will influence their place in the religious marketplace.
As relates to the de-Europeanization of Christianity in the United States, several important questions merit extended research. Among nonwhite immigrants, to what extent does religious switching correlate with assimilation? In other words, are those who convert to a particular strain of Christianity simply manifesting an aspect of sociocultural assimilation? Like the non-Christian religions discussed above, to what extent are ethnic Christian traditions exhibiting isomorphism in relation to mainstream white Protestantism?
Third, questions remain as to how the experiences of ethnics who identify as nonreligious compare to non–religiously identified whites. Are non–religiously identified ethnics less likely to be atheists and agnostic, as recent data from the Pew Research Center suggests?83 Does non-religiosity primarily consist of institutional distancing? How do non–religiously identified ethnics engage in co-ethnic traditions that are explicitly religious? Finally, what do concepts such as ethnic identity and assimilation mean for ethnics who belong to ethnic groups that are heavily invested in religious participation?
Transnationalism: Questions for Further Research
Transnational religion is largely sustained by the flow of immigrants. To what extent will transnational religion remain vibrant among ethnic groups that are not being replenished by newer streams of immigrants? The question of sustainability is relevant to both aging first-generation populations and growing second- and third-generation populations. Will later generations be motivated to invest in transnational religious practices? Could transnational religion come to serve as a type of symbolic ethnicity for some later generation ethnics? Beyond migration streams, how might improved access to media and travel opportunities contribute to cross-border ties needed for the sustaining of transnational religion? Finally, to what extent are transnational religions changing the way that religion in the United States is lived out?
Religion and Ethnicity: Questions for Future Research
Instead of lines of questioning that interrogate the decline or continuing salience of religion and ethnicity, future research on ethnicity and religion might address three areas. First, how do we account for changes in the role of ethnicity and religion in Americans’ lived experience? Rather than straight-line assimilation and secularization toward nonbelief, ethnicity theorists recognize the “bumpy-line” of assimilation due to state-legitimated multiculturalism and to segmented assimilation, in which groups enter different economic contexts that affect how they adapt.84 Similarly, sociologists of religion need new paradigms to account for the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” and those of minority religions where belief is not a main criterion of spirituality.85
Second, how do these macro-level processes of change shape the intersections of ethnicity and religion? Indeed, religion has been shown to both preserve ethnicity and to facilitate Americanization.86 Although scholars have identified types of the intersections between ethnicity and religion, they still must specify the conditions and factors in which one variable becomes more dominant (religious transcendence), the variables become combined (ethnoreligious hybridity), or they become either weakened or strengthened (family traditioning).
And finally, on an individual level, certain ethnic groups are much more affected by the increase of religious “nones” and those affiliated with minority religions. Having less institutional support from religion for their ethnicity, how do members of these groups identify and relate differently from those of established religions?
Racialization Questions for Future Research
This section clearly does not cover all the research conducted around race and religion, but centers on the intersectionality of race and religion. Regarding the spiritualization of race, much more research needs to be conducted with the growing numbers of non-Christian religious groups, as well as the religious “nones.” How do differing belief and value systems shape how race is conceived, structured, and lived out? In what varied ways might they affect the racial attitudes and identities of individuals? In particular, the diverse effects of religion on racial inequality continue to be an issue of empirical and theoretical import.
In regard to the racialization of religion, the state undoubtedly plays a major factor, even with the separation of state and church in the United States. The state’s role, as structured by its policies, bureaucratic routines, and its official pronouncements, has both intended and unintended consequences on lived religion. Including this dimension in the racialization of religion would clearly help further our understanding of both American and global racialization.
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