May 22, 2002


Here for Good : Religion and the new immigrants. (Philip Jenkins, Books & Culture, May/June 2002)
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.

It is for reasons such as these that conservatives should view immigration as an opportunity rather than a threat. It may well be, paradoxically, that our newest citizens will save the culture from the natives. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2002 8:57 AM
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