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A New Religious America

Philip Jenkins

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Philip Jenkins writes about demographic shifts in America's religions.

In recent years, the decade of the 1960s has become a popular subject for courses in university history departments. Since humanities professors tilt well to the left, it is scarcely surprising that they generally focus on a familiar range of iconic events and individuals associated with progressive social reform--the stories of civil rights, the antiwar movement, feminism, and so on. As we gain greater distance from the era, though, the events of the 1960s that have the most enduring consequences are rather to be located on the other end of the political and cultural spectrum. Arguably, the most important single piece of legislation of these years involved neither civil rights nor women's rights, but was rather the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which opened the country to a massive wave of newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. And however little anyone recognized this fact at the time, the 1965 Act also prepared the way for a far-reaching restructuring of American religious life, in directions that were distinctly conservative and traditionalist.

The notion that immigration is transforming American religion may not sound too startling, since the media have of late been trumpeting the country's new religious diversity, its hospitality to Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and adherents of other faiths. Last year, religious studies scholar Diana Eck published an influential book entitled A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. The only problem with this title--and the underlying thesis--is that it is flat wrong (see "One Nation Under Many Gods," Public Square, October 2001). While mass immigration is indeed having an enormous religious impact, the main beneficiary of the process is unquestionably Christianity. Far more than most secular observers yet appreciate, the vast majority of new immigrants are Christian or become so after their arrival on these shores. More catastrophic still, from the point of view of our secular elites, the Christianity that these newcomers espouse is commonly fideistic, charismatic, otherworldly, and (nightmare of nightmares) fundamentalist. In a wonderful illustration of the phenomenon of unintended consequences, the radical social policy of color-blind open immigration is producing rich benefits for religion of a powerfully traditional bent.

The sheer numbers involved in the recent immigration to the United States beggar belief. If we combine the foreign born and their children, then the immigrant community has grown from thirty-four million in 1970 to fifty-six million in 2000, around a fifth of the whole population. Incredibly, almost five percent of the country's current residents have arrived within the past decade. Such an influx has obvious ethnic consequences, as American society moves steadily from a black and white affair to a multicolored reality. In 2000, thirty-five million Americans were counted as Hispanic, almost 60 percent of them of Mexican ancestry. Nearly twelve million more Americans come from East or Southeast Asia. Asians and Hispanics combined make up 15 percent of the population today, but this share is projected to grow to almost a quarter by 2025, and to a third by 2050. By mid-century, 100 million Americans will claim Latino origin. They will then constitute one of the world's largest Latino societies, more populous than any actual Hispanic nation with the exceptions of Mexico and Brazil. By that point, fifty or sixty million Americans will claim Mexican descent.

The religious consequences will also be far-reaching, and in most cases, it is the Christian churches that will benefit from demographic change. The vast majority of Latin Americans come from Christian cultures, either Catholic or Pentecostal. And although not every one is equally pious--or even notionally a believer--they have all been formed in a cultural matrix that is clearly Christian. I look forward with fascination to the day in December 2031 when millions of Mexicans and other Latinos celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadeloupe to the peasant Juan Diego. Within the U.S., as much as across the southern border, the event should mark a triumphant expression of Latino pride and self-assertion, a visible symbol of one of the dominant faces of American Christianity.

The effects of immigration can be witnessed across the denominational spectrum. Just to look at the Catholic impact, Mass is presently celebrated in Spanish in over 3,500 parishes nationwide. A further 20 percent of Latinos are Protestant or Pentecostal, commonly members of enthusiastic denominations such as the Assemblies of God. To try to reduce the continuing hemorrhage of believers, Latino Catholics in the U.S. have tried to import such Pentecostal customs as traditional music and instruments during services, and to encourage emotional expressions of spontaneous praise and thanksgiving. It is anyone's guess which tradition will succeed in the long term, but in any case, we are clearly looking at a continuing growth in Latino Christianity within the United States.

It should surprise nobody that Latino immigrants are usually Christian, but so too are many Asian-Americans. Though some Asians follow traditional religions such as Buddhism, many others are Christian. Some immigrant communities derive from strongly Christian homelands, like the Philippines, or from countries with large Christian minorities, like Vietnam and South Korea. Other Asian migrants are recent converts. Among Korean-Americans, for example, Christians presently outnumber Buddhists by more than ten to one. In addition to strengthening Christian numbers in the U.S., such migrant communities transmit American ideas to home countries, because of the constant interchange between Asian-American communities and their ancestral nations. Family and social links thus help promote Pentecostalism in Korea or the Philippines. There already exist global evangelistic networks like the Filipino-based El Shaddai, a Catholic charismatic group that operates in over twenty-five nations, including the U.S. and Canada, and which already claims eight million members. For all the writing over the last decade on the enormous cultural and economic significance of the Pacific Rim nations, few observers predicted that this region would increasingly become a Christian Arc.

Many African immigrants, meanwhile, come from nations in which Christianity is enjoying an upsurge of passionate enthusiasm scarcely precedented in the whole history of the religion. Independent and prophetic African churches are now firmly rooted in American cities, from which they plan ambitious evangelistic expansion. To take one critical example that has attracted next to no media attention, consider the thriving Nigerian churches based in Houston, many of which stem from the prophetic healing tradition known as Aladura. Conceivably, these African-derived churches could soon represent a significant new phase in the history of American urban revivalism.

Is all this really "diversity"? If we combine the plausible estimates for the numbers of American Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, we are speaking at most of about four or five percent of the total population. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the combined strength of the non-Christian religions will have reached only about seven percent by 2025. This makes the U.S. about as religiously diverse as most West European nations. Adherents of non-Christian religions presently make up ten percent of the population of France, five percent for Germany and the Netherlands, four percent for Great Britain. And America is not nearly as diverse as many lands in the Middle East or Far East, where religious minorities commonly make up 10 or 20 percent of the population, or even more. Why, then, do we so often read about the wonders of American diversity, the spiritual melting pot?

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that Americans have simply grown used to the idea of proclaiming their unparalleled ethnic diversity, a fact that did indeed distinguish their country from other leading Western nations in bygone years. So ingrained is this perception that Americans continued to believe it long after mass immigration had made cities like London and Paris quite as polyglot as New York. They thus need little convincing when observers try to translate claims about ethnicity into religious terms.

But the myth of American religious diversity must also be explained in terms of political rhetoric, since liberals and the liberal media have a potent vested interest in exaggerating the strength and significance of minority faiths. An upsurge of non-Christian believers would be an enormous boon for liberals who wish to deny that America is a Christian nation in which it is proper for government to use Christian symbolism or terminology. This attitude helps explain the rapturous reception accorded Eck's recent book, as reviewers proclaimed the glories of the new "pluralism" that was sweeping away Christian "fundamentalism." The more pluralistic the nation, the less plausible it would be for any single faith tradition to claim hegemony, so that the only sane religious policy would be one of complete official neutrality.

The argument follows quite logically. That is why so many cultural debates in contemporary America are framed in terms of the separation between church and state, as it is manifested in (for instance) school prayers, prayers at graduation, or the display of religious objects or mottoes on public grounds. Underlying these symbolic expressions of faith is the broader question of the relationship between secular and religious authority, or so liberals would have us believe. Once it is granted that schools or courts can display Christian symbols, why should legislation not include explicitly Christian thought or language, and why should the government not fund "faith-based" organizations? After all, every conceivable measure of belief and attendance shows that Americans are an overwhelmingly religious people who are quite comfortable with the language of faith. But, liberals argue, would those Christians who want school prayer or public displays of religion really make the same demands if they were forced to listen to Muslim prayers, to see Asian Buddhist shrines on public grounds? Do Christians want to see tax monies flowing to faith-based charitable organizations if the faiths in question are Muslim or Buddhist? If you allow a pastor to lead graduation prayers now, the next thing you know, he'll be succeeded by an imam. Best, then, to preserve public secularism.

Largely to advance this political agenda, liberals offer unrealistically high projections of Muslim or Buddhist numbers in the United States, and these optimistic figures are echoed by activists from those religions themselves. Islam is a case in point. Over the past decade, we have often heard that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, as well as in the world at large. Actually it is neither, but let us concentrate on American realities. How many American Muslims are there? Just a few years ago, the figure was commonly given as eight million, a number that was often "rounded up" to ten or twelve million. Even more conservative guesses placed the figure at six million, so that already there would be more American Muslims than Jews. This suggests another policy angle in the debate over religious diversity. If Islam is so strong in this country, one might ask, why does the U.S. policy so often favor Israel? The only explanation must lie in sinister Zionist influence in the corridors of power, funded by Jewish money.

In truth, no one until recently had a terribly good idea of the number of Muslims in the U.S., and the guesses that were made had wildly unreliable foundations. Counting Arab immigrants, for instance, contributes little to our knowledge, since so many Arab-Americans are themselves Christians, usually migrants from the ancient communities of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Observing mosque attendance suggests a figure of around two million active Muslims, with two million more nonpracticing believers, perhaps four million in total; but a study recently presented by the American Jewish Committee places the number even lower, at only two or three million in all. Clearly, the AJC might have as much reason to understate the numbers as Muslim organizations do in overstating them, but combining the various figures allows us to move towards some kind of consensus. In sum, we can confidently place the number of American Muslims at around three or four million, a little over one percent of the population, far less than earlier estimates. And while this number should rise somewhat in coming decades, Muslim numbers will continue to be dwarfed by Christian adherents, particularly in the booming new churches rooted in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Perhaps sensing the demographic realities, some liberal commentators have begun grasping at straws, suggesting that the Christian credentials of the new immigrants might be weaker than we imagine. This seems the only explanation for an odd series of articles that appeared in the New York Times this past December and January, under such headlines as "Ranks of Latinos Turning to Islam Are Increasing" (January 2, 2002). Though a quote in the story suggested that the number of Latino defections from Catholicism was running at hundreds of thousands each year, one would have to read carefully to realize that this figure mainly referred to conversions to Protestantism, not Islam. The total number of Latino Muslims is minuscule, perhaps ten or twenty thousand at most.

Quite unconsciously, the United States has long since committed itself to an immigration policy that will inexorably make the country a far more solidly Christian nation than would have been dreamed of in the 1960s. We must be struck by the stark contrast between conditions in the United States and Europe, where old colonial ties have ensured that new migrants have been more heavily drawn from non-Christian faiths, particularly Islam. Many Europeans have become increasingly alarmed at the Muslim presence in their lands. Some conservative Europeans have even argued that governments should deliberately promote Christian immigration, as a means of reducing Islamic influence. In Italy in 2000, Bologna's Giacomo Cardinal Biffi made the controversial suggestion that while immigrants were definitely needed, preference should be given to people of Catholic background, perhaps Latin Americans or Filipinos. Though Biffi's ideas were far removed from any traditional racist rhetoric, they were fiercely denounced aU an atavistic expression of "Islamophobia" (a popular buzzword in Europe right now). Imagine that: a modern Westerner advocating an explicitly Christian immigration policy. What an outrageous suggestion for a modern liberal democracy. What country did the good Cardinal think he was living in? The United States?

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University

Copyright (c) 2002 First Things 125 (August/September 2002): 25-28.

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