Ideals and Realities of Religious Tolerance

The recent event involving the killing of Sikh Americans in their house of worship (gurdwara) struck a deep chord for many. Shortly after, some news outlets reported on the burning of a mosque in Joplin, MO. And about a week later the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) released this brief detailing that these events were only 2 of 9 between the beginning of August and the 15th. I include a snapshot of these events for readers who don’t have time to read the full brief (it’s only 2 pages if you click on these links).

APALC news brief screenshot. http://www.apalc.org/

What has happened to our ideals of religious freedom and assembly?

As a second generation Korean American Christian, understanding American ideals was (and remains) an important part of my identity and continues to inform much of my research interests and teaching. One of these ideals is the freedom of religious assembly. It was clear that religious freedom and tolerance were a high priority for many who helped construct the legal and political foundations of this country. While scholars argue over whether this foundation imagined only Christian pluralism or all manner of religious pluralism, it is clear at the grassroots level for many immigrants today that they believe it means the latter.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a Sikh temple for the first time. I was with the Asian Pacific American Religious Research Initiative’s annual conference which included a visit to a Sikh temple in the Chicago area where the meeting was held. It was an amazing experience to be sure. Friendly leaders of the community helped us understand some of the basic beliefs and practices of the faith and the expectations of how to conduct oneself in the building as well as the communal religious service (this is the closest Christian equivalent term for the experience of being in the sacred space of the gurdwara). I noticed that the social experience of Skihism in America is not unlike the experience of many American Protestants, and in some instances I noticed even more similarities with Asian American immigrant Protestantism.

Some of the similarities included having communal religious practice such as music, ritual practice-all analogous (from my vantage point) to Protestant and Catholic worship. Moreover, the gurdwara was clearly a place for the communication of social services as well as community activities much like one would see outside the sanctuary of a typical Christian place of worship. Local events for the Sikh community, access to healthcare and legal services-none of this surprised me as someone who grew up seeing the same social practices at work in immigrant Korean American Protestant churches. For these newer Americans adapting to a new society, the comfort of co-ethnics is invaluable in gaining access to the basic institutions we all rely on. Since churches are regular meeting spaces, this is a primary location for informing community members how to gain help where needed. Many minority religious groups including Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists all adapt to this pattern even if their religion did not traditionally include regular communal activity. This is sometimes described as religious adaptation or de facto congregationalism (sociologists are wordsmiths).

Where the Sikh religious community differed was in the content of their religious practices. This appeared not only in worship differences, but also in the ceremonial garb (bana), and the headpiece or turban worn by the men.

That was essentially it. In basic sociological functions, the Sikh American religious community is similar to mainstream Christianity (and since much of the religious practice is not in English, it is more analogous to immigrant Christian community). They are set apart by the content of practices, language and appearance from the rest of American society which today remains largely Christian. Our Sikh teachers often tried to draw analogies between their faith and practice to make it relatable to our largely Christian sensibilities-this struck me as a powerful example of extending a community’s culture with outsiders in an instructive and non-threatening manner. There was no mention of the superiority of their faith and the inferiority of others. If anything, the Sikh Americans I met want nothing more than to participate in the American experience while retaining their faith tradition as best they can with their available resources.

The violence that occurred in recent weeks shatters the trust bond between local communities of faith and the larger nation-state that supposedly protects the right to assemble and worship freely without fear of persecution. Moreover the violence was not only directed against the Sikh community out of xenophobia but also out of anti-Muslim sentiment, thus revealing more of our collective ignorance and tendency toward stereotyping. As the news brief shows, most of the violence was anti-Muslim. Some of this I discussed previously.

It occurred to me that it makes sense that organizations that advocate for Asian American issues would be most aware of these events. For one, Sikhism originates in south Asia, and the overwhelming majority of Sikhs in America are therefore Asian American. Scholars like those in APARRI have unique access to this faith community as we are all keenly aware of our shared racial status in American society. Similarly, it makes sense that APALC posted these recent anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim events as they help raise awareness of all injustices against Asian Americans regardless of faith. But what is troubling is that more Americans, particularly those who convey news media, do not pick up on these events and raise awareness.

If non-Asian Americans have difficulty relating to these faith communities, consider this from a religious lens. Historical evidence of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism abound, and in the case of the latter we see continued annual reports by the FBI numbering in triple digits. Mormon history for that matter has similarly witnessed collective antipathy. What does our history tell us about the mismatch between our ideals and our behavior? What message does this convey to those who adhere to faiths that are not in the Christian mainstream?

As a speculative illustration, I think of Governor Nikki Haley. Her biography says that she was raised in a Sikh household, I think in South Carolina. I wonder what her experience and that of her family has been like as Sikhs in the Christian South? Did she witness xenophobia, and how did she respond to it? Is her conversion to Christianity in some way tied to her experiences growing up (as opposed to a complete abstract comparative analysis of these two faiths)?

What are the roots of these acts of intolerance? What should minority faith communities do in view of these actions? What ideals does this nation-state want to convey to the world?

Non-Christian Asian Americans and Religious Tolerance

In earlier posts I’ve shown how difficult it is to get a good survey of religion among Asian Americans, and I’ve shown what we sort of know about the actual religious prevalence of this racial group. The one group I have neglected to mention are the religiously-affiliated non-Christians. In the following pie charts I illustrate data using the Pew Religious Landscape Survey 2008 of the estimated distribution of major world religions for the entire sample and within the Asian American sample. As you recall this was only translated into Spanish so, the Asian American findings pertain to those who are comfortable answering a survey over the phone in English. [Read more...]


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