Spreading the Faith: Immigrant Religion and Ethnic Religion

Spreading the Faith: Immigrant Religion and Ethnic Religion February 24, 2017

I wrote about the relationship between immigration and religious change, and the enormous impact of successive immigrant movements in shaping American religious patterns. Immigrant churches or congregations generally share certain characteristics and habits that provide useful tools for analysis and prediction. But that gets to some thorny issues of definition, and specifically about how we should use the term “immigrant.”

Technically the word has a specific meaning, but we customarily use an expanded sense. Far Right activists in Europe denounce “immigrants,” many of whom were actually born in the country in question. So, runs the standard response, how can an immigrant be born here? Remote control? But anti-immigrant campaigners were speaking not so much of the actual record of movement by a group or person, but rather a set of cultural assumptions and stereotypes belonging to the group in general. And with no intention to offend, that is how people often speak of immigrant religion or immigrant churches.

Technically, all American religions have immigrant roots, except for those of Native Americans. At some point in the story, those “imported” religions come to seen as native, or maybe “ethnic,” but after how long? This is not a simple question.

To take an outrageous extreme, we might look at a Congregationalist church founded in New England in 1680. Surely, if that is still in existence, it has outgrown its immigrant origins?  But look at another example. Baptists arrived in the US in the 1630s, as immigrants.So are Baptists an immigrant church? It depends which ones you are looking at.

Jews offer a similar example. Jewish communities have existed in the land that became the US for three hundred years. But within that Jewish spectrum, there are subgroups who assuredly can be counted as immigrant religious groups, with the features that implies: the Ashkenazic communities in the late nineteenth century, Russian Jews in the 1970s, and Israeli Jews more recently.

In other words, denominations or religions as such may well have both immigrant and non-immigrant elements. A denomination can become native or settled, and then once more become immigrant-oriented as circumstances change. Particularly in the Roman Catholic church, waves of migrants has ensured that this community never entirely loses its immigrant identity.

With all good will, I offer that church an inspiring new motto: Semper Gradiens, Always Traveling.

As to the process of becoming “native,” and its chronology, let us take the example of a hypothetical Korean church founded in the US in the 1970s. The first generation is clearly an immigrant church, with all its members being foreign born. Move the film on forty years or so, and a majority of the church’s members are native born, perhaps second or third generation. So is this now a native church? Well, that’s a complicated question, as it still has lots of the same qualities as a pure immigrant congregation. There are quite a few foreign-born people; most of the community have fairly close ties in the country of origin; and new waves of migrants might well be coming in.

So a particular member of the church might assuredly be native and native born; but it is legitimate to count the larger community and perhaps its denomination, as part of that larger immigrant spectrum.

That is a couple of generations after the church’s foundation on US soil, and continuing immigration can extend the story even longer than that.

In many cases, what allowed US denominations to move from immigrant roots to a sense of full native status was a shrinking or even an ending of new immigration. In this regard, the long pause in US immigration between 1924 and 1965 was decisive in shaping national identity (as well as driving so many other general social and cultural trends).

So when does an immigrant church lose its immigrant identity? Well, he said despairingly, maybe the first thousand years are the toughest.




Browse Our Archives