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Immigration and the American Church: A Remix

Immigration and the American Church: A Remix January 6, 2022

Today we’re honored to welcome to the Bench Jehu J. Hanciles, D.W. & Ruth Brooks Professor of World Christianity and director of the World Christianity program at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Jehu’s most recent book, Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Eerdmans, 2021), was recently named Book of the Year in the Missions & Global Church category by Christianity Today. Today he shares a guest post about the impact of immigration on religious change in the United States.


Since the turn of the century, survey data that portray a steady decline in the number of American Christians have become commonplace. The most recent Pew data (December 2021) shows that Americans who identify as Christians now account for 63% of the population—down from 75% a decade ago. Importantly, long term decline is more pronounced among Protestants (both evangelical and non-evangelical) than Catholics; and the pace is accelerating. Some detect a “seismic shift” within the U.S. population from religious affiliation to general disaffiliation. According to the 2020 Gallup poll, only 48% of Americans stated that religion is very important to them, and attendance at religious services (church, mosque, or synagogue) fell to 30% (a record low). Meanwhile, one in five Americans claimed no religious identity (triple the proportion a decade earlier).

Measuring religiosity is tricky business. Findings can vary significantly depending on the category—religious practice, affiliation, or belief—and dependence on survey (or self-reported) data belies exactitude. Also, what counts as “regular attendance” has changed over time. So far, the impact of the corona virus pandemic on religious life appears mixed. Attendance at religious services declined (as remote participation largely replaced in-person worship); but virtual services also attracted new or younger worshippers, not to mention the added gains of innovation. A 2020 Pew survey found that some 28 percent of Americans reported a stronger faith because of the pandemic, but the Gallup poll (also 2020) concluded that pandemic had little discernible impact on religious affiliation or the proportion of American adults who rated religion as important in their lives.

So, there are perplexities. Even so, based on published findings for the past two or three decades, the overall trajectory of American Christianity appears to be steady decline.

There is no shortage of explanations for this trend. Church membership remained fairly constant until the late 1990s, so assessments highlight recent developments and social trends. These are manifold: including explosive scandals around sexual abuse in churches; debilitating divisions and conflicts around issues of homosexuality and gender identity; widespread distrust of institutions among younger Americans; a hyper-individualistic culture that prizes selective sampling and personal choice over subscription to “traditional” norms and narratives; an age of social media that engenders forms of community formation, unhindered by distance or hierarchy; perception of the church as out of touch in a society wrestling with issues of racial injustice, gender inequality, climate change, etc.; and rising Christian nationalism which conflates Christian identity with whiteness and particular political ideologies.

All these have merit. But evaluations of American Christianity typically omit a profoundly important element: namely, the impact of largescale immigration. An omission that increases the likelihood of flawed assessments.

Hanciles, Migration and the Making of Global ChristianityThe current wave of immigration to the U.S. dates to the 1965 Immigration & Nationality Act. America is now home to over 45 million immigrants (roughly 14% of the American population)—at least 80 percent of whom are in the country legally. To put this in historical perspective, the last major immigrant influx from the late 19th to early 20th centuries brought some 33 million (predominantly European) immigrants to the U.S. The present wave is not only higher in absolute numbers it is also by far the most culturally diverse, and predominantly non-European. It has already contributed to significant demographic shifts in American society; notably a sharp rise in multiracial identities.

The religious implications of these trends are perhaps less observable but no less significant. History is a helpful guide. From the founding of this nation, its religious landscape has been recurrently and indelibly transformed by major immigrant waves. The millions of immigrants from Eastern and Northern Europe who came to this country from the 1870s to the 1920s were predominately Roman Catholic. Those immigrants and their descendants fundamentally reshaped America’s religious (and decidedly Protestant) character. So much so that, by the mid-20th century, one in four Americans identified as Catholic, making the Roman Catholic Church the largest single religious group in the country. With this in mind, the relevant question is not whether the present wave of immigrants will impact America’s religious landscape but to what extent. Immigrants and their U.S.-born children are projected to account for 88% of the U.S population growth (adding some 103 million) over the next half century. They are already contributing to unprecedented levels of religious plurality within American society; and there is an argument to be made that they will profoundly reshape American Christianity.

In addition to being incredibly diverse (majorities are Latino/a and Asian), post-1965 immigration is also predominantly Christian—judging by countries of origin and self-identification. Among little known facts, the majority of Arab Americans are Christians and more Christian refugees than Muslim ones have been admitted. By one estimate, some 12.7 million Christians became permanent residents from 1992 to 2012 (about 65 percent of the total on average). The proportion of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. who are Christians is even higher—over 80% in 2011, or a total of 9.2 million. By 2021 America had likely received well over 22 million Christians, more than any other Western nation. By comparison, the immigrant contribution to other religions or the religious unaffiliated has been notable but quite modest. Overall, even the most conservative extrapolation suggests that, in the last half a century, more than 30 million Christians have been added to the American population by immigration alone.

What this means for the American church is a fascinating question. The sizable and growing Christian immigrant population in America potentially muddies claims of declining Christian membership. At least two general observations can be made. First, immigrant influx almost certainly compensates for the erosion in Christian affiliation or, perhaps more accurately, has slowed the pace of decline. Levels of church attendance and religious commitment are generally higher among immigrants than the general population. Hispanic immigration, for instance, has had a profound impact on American Catholicism—despite some post-immigration defections to evangelical Protestantism. The fact that a third of all American Catholics are now Latino/a tells its own story. African immigrants remain well below the radar for researchers. But, in addition to joining American churches and denominations in significant numbers they have also established new congregations (some French-speaking) at a rapid rate. Between 2005 and 2019, to cite one example, the number of assemblies (individual congregations) established in the U.S. by the Ghana-based Church of Pentecost more than tripled, rising from 70 to 252.

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Second, post-1965 immigration complicates the study of American Christianity more broadly. To the extent that the decline in Christian affiliation is highest among white Christians and denominations, the American church is decreasingly white. Christian immigrants have intensified this “browning” process. A small share of new immigrants claim to be “religiously unaffiliated”. Patterns of religious affiliation and commitment also vary between some  immigrant groups and their American-born (or America-raised) descendants. But the high levels of religiosity and transnational identities of immigrants troubles understanding of what counts as affiliation or belonging. Black Americans are more religious than Americans overall; yet, African immigrants in the U.S. are reported to be even more religious than black Americans! This renders notions of what it means to be “black and Christian,” or what constitutes the “black Church,” much more complicated. Christian immigrants also encompass a multiplicity of worship traditions, spiritualities, and religious networks that have significantly widened how Americans “do church” and in what language. Those who scoff that immigrant congregations mainly attract immigrants miss the crucial point that they are often sites of religious outreach and act as a training ground for the next generation of American Christians. All this also means that the sizable impact of American Christians on the global church cannot be fully analyzed without understanding how the global church has consistently shaped American Christianity.

In the final analysis, no major immigrant wave has left America or the American Church untransformed. The present wave will be no different. In America, immigration and church are inseparably conjoined.

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