Immigration and the Changing Contours of Religious Pluralism in the United States

by Andrea Althoff

In the United States today, Latin Americans, mainly Mexicans, constitute the largest number of immigrants, and this majority puts them at the center of debates regarding integration into U.S. civil society. Parties to these debates often regard immigrants' religions as an impediment to their integration, yet there are very few studies that cover recent immigration from a religious perspective. The role of religion and religious institutions for immigrant integration in the past is, by contrast, well documented. Research on immigration from Europe, for instance, underscores the fact that religious institutions have been among the most important resources for meeting the challenges immigrants face in a demanding and often threatening new environment. It is also manifestly the case that immigrant religions contribute to a pluralism that alters the American religious landscape.

The term "religious pluralism" would seem to suggest that Latin American believers profess a faith other than that of the majority of the population in the United States. But the population coming from Latin America is in fact predominantly Christian, indeed mostly Roman Catholic. The number of Protestants in Latin American societies is also growing. In Guatemala, for instance, about 25 percent of the population is Protestant, primarily Pentecostal. Latin American immigrants' contribution to religious pluralism is therefore less about representing a completely different religion than a matter of inflecting the contours of Christianity in the United States.

Within these changing contours, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the Protestant Pentecostal movement — both frequently described as kinds of fundamentalism — are among the most dynamic forces. Originally introduced to Latin America from the United States by missionaries, they developed into local, independent powers, no longer receiving funding or other support from the United States.

Today the dynamic is different, as the missionary work moves from south to north. While some immigrants bring their faith with them from their home countries, a lively proselytism is taking place in the United States by and among immigrants. Indeed, empirical evidence drawn from my own research in Chicago indicates that the number of immigrants who arrive as Pentecostals and Charismatics is small in comparison to those who convert once in the United States.

This observation leads to questions about the attraction of these movements for Latin Americans, and the possibility that the context of immigration itself contributes to this attraction. Recent studies attest to the significance of these movements. One report shows that "there are now more Latino Protestants in the United States than Jews or Muslims or Episcopalians and Presbyterians combined. In total, there are 12.2 million (37 percent) Latino "born-again" Christians in the United States, of whom 9.2 million are Pentecostal or Charismatic. In short, 28 percent of all Latinos are Pentecostal or Charismatic" (Espinosa, Elizondo, Miranda, "Hispanic Churches in American Public Life," 2003).

Several factors suggest that religion, and especially Pentecostal and Charismatic currents within Christianity, provide Latin Americans with important tools for coping with their situation in an unfamiliar country. The conservative doctrine of Pentecostal movements, with its emphasis on nuclear family values and individual salvation, fits well with the cultural mainstream of American society. Yet the majority of Pentecostal congregations are organized along ethnic boundaries, often comprising exclusively Spanish-speaking Latinos. Though such religio-ethnic enclaves provide safe places for immigrants, consolidating and stabilizing collective and personal identities, at the same time they set those immigrants apart from their host society.

This protective space appears even more important when we take into consideration institutionalized racial discrimination against Latin Americans (especially Mexicans), the precariousness of the civil status of many immigrants, and the current wave of anti-immigration legislation. The religious communities function as valuable facilitators of successful immigration. This line of reasoning is supported by empirical data that show that Latin American Pentecostals are doing better economically than their traditional Catholic counterparts.

As the debates concerning immigration continue, it will be important not only to enter into dialogue with religious groups from different cultures but also to look at the social reality in which these immigrant groups live. Only then can we begin to discern the positive roles that religious groups might play in the process of integration, a dimension often ignored in the current discussion about religion and immigration — particularly amidst fears of fundamentalist forces in our society.

This essay was originally published in the April 6, 2006 issue of Sightings, published by Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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is associate professor of religion at the University of Florida, and author of Globalizing the Sacred: Religion Across the Americas.

is a doctoral researcher at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and coauthor of Globalizing the Sacred: Religion Across the Americas.

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