Transnational Paradigms in the Study of Religion

by Marie Friedmann Marquardt

In the time that I have, I want to try and highlight three inter-related points: First, I want to examine briefly why processes of globalization impact how we do the study of religion in the Americas; Then I want to focus specifically on transnationalism as a facet of globalization, highlighting that religious studies approaches offer correctives to some problems social scientists have theorizing transnationalism; Finally, I want to make a claim about where we should look if we want to observe and make sense of the complexity of religion in the Americas in light of globalization and transnationalism.

I. To begin: one of the most important points that Manuel and I wanted to emphasize as we put together Globalizing the Sacred was that an anchored approach to globalization and religion — one that dwells in particulars — is perhaps the best way to counteract tendencies to see globalization as increasing universalization or generalization, as the erasure of all boundaries and the free roaming of social and cultural forms. In fact, our claim in the book is that, for those of us concerned with the relationship between religion and globalization, the broad range of processes that constitute globalization are best understood as a constant back-and-forth between de- and re- territorialization. Religion, we argue, is a key actor in un-binding cultural, material, and imaginative forms from particular places and then re-locating them, re-territorializing them. The upshot of this is that place matters. In fact, attention to place is increasingly important, I think, for both researchers and for people living their daily lives in a global field, but place does not equal locality. As a researcher, if you hang out in a locality long enough, and if you attend carefully to what's happening in that locality you'll begin to see how place is re-constituted and to recognize that you may have to travel to other localities to understand what's happening in that place. So, global ethnography becomes a process of dwelling and traveling.

Let me be more specific: A few years back, I was asked to be a researcher for a very interesting Lilly-funded project called "Responding to Community Crisis." The project was designed to capture some of the most important demographic trends in U.S. urban areas, particularly in the south: the growth of white exurbs, suburban migration of the black middle class, and the explosion of the Latino immigrant population. My job was to spend about a year in two Latino immigrant congregations in Atlanta, while other researchers were placed in the black middle-class and exurban congregations. As the research proceeded, and we researchers began to talk to each other about what we were finding, I began to run across some problems: For instance, the interview schedule was structured to discuss first the local area (or community) in which the church was located and changes that had happened in the area and then to move to one of the most important of our questions: "Tell me about how the congregation responded to important events or crises in the community." In the white exurban church, the researcher got relatively straightforward answers to the this question: how the church mobilized on local zoning issues, how members of the church helped families in the neighborhood facing tragic events, how they organized an after-school program for local youth to keep them out of trouble. Now, Here's an answer typical of the ones I received, "The church has responded marvelously, really marvelously. Because, I don't know, the people who come to church here participate when there is a crisis in Latin America." When I asked the question: How does your church respond to crises in the community? I got answers about earthquakes in El Salvador or mudslides in Venezuela. So, what constitutes community? Or, in other words, what constitutes relevant field for moral and spiritual action? In these churches, the boundaries of relevance had been reconfigured, and the boundaries of the local bore little relevance. It was not that boundaries had been erased and place lost all meaning; members of these churches were not becoming radically universalist members of some global civil society that erases all borders. (So, when an earthquake happened in India, for example, the victims were briefly mentioned in the prayers of the people, but when an earthquake happened in El Salvador, members of the congregation immediately mobilized a massive relief effort.) Rather, the specific transnational networks that intersected in this place (the congregation), had the effect of re-configuring the boundaries of the meaningful while also allowing a series of overlapping, cross-fertilizing, and sometimes conflicting religious practices to coexist in this particular place. To understand this, I the researcher had not only to dwell in this particular location, but also travel along some of the networks and pathways that intersected here.

Manuel and I highlight in our case studies a few ways that global processes of de-and re-territorialization reconfigure the boundaries of the congregation, but certainly don't dissolve them. These include the use of CMC's — computer mediated communications — or the internet; the engagement of local religious bodies with transnational religious broadcasting, such as CBN's Project Light; and the incorporation of globally-disseminated strategies of religious institutions, such as the Vatican's New Evangelization. Throughout the book, we want to highlight how global religion is emplaced in specific ways, and that examining this specificity is the best jumping-off point for understanding the relationship between religion and globalization.

One of the most significant and prevalent ways that global processes of de- and re-territorialization happen in the contemporary Americas is through transnational migration. Probably the most basic and often quoted definition of trasnationalism is that developed by Linda Basch and her colleagues in the groundbreaking work Nations Unbound (1994): They describe transnationalism as "the process by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement." In this and subsequent work, scholars of transnationalism in the social sciences have made clear that as immigrants establish these relations across national boundaries, they also remain or become incorporated into sending and receiving societies. So, transnational migration impacts not only the lives of the migrants themselves — of the people on the move, but also the lives of those who stay put in places of origin and settlement. This is a crucially important point because it means that those who study lived religion in the Americas need to pay attention to transnationalism, even if the people among whom they research are staying put — are not, themselves, migrants.

These days, when I think about trasnationalism, an particular image always comes to mind. It's an image of a house — a place to dwell — in a small town called San Juan Daxthi, in the state of Mexico. Daxthi, which we discuss briefly in the chapter on Latino Churches in the New South is one of those Mexican towns in which, thirty years ago, not a single resident had been to the United States, but now, virtually every male resident (except for the very poorest) has lived or is living in Atlanta and, increasingly, their families have joined them. Of course, a broad range of global economic, social, and political processes created the conditions in which this profound shift could occur, but the specific social, economic, and imaginative pathways that created it were forged largely by the owner of this house, Don Felipe. Don Felipe and his brother were the first to migrate from Daxthi to the U.S. and they chose Atlanta because a friend from a neighboring town said there was lots of work available there. When they arrived in Atlanta in 1978, there were too few Latinos to count on the census, but by 2002, Atlanta had the fastest growing Latino population of any U.S. city. Don Felipe worked for decades as a stonemason, building the façade of what most of us would quickly identify as McMansions in the affluent northern suburbs of Atlanta, where gated communities seem to crop up overnight. To fill the steady demand for labor, he brought dozens of young men from Daxthi to work for him in Atlanta over the years. Don Felipe traveled at least 3 or 4 times a year to Daxthi and, when it was time for him to retire, he decided to build a new home on a big piece of land adjacent to his childhood home. How did he decide what kind of home to build? He started flipping through magazines with pictures of the kinds of homes he had been working for years to build for Atlanta's wealthy suburbanites. Now, in Daxthi, Don Felipe has his very own McMansion, which is radically incongruous on the landscapes of the small town, but it would fit right into one of suburban Atlanta's wealthy gated communities.

While on the subject of radically incongruous landscapes, I should also note that while in metro-Atlanta, Don Felipe and his relatives spend their time in the town of Doraville, A town that we discuss in the book. It went, over the course of twenty years, from having less than 2% to 45% Latino population. There's a somewhat well-known song about Doraville (at least among aficionados of southern rock). It goes like this: Doraville, touch of country in the city, Doraville, it ain't much but it's home. Friends of mine, say I oughta move to New York. Well, New york's fine, but it ain't Doraville. Hot time in Dixie!" Doraville definitely ain't new york, and as Latinos fill the city's churches and schools, strange things are happening. For example, I know several Mexican children, themselves undocumented immigrants, who have won the end-of-school-year "citizenship" award at the local elementary school. The irony seems to have been lost on school administrators. Of course, the fact that these children aren't citizens matters, profoundly, in their everyday lives and the lives of their parents. While the border between citizens and undocumented immigrants is brushed aside at the end-of-year award ceremony, it won't be brushed aside when these kids try to get into local colleges and universities. So, my point is, both host and home society are shaped by transnationalism — it matters for people who travel and also for people who stay put. New juxtapositions emerge, and they are often power-laden.

To my mind, Don Felipe's huge home, built to resemble the homes of wealthy suburban Americans, but also built with local stones (making it something of a hybrid), stands as tangible, material evidence of the complex processes re-shaping Daxthi and Doraville. (1) It is MATERIAL, something that can be touched and seen, something that has altered physical landscapes. (2) It is also, though, a result of changing IMAGINATIVE landscapes — Don Felipe's aspirations, goals, and taste were profoundly re-shaped by his interaction with the "host" society in suburban Atlanta. (3) And, its existence relies on a series of dense SOCIAL and economic networks, which allowed Don Felipe to build a successful business in the U.S. and to supervise construction on a home in Daxthi while living and working in Atlanta. One of the things I like about this image is that it reminds us that Transnationalism includes but is not limited to social networks. Most theoretical approaches to transnationalism, developed by social scientists, do an excellent job explaining trasnationalism as a social formation spanning borders, but don't attend carefully enough to how physical landscapes and material culture and also to how imagination and consciousness are reconfigured within transnational fields.

Jeanette and Nelson asked us to consider how transnationalism challenges the study of religion, but we could also ask how religious studies challenge our approach to trasnationalism. I believe that religious studies offer excellent resources for understanding trasnationalism in ways that move beyond seeing it as a social morphology, as constituted exclusively through networks of social, political, and economic relationships. First, some of the most fertile examinations of religion across borders (I'm thinking here of Thomas Tweed, Elizabeth McAlister, Karen McCarthy Brown, and Robert Orsi) draw upon the tradition in religious studies (running through Eliade and J.Z. Smith) of attending to religion as place-making, carving out space, addressing what Karen McCarthy Brown calls the "cosmologistical problem" — how to practice a religion that is tied to place when you're no longer in that place. When physical landscapes are altered, so, too, are imaginative landscapes — our consciousness about the place where we dwell and our conscience about how best to dwell in that place. This brings me to the second point about how religious studies can contribute to the study of transnationalism. Again, we in religious studies have a long and fertile history of theorizing individual and collective identity, consciousness and imagination, and the relationship between religion and ethics. In my opinion (and I'll speak only for myself here and not my illustrious co-author), the Durkheimian tradition in the study of religion still has a lot to offer in this respect, and the work of folks like Clifford Geertz still bears explanatory power. (As Sherry Ortner points out, Geertz' epistemological and methodological insight about how meaning is made and how it can be apprehended by researchers continues to be very valuable. Geertz guides us to publically available symbols and practices as sites in which we can explore how meaning is encoded.) While Geertz' claims about the relationship between ethos and worldview, and how we as researchers can go about understanding these, still makes good sense if we acknowledge that, of course, Geertz' ontological claim that culture is a closed system of meaning, in which religion constitutes localized and tightly integrated cultures, can't make sense of contemporary religion in the Americas.

This brings me to my final point, and to comment on another question offered by Jeanette and Nelson. What resources can scholars of religion in the Americas draw upon or, in other words, where can we go if we want to grasp how fundamental processes of lived religion in the Americas happen now — when particular places no longer equate to locality, and when localities become sites of incongruous juxtapositions, mixing and blending (i.e. hybridization), and radical exclusionary practices. We can go to the historical testing ground par excellence — the U.S. Mexico borderlands. Manuel and I made a bold claim in the book, the kind of claim that one sometimes ends up regretting: "More than anything, the ambiguities within and between the notions of border and borderlands define religion's involvement in globalization. These ambiguities capture better than even the most sophisticated modernist approaches the complex and often contradictory roles religion plays in the Americas today." It was no accident that the first case study in our book was an exploration of the history and current configuration of a Catholic Shrine in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

The shrine's history is deeply rooted in the history of religious globalization and also the transnational migration of a devotional object, a replica of the virgin of San Juan de los Lagos. Currently, this is a place where — under the constant gaze of the Virgin of San Juan — a Mexican Mariachi band performs Hebrew praise and worship songs, where one priest told me that he watches EWTN (a Catholic TV station) for the documentaries, but he watches TBN (an evangelical station) to learn how to preach. Pastoral workers here claim that one of their primary goals is to "purify" "superstitious" practices of Popular Mexican-American religiosity (for example, they don't want people to bring their own candles to the shrine because they fear that the candles were provided by curanderas), but they promote orthodoxy through what we might call hetero-practice: a seamless blending of Pentecostal and traditional Catholic worship styles that aims to bring converts back from Evangelicalism. They must be doing something right from the perspective of the Catholic institution, because in the late 1990s, the shrine was named a National Shrine by the US conference of Catholic Bishops and a minor basilica by the Vatican.

We claim that at this Shrine, in one of the poorest counties in the U.S. and the "center of the periphery" (Saldivar, 1997), we can glimpse the present and future of religion in the Americas (in other words, the Catholic bishops and the pope were on to something). Of course, the Shrine of San Juan del Valle is a unique (and honestly quite strange) place, but the kinds of processes happening there — processes of border making (such as the attempt to distinguish superstition from orthodox Catholicism), border crossing (such as Catholic clergy watching TBN to learn how to preach), and border blurring (such as having Mexican Mariachi sing Hebrew praise and worship songs) — These are the kinds of processes to which we should attend as we explore the complexity of lived religion in the Americas.

Globalization is, when it comes down to it, the proliferation of border zones, and transnationalism is one of the primary sources of this proliferation. So let me close with this, I believe that if we want to understand religious globalization and transnationalism, we should seek out the border zones in every site where we research lived religion in the Americas and we should re-calibrate our research, making those border zones not peripheral, but the very center of our investigation. This is precisely what Manuel and I aimed to do in Globalizing the Sacred.

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