Krista's Journal: How Immigration Is Changing the Face of Religion

January 19, 2006

I was born on the night John F. Kennedy was elected president. This places me in history for generations of Americans like few other facts I could name. But I've learned, since I began the extended conversation of Speaking of Faith, to question the ways we have commonly described reality and told history — in particular, the decade of my birth.

There are 1960s milestones we can all readily cite — Kennedy and Johnson, Vietnam, civil rights, tragic assassinations, the Cuban missile crisis. But between and among these political events, religious seeds were being planted that are coming to fruition and shaping the global present. Kennedy's Catholicism and Martin Luther King's theology were as pivotal for our culture as their politics. The vast, unresolved change set in motion in the mid-1960s by the Second Vatican Council — the largest democratic assembly in human history — is a dramatic factor in the "north-south" divide that has followed the Cold War. The Barry Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964 marked the little-noticed entry of evangelical Christians into American electoral and partisan politics.

And for Manuel Vásquez, like many other scholars of religion, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was a watershed in American history that is now quite literally changing the face of this country. That act, overshadowed by the other social dramas of the era, abolished country of origin quotas that favored immigrants from European countries. Into the 1960s, over 80 percent of immigrants to the United States were from Europe. Today, 17 percent come from Europe, 26 percent from Asia, and half from Latin America.

These immigrants are different from the immigrants who came before them in more than ethnic background. In this program, Manuel Vásquez provides fascinating knowledge and perspective on how globalization helped create that difference, intensifying the changes set in motion in the 60s. We all learn in school that America was shaped by immigrants who left their native countries behind, came here, and assimilated within a few generations. Now, modern communication and transportation make it possible for immigrants to maintain rich cross-border ties and essentially live in multiple places. This is a pattern common among the Hispanic immigrants to this country whom Manuel Vásquez studies. He does not see this as a failure of the American experiment — as is sometimes implied in our public debates — but a new chapter in the age-old story of human migration. He calls it "transnationalism."

There was, in the decade of my birth, a confident prediction that religion would retreat to the private sphere and grow altogether less forceful as the world grew more modern. But in the global world Manuel Vásquez describes, religion plays a more central role than before. It helps human beings navigate fluid, multiple identities. Religious beliefs and practices provide resources for both universal belonging and local identity. In turn, immigrant churches and religious practices of all kind, Vásquez believes, are diversifying and revitalizing our public religious square.

Vásquez tells fascinating stories in this program that give a hint of the new American story that is being written in our time: Guatemalans recreating a pan-Mayan culture in a wealthy planned-retirement community in Florida; Pentecostal churches ministering transnationally to El Salvadoran gang members. Pentecostalism, Manuel Vásquez points out, is a quintessential global phenomenon. The charismatic movement began in the United States a century ago on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. It was quickly exported to Latin America and around the world, where it flourished and is now returning embodied in the lives and spiritual sensibilities of immigrants. At the same time, most Latino immigrants are still Roman Catholic, and by some estimates they already comprise half of the worshipping Catholics in this country. They often bring a mix of influences that challenge our cultural dichotomies: orthodox devotion combined with charismatic spirituality, and a passion for social justice combined with conservative moral and family values.

The greatest paradox of religion in the global age, as Manuel Vásquez suggests, is the increasing influence of the local and particular. In the future, he says, we must look to lived religion, the "little religions" — as much as the grand mosques, synagogues, and cathederals — to understand the function of religious faith in our world. For all our talk of pluralism, it seems, we have not begun to grasp the way our culture will be changed by the expanding range of religious and spiritual worldviews we are now importing.

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