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

July 26, 2007

Several readers took exception last week to my assertion that "we" all threw litter out of our cars in recent history, a bad habit which Lady Bird Johnson helped us kick. As I am not proud to repeat, I really did. I grew up in Oklahoma, and there as in Johnson's native Texas, an anti-littering campaign did go hand in hand with beautification. As we approached this week's program, I had a parallel challenge to get my "we" right. I become ever more aware that even programs we produce with U.S. themes have a global reach and impact. One of the most moving e-mails we received about last week's show with Barbara Kingsolver on "local eating" came from a listener in South Africa. And this week's guest, Manuel Vásquez, sharpens my sense of how my language and perspective on every issue must adapt for the global, multicultural context in which all words and ideas resonate now. Some 15 percent of the U.S. population is now of Hispanic descent, and that is expected to approach a quarter of the population by mid-century. Manuel Vásquez provides me with new context to understand this development and how it inevitably yields to a new "us" — even spiritually. First of all, he puts some of the "new" dynamics of immigration into historical perspective. There are 1960s milestones we can all readily cite — Kennedy and Johnson, Vietnam, civil rights, tragic assassinations, the Cuban missile crisis. Manuel Vásquez, like many other scholars of religion, puts the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act near the top of his list of watershed moments of this era. It may have been overshadowed by the other social dramas, but it is now coming to fruition and literally changing the face of this country. The 1965 act abolished country of origin quotas that favored immigrants from European countries. So, 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 fully half from Latin America. Secondly, Vásquez helps me understand how and why globalization is making "immigrant" itself an outdated and inadequate word, especially when it comes to the flow of people migrating south to north across the Americas and back again. We all learned in school — there's that "we" again — 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 people 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 rather as a new chapter in the age-old story of human migration. He calls it "transnationalism." Finally, Manuel Vásquez fuels my imagination about the religious and spiritual impact of immigration and transnationalism — an aspect rarely mentioned in the immigration debates' focus on politics and economics. 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. When Pope Benedict XVI went to Brazil recently, he was responding to what Manuel Vásquez calls a "a quintessential hemispheric phenomenon" — the rise of Pentecostal Christianity, which is overtaking the historic Catholic majority in numerous Latin American countries. Yet most Latino immigrants are still Roman Catholic, and already comprise one-third of the worshipping Catholics in the U.S. by some estimates. They are making a correspondingly dramatic and distinctive mark on worship styles and theology in parishes in the U.S. Manuel Vásquez reminds me anew of a great paradox of the global age. What is local and particular becomes more meaningful and powerful, not less so, and this may be especially true when it comes to religion. Religion, as he puts it memorably, "is one of the best vehicles to deal with both the local and personal and also the global and the universal. Religions have been doing this for centuries. They have universal messages of salvation and very personal strategies for coping with chaos." In the future, he says, we must look to lived religion, the "little religions" — as much as the grand mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals — to understand the function of religious faiths in our world and the way "they" are infusing and forming and revitalizing a new "us."

Recommended Reading

Image of Globalizing the Sacred: Religion Across the Americas
Author: Manuel A. Vasquez, Marie F. Marquardt
Publisher: Rutgers University Press (2003)
Binding: Paperback, 272 pages

Manuel Vásquez' book Globalizing the Sacred, written together with Marie Friedmann Marquardt, is an academic work primarily directed at scholars. A more accessible, and still scholarly, work on the worldwide phenomenon of globalization and religion is Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World by Peter Berger and Samuel Huntington. In the 1960s, Berger was one of the leading intellectuals who predicted that religion would retreat to the private sphere as the world grew more modern. As he told me when I interviewed him in 2004, this was the greatest miscalculation of modern sociology.

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