Religious Issues in American Immigration

[1] All Americans are immigrants. Some of us got here sooner than others some of us remember our immigrant roots more clearly than others but at one point in our personal past, a number of our ancestors decided to strike out for a new land and a new life. Their decisions continue to affect us personally, and our nation as a whole, in ways that we don’t realize. When it comes to the religious aspects of immigration, this is even more apparent, because America was and is a new and strange religious world, and nothing in their past could have really prepared those ancestral immigrants for religion in the American context. There certainly are many elements of our own past immigrant religious experiences that speak directly to the current debate on immigration, and on its effects on our churches.

[2] To an immigrant (almost any immigrant across time) America is, religiously, a strange and disorienting new world. Religion here in the United States is different from almost any other country on the planet; the multiplicity and intensity of our religious options is overwhelming, and our system of voluntarily supported religious groups is a difficult concept to grasp. Many immigrants come from countries where a relatively homogeneous religious culture is supported by the state or society (or both), and in which one’s civic identity is equated with one’s religious identity. Others, coming from secular or atheistic countries, have a hard time understanding the sheer vitality and multiplicity of American religious life, and its impact on our political, social, and cultural life.

[3] For immigrants coming America with a prescribed religious identity, this new country provides multiple challenges revolving about a central issue– how to “translate” their religious heritage into an “American” idiom. No longer will religion be a constant, nor will it be provided to them by society at large; rather, if they wish to have religion their way, they will have to take the initiative to organize and fund their own groups. But funding, though a real problem for most immigrants, is hardly the most difficult issue. Questions of structure, power, and theological vocabulary have been, historically, some of the most difficult to resolve. For American Lutherans, the freedom of leaving the European state church system magnified the fault lines within Lutheranism, and caused tensions and divisions that are still unsolved in our own denominations today.

[4] American religious freedom is a heady experience for many immigrants. Though some immigrants come to the United States for freedom of religion, most immigrants have come for economic advancement or personal freedoms. Many immigrants, it seems, come rather for freedom FROM religion, the freedom to leave an externally provided religious identity, and to explore a new religion, or no religion at all, if they wish. One of the common mistakes in thinking about religion and immigration to assume that simply because an immigrant comes from a particular religious background that s/he will continue on in that religion. Far fewer than half of 19th century Lutherans coming from European state-church Lutheranism ever joined a Lutheran congregation in the United States. And no wonder! The whole idea of having to join a congregation, to directly support it financially, and to choose among the bewildering choices even within American Lutheranism often proved overwhelming. And there were so many other religious choices out there that promised greater interest, involvement, and entry into America public life. America is a religious supermarket, and immigrants often have great fun shopping in her aisles.

[5] There are many other religious issues that new immigrants must decide as they take their places within American society. They must decide how to relate to the religions already established in the United States, and to deal with nativist hostility (or self-interested hospitality!). There are questions involving the relation of culture and ethnicity to religion; if ethnicity and religion are so commonly intertwined, what happens within an immigrant community if a sizeable number of immigrant adopts a new and different religion? Language, as the means of expression of a religious culture, is always a problem. The transition to the use of English is filled with difficulties and emotional debates, not to mention the tumultuous generational battles that have been so much a part of the history of American Lutheranism. All of these, and many other issues must be navigated by immigrant religious leaders, and often with great difficulty.

[6] When it comes to understanding recent immigrants, the Lutheran history may be of some use to us, but it would be wrong to suggest that the 19th and early 20th century Lutheran experience can be easily equated with that of the more recent immigrants. All immigrants share in a host of common issues and situations common, but the recent context of the newest immigrants is different from that faced by European Lutheran situation in important respects. Sometimes established Lutherans (and others) will say something like, “Our ancestors came to America and they did this or that,” assuming that the new immigrants should follow the same path. But context, here, is very important, as there have been many changes, both in the nature of the immigration itself, and in the society into which the immigrants are coming. Since the liberalization of immigration quotas in 1965, the new immigrant is much more likely to come from countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, rather than from Europe. There has been a recognition that an increasing diversity of peoples, religions, and racial groups is at least a reality in the contemporary United States, and many see this diversity as a positive good. It is no longer as assumed that assimilation will “process” the immigrants and their offspring, and make them into “cookie cutter” Americans, even if we could agree on the shape of the mold itself. And immigration has brought out both legitimate questions about the nature of American society, as well as many irrational fears about the immigrants themselves, and the effect immigration has on our society.

[7] It is informative for Lutherans to remember how their immigrant ancestors were seen by others as they entered into the United States. While Lutherans had the advantage of being racially Northern Europeans and fellow Protestants to a largely Protestant America, they still were often seen as strange outsiders to the established Americans. Assumptions about racial qualities or jokes about national characters were common, as were suspicions about their “foreignness,” especially during periods of xenophobia such as the First World War. Lutherans were also seen as “fair targets” for Protestant denominations who, fearing an increasing a wave of Roman Catholic immigration, sought to expand their numbers by seeking new members from within the immigrant Lutheran population.

[8] In the current debate over immigration, many of the same issues are at work, and many of the old (and often inaccurate) assumptions are still alive. While it is easy to assume that new immigrant populations are monolithic and static, they certainly are not. For example, it is often simply assumed that because their countries of origin are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, Latin Americans will be and continue to be Catholics. In fact 25% of this group in the United States have become Protestant. Since mainland Chinese come from an atheistic country often hostile to organized religion, it would be easy to miss the great inroads made into this immigrant group by Chinese-American churches, which have become thriving cultural centers for their immigrant communities. We may instantly associate “Arab” with “Muslim,” but in fact a majority of Arab-Americans profess one or another form of Christianity. Much of contemporary immigration comes from Latin America and Asia, and the religious composition of that immigration is still 65% Christian, with fewer that 20 % of these immigrants professing a religion that is non-Christian. For all the new mosques and temples that are being built, even in heartland America, the greatest proportion of recent immigration consists of those who are either coming to America as Christians, or who are becoming Christian when they arrive. With the religious vitality these new immigrants bring, it could be safely argued that the post-1965 immigration has made the United States more Christian, rather than less Christian. Given the decline of settled Christianity in America during the last half-century, the role of immigrants is even more important.

[9] From the vantage point of those of us who have been living in the United States for generations, and this would include most Lutherans, the post-1965 immigration boom provides us with challenges and opportunities. To understand the immigrants, it is important to remember our own immigrant past, but we must also remember that our experience is not always an infallible guide. Times and situations change, and we cannot continue to make broad and outdated assumptions about a social movement of peoples that has significant importance to the future of our nation.

Mark Granquist

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary.