Immigration Changes Face of U.S. Religion

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 14, 2000 | Go to article overview

Immigration Changes Face of U.S. Religion

Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Rockville United Church is caught up in the religious saga of American immigration.

Newcomers from Taiwan have joined the Montgomery County church over the past two years; they sing in the choir and meet for Chinese "Morning Star Fellowship." They want to enter the American mainstream. And they have changed the church in the process.

"We're doing more Bible study as a result of their coming," the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman says. The more evangelical among the Taiwanese are converting Buddhist friends to Christianity.

"We've done more baptisms," Mr. Kaseman says. "During vacation Bible school, we're in the minority."

Each era of immigration has changed the religious landscape of the United States. While many celebrate the new wave of spiritual and ethnic diversity, others wonder whether it might drastically transform America's religious identity, value system or political life.

Religious immigration is a third force explored in this series, which also has looked at American religion through the portals of spiritual seeking and the black church. Immigration, of course, has affected both of these; immigration brought the nation much of its religious pluralism and also its newest minorities.

"When you ponder that there are more Muslims in the United States than Presbyterians, it alters our cultural sense," says religion scholar Richard E. Wentz, author of "The Culture of Religious Pluralism."

"When I go to Thailand, I expect to see and respect the history of Buddhism there," he says. In the United States, however, "It is becoming more difficult to acknowledge that our culture was shaped by Christianity."

This year, for example, the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches for the first time lists eight non-Christian religions. An essay in the volume proclaims, "America has truly become a multireligious nation."

Christians, to be sure, vastly outnumber all others combined, and in that sense America remains "a Christian nation."


The new diversity is experienced on many fronts.

Today, churches and synagogues are likely to meet Buddhists or Muslims as they help resettle refugees. Indians, who are mostly Hindu, are immigrating at record numbers to fill job slots in high-tech industries. The large Hispanic influx, moreover, is changing Roman Catholic parish life - and perhaps U.S. religion as a whole.

New kinds of religious architecture rise on neighborhood skylines. Schools and governments consider adjusting to new religious holidays, expressions and dress. As the Dalai Lama's book on Tibetan Buddhism hits the New York Times' best-seller list, half of the nation's "born again" Christians, often not theologically literate, say that every religion is "equally true."

For John O'Conor, a member of the Arlington Unitarian Universalist Church, religious diversity is something to celebrate. He has taught a course on world religions at his church, and sought such diversity "within easy drive of the Beltway."

He found 41 Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh places of worship and has illustrated them as field trips in his new book, "Stopping By." "A lot of these centers are very ethnic," Mr. O'Conor says. "They are trying to reach out beyond their enclave."

The celebration of religious diversity in America often can hide its lopsided nature. For every Muslim, for example, there are nearly 40 to 60 Christians; for every Buddhist, twice that number; and for every Hindu about 232 Americans who claim affiliation to Christianity.

"If I think of the western suburbs of Chicago, there are a million people and one Buddhist temple," University of Chicago church historian Martin Marty says. "It isn't big that way. It's big in Borders bookstore. It's big in college."

The arrival of world religions also is big in opening up questions of pluralism, such as what is religious "truth" and which ethnic groups merit political and cultural recognition. …

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