Immigration and Religion in America: Comparative and Historical Perspectives

In contrast with scholarship on previous immigrations, many early studies of post-1945 immigrant groups showed only a minor interest in religion. The September 11, 2001, tragedy, religious upheaval in regions from which those immigrants hailed, and the success of their religions in the United States have drawn attention to the religious context of immigration. As a consequence, the Social Science Research Council’s International Migration Program “organize[d] a project to support research and convene scholars to examine relations between Religion, Migration, and Civic Life” (p. 3). Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, social science immigration experts joined religious studies and humanities-based scholars to explore religion as an institution and as a system of meaning in select communities.

The resulting volume of essays pairs the study of religion in one “new” immigrant group with a related, well-studied immigrant group that had arrived earlier: Mexican immigration is explored and compared to the Italian experience; the Korean experience is compared with that of the Japanese; the Arab Muslim experience is compared with the immigration experience of Jews; and—in a slight methodological departure—the Haitian immigration experience is contrasted with the post–World War I Great Migration of African Americans within the United States. For each of the four paired groups, the editors wrote a comprehensive introduction focusing on religion. The first substantive essays in each section look at religious development in an older immigrant group to establish continuities and differences as compared with the newer group. The remaining essays in each section provide descriptive narratives and conceptual investigation into religion’s role among the new populations.

Several essays stand out. The sociologist David Lopez’s “Whither the Flock? The Catholic Church and the Success of Mexicans in America” argues that, unlike the Italian case, “it is difficult to point to any important ways in which the church has facilitated their climb up the ladder of success” for Latino Catholics (p. 71). In “The Shaping of Arab and Muslim Identity in the United States,” however, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad shows evidence of Islam facilitating the acculturation of Muslim Arabs—much as Judaism did for Jews—by providing women the opportunity to participate in public life. Elizabeth McAlister and Karen Richman’s “Catholic, Vodou, and Protestant: Being Haitians, Becoming American—Religious Pluralism, Immigrant Incorporation, and Transnationalism” illustrates the complicated ways that varied religious traditions and history provide meaning for Haitians in a new land.

Two essays challenge the notion that declining participation in religious rituals means that immigrant religious roots are less important to later generations. Despite the decline of traditional Buddhism among the Japanese, Jane Naomi Iwamura’s “Critical Faith: Japanese Americans and the Birth of a New Civil Religion” argues that “what has emerged from the collective experience of war and internment is a faith that is tied to no particular religious tradition but that takes racial-ethnic identity as its starting points” (p. 137). Calvin Goldscheider’s “Immigration and the Transformation of American Jews: Assimilation, Distinctiveness, and Community” suggests that for Jews the issue is not how much they have assimilated but “what factors sustain ethnic and religious community” (p. 198). He argues that the economic stratification of education and occupation, built on the demography of the first generation, allows this immigrant group to challenge the assumption that Jews (as a group) have become secularized in America.

Because of the structured preparation for this volume, the essays have a more uniform academic quality than that found in many edited collections. Most are analytically sophisticated and richly detailed. Many tackle thorny conceptual issues about religion and migration—although surprisingly, gender is inconsistently applied as a category of analysis. The volume has general appeal based on its overviews of religion for the new immigrant groups and offers theoretical interest for scholars of religion and immigration.

Linda K. Pritchard
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, Michigan