The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on January 16, 2013
Ethnic Religions

On January 7, 2013, the New York Times carried a story about the race to fill the Congressional seat in Chicago vacated by the resignation (apparently for both health and legal reasons) of Jesse Jackson, Jr. The district is still strongly African-American, though less so than it used to be because of recent remapping. The story described the candidates eagerly seeking the endorsement of black clergy in the area. The candidates are black as well, with one exception: a white woman who had previously run and lost against Jackson. She too is actively seeking the same clerical endorsements.

Jackson had been endorsed by a considerable number of pastors. This political involvement of clergy is by no means limited to Chicago, but is common elsewhere if African-Americans are a significant factor in the electorate. Candidates are not only openly endorsed by pastors, but often are invited to speak from the pulpit. There is some dispute on how important these endorsements are, given the decline of the church as an institution in many black communities. Apparently it is still worth the effort. One candidate observed: “You can go to a church and talk to a few thousand people. That’s a huge audience to capture at one particular time. You can walk blocks and knock on doors and not reach a thousand people”. And this is how one of the pastors put it: “We want it stay an African-American seat. We want a voice for us in this area. There’s access that comes with culture.”

An interesting question here is the legality of such endorsements by tax-exempt institutions. But this is not my interest here. Rather it is the linkage between religion and ethnicity. Through much of history this linkage has been very close indeed. Even in our time ethnically defined religion has been an important social and political reality—for example the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, Buddhism in Tibet.

The American case has been distinctive. Of course churches and synagogues played an important part in easing the transition to a new country during the earlier period of mass immigration, but this did not generally lead to separate religious bodies. Rome decided early on not to organize American Catholicism along ethnic lines (though of course individual parishes could accommodate the linguistic and cultural needs of different immigrant groups). American Lutheranism was organized in ethnically defined synods—German, Swedish, Norwegian, and so on—many of them using the original European languages in worship. The Germans gave up first, during World War I, in response to widespread anti-German feelings. The Scandinavians followed suit a little later. In America today two religions continue to be strongly identified with ethnicity, because they had been so identified for centuries—Judaism and Hinduism (Buddhism in this country is a somewhat different story). But in American Christianity two religious traditions stand out in this respect: African-American Protestantism and Eastern Christian Orthodoxy. Both their differences and their similarities are noteworthy.

The black church has been a central—for long periods the central—institution for African-Americans. Victims of slavery, segregation and racism found in their religion a source of dignity and comfort, and at times an inspiration for rebellion. While the specifically black churches were almost all broadly Protestant, they developed their own very distinctive forms of Christian piety and worship. Black Gospel music and the Spirituals eloquently expressed this distinctiveness. This same tradition was at the core of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the late 1950s, when I had my first full-time teaching job in North Carolina, I heard Martin Luther King speak at an NAACP rally. What impressed me at the time was the thoroughly religious atmosphere of the event—religious in a decidedly black version. Much later, when I had my first contacts with Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, it occurred to me that people from that tradition could easily recognize the role played by King—in their terminology, he was an ethnarch, a religious leader representing his people in a struggle for their rights, as did Orthodox clergy for many centuries during which their people had to live under capricious Muslim rulers. In the last fifty years or so, for a variety of reasons, the black church is no longer the central institution it once was for African-Americans. But the story about the Chicago election shows that the institution has not lost its influence altogether.

Eastern Christian Orthodoxy in America was from the beginning, and still is today, almost entirely organized along ethnic lines. The one exception is the rather small Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which used to be a Russian diaspora church but, as its name indicates, re-invented itself as an American church of Orthodox Christians, with its liturgy in English and a large segment of its members consisting of converts to Orthodoxy. The bulk of the Orthodox in America worship in churches that are extensions of their home countries, sometimes directly under the latters’ jurisdiction. The big boy on the Orthodox block in America is Greek. The Moscow Patriarchate has been working to re-assert its authority over Russian diaspora churches. And then there are ecclesial bodies representing the ethnicities of the Balkans (Serbian, Romanian, and so on) and the Middle East (including the so-called Oriental churches—Orthodox in most ways but theologically deviant from Constantinople—with the largest being the Armenian Church). Many Orthodox Americans, especially lay people, have found this ethnic mosaic irrational and counter-productive, but so far efforts to create a unified Orthodoxy in America have not gotten very far.

There is one big difference between these two ethnic religions: While whites have generally been welcome in African-American churches—they have attended black services as visitors—whites have rarely if ever been converted to black Christianity. By contrast, there has been a steady stream of converts joining Orthodox churches in America. Some years ago a sizable group of Evangelicals converted en masse and affiliated with the American branch of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch (whose traditional liturgy is in Syriac and which was brought to America by Christian Arab immigrants). I am told that so-called “cradle Orthodox” have been uneasy about the zealous religiosity of the conversos (who, like so many converts, tend to be more Papist than the Pope). Converts to Orthodoxy (unless they live in proximity to the sparsely diffused OCA) have a problem: Just which of the several ethnic bodies are they to join?

This first came home to me when I was teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York, which had large and very heterogeneous classes. A young man came to speak with me after class. He had a pronouncedly Anglo-Saxon name and spoke impeccable American English. When I asked him what he did besides attending New School classes (which met in the evening and had many students with full-time jobs), he smiled and said “I am an Albanian priest”. He had no relation whatever with Albanian ethnicity. He told me that, after he had converted and decided to become an Orthodox priest, he went to some sort of counseling service, which advised individuals in his position where there was a need for Orthodox priests and where converts would be accepted as candidates (whether reluctantly or not). I had very few contacts with this individual after our initial conversation, so I don’t know how he fared as an “Albanian priest”. At the time he had not learned any Albanian and officiated in English (which some of his parishioners did not understand).

Christian churches divided by ethnicity have a (usually dormant) theological problem: Almost all Protestants and all Orthodox regularly recite the historic creeds, which affirm faith in the “holy catholic church”—“catholic” with a lower-case “c”, meaning “universal”.  How does a church that only contains blacks or only Greeks represent the universality of the faith? Originally, if this question was posed at all, the answer was not difficult: Blacks were forced into their separate churches by whites who excluded them. And Greek immigrants naturally gravitated to churches speaking their language and where they felt at home. This theological rationale has become less plausible, as racial and ethnic barriers have increasingly collapsed, and as individuals move ever more freely and even intermarry across the old divisions. Whatever their theological rationales, both black and Orthodox churches in America face a common sociological problem: How to explain their existence within the tumultuous religious and cultural pluralism of America?

I think that this problem will be felt more urgently by middle-class people—as against, say, inner-city African-Americans and working-class immigrants from Albania. Ethnic and religious prejudices decline most sharply as individuals go up the educational and class ladder. If they are African-Americans, they find white institutions, including formerly all-white churches, more welcoming and they are more comfortable in these milieus that were formerly closed to them. If they are Greek-Americans, their ties to their ancestral homeland have become weaker and they must find better reasons for attending the divine liturgy than a waning ethnicity. As Reinhold Niebuhr long ago showed, the denomination is the prototypically American religious institution—that is, a religious institution which is based on voluntary association and which recognizes the right of other such institutions to exist in the society. Inevitably, this institution, coupled with the strong legal support of religious freedom, encourages inter-denominational migrations. Children will ask: Why should I go to this church, and not to the one on the next block where my best friend goes? In a curious way, this leads to a new question: What does my tradition have to offer to people not raised in it? How these two closely related questions are answered, will determine the future in America of the black church and of Eastern Christian Orthodoxy.

  • Nikolas Gvosdev

    Within the Orthodox Churches in this country, there has been a way to reconcile exclusive ethnicity with universality: re-casting an ethnic jurisdictional identity as a “tradition.” The Antiochian Archdiocese–the one you referenced as taking in a large body of Evangelicals during the 1980s, has consciously redefined itself from being a “Syrian/Arab” diocese to “Antiochian”–with the connotation that “Antiochian” refers both to a geographic definition of the patriarchate in the Middle East (so Arab Orthodox coming from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf, etc. are “Antiochian”) but also to a tradition, an outlook, a theological perspective rooted in the Church of Antioch open to anyone. So a Samawi or a Smith can equally be “Antiochian” and both can lay claim to that identity. To a lesser extent, we see this with the identification of the Ukrainian Orthodox with a particular “Kievan” version of Orthodoxy, and the Russian Orthodox Church has now for years promoted the idea of a “Russian Orthodox tradition” that is not limited to ethnic Russians (the more expansive national identity of Russia, rooted in imperial expansion, and having assimmilated so many different groups, also helps with this). Even within the Greek Archdiocese, promotion of the idea of Hellenism as being both the property of ethnic Greeks but also a state of mind and a tradition (even if, however, use of the Greek language is part and parcel of this) has been a way to bring in newcomers.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    One of the prototypical non-denominational churches in the U.S. is the Shepherd of the Hills Church in suburban Porter Ranch in Los Angeles County. It is an evangelical Christian megachurch with average attendance at 9,673 according to Wikipedia. The church grew from 350 people in 1987.

    The senior pastor, Dudley Rutherford, is an ex-basketball player. His daughter was a college basketball player. The ministry of the church is centered on several basketball leagues with a large basketball court that can accommodate spectators. The church is famous for having a number of college and National Basketball Association (NBA) professional basketball players as members. A look at the church’s sports ministry website shows photos of teams composed of black, White, Asian, and Latino and Arabic members.

    Most importantly, many Black college and professional basketball players find assimilation by marrying white women. Thus, the non-denominational California megachurch has replaced the ethnic Black, Latino, and White churches partly on the legitimation of inter-ethnic marriage.

    The church’s senior pastor supported Proposition 8 on the California ballot to limit marriage to a man and a woman. Sociologists find that opposition to gay marriage is strongest in Black and evangelical churches, even in California. One of the most ethnically inclusive churches in California is at the same time opposed to gay marriage. Liberal politicians appended the number 8 to Proposition 8 to rhyme with the word “hate.” But the Shepherd of the Hills Church seems to be the opposite of the stereotype of the Klu Klux Klan.

    The future of the Black church may well be determined by the success of non-denominational and inter-ethnic Christian churches, especially those that offer assimilation by intermarriage.

  • http://whispersinthegallery.blogspot.com whispersinthegallery

    What is Black Christianity? Please define it.

  • John Barker

    I think the deeper question is, what is the difference between religion and spirituality?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I should have added in the above comment that there are seemingly two systems of ethnic assimilation and social mobility in the U.S. One is based in voluntary church associations and Protestant economic culture as depicted by the Shepherd of the Hills Church. The other is politically based in affirmative action laws with patronage jobs set aside for gays along with various ethnic groups.

    The Shepherd of the Hills Church is opposed to gay marriage because conventional marriage is the key to ethnic assimilation and social mobility. Likewise gay marriage advocates are opposed to conventional marriage in part because of all the political patronage jobs and sinecures for those meeting the category definition of gay. To legitimate one is to deny the other. As sociologist Max Weber pointed out religion and economic interests are often intertwined.

    As recently described by Robert Royal in First Things magazine –- “France’s Surprising Resistance to Gay Marriage” (Jan. 15, 2013) — France’s socialist government has recently formed a surveillance agency –- the National Observatory of Secularism – that will “monitor” religious groups with the objective of “dissolving cases of religious pathology.” It is interesting to note that secularism is attempting to establish itself as a counter religion not just a political social movement. Religion uncoupled from denominational forms is perhaps what sociologist Thomas Luckmann was referring to in his book The Invisible Religion.

    Ironically, Royal reports that two thirds of the French population support legalization of gay marriage. Presumably this includes many French Catholics who are considered religiously “pathological” and now have formed a counter-counter cultural movement against the excesses of the gay marriage movement: adoption by gay parents and artificial insemination for lesbians.

    In other words, gay marriage advocates want to keep their political sinecures while also having legally sanctioned marriages including children. Gay marriage advocates want to keep their political patronage by ruling class consensus rather than by voluntary cultural institutions.

    It is instructive to study Roman history in this conflict. The first codified law of the Roman Republic was the Twelve Tables that specifically banned intermarriage between the Patrician and the Plebian classes. However, leading Plebians who had distinguished military careers were eventually allowed to intermarry into Patrician families and the marriage prohibition of the Twelve Tables was abolished. As historian Klaus Bringmann writes in his History of the Roman Republic:

    “Evidently, alongside meritorious deeds in war, family alliances which crossed class boundaries were an important precondition for advancement and integration.” He further states: “The ties between the rising plebian families were also strengthened through the instrument of adoption…the idea of patrician hostility to plebs and the corresponding assumption of plebian hostility to the patriciate is a cliché with only limited accuracy.”

    Likewise, the widespread media stereotype of Evangelical Christian churches as bastions of hatred against gays seems to be a convenient political cliché. But in socialist France or Progressive California, both want to marginalize religious institutions as “pathological” and discriminatory. The success of Roman family law was it brought about social integration not conflict.

    Sociologist Peter Berger and Brigitte Berger set out a possible way to mediate this conflict in their 1984 book: “War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground.”

  • Chancellor Smith

    Shepard of the Hills church opposes gay marriage “because conventional marriage is the key to ethnic assimilation and social mobility.”? No, they oppose it since they view homosexuality as a sin and because God designed marriage. Direct blog reference from Pastor Rutherford: http://dudleyrutherford.blogspot.com/2008/10/letter-on-prop-8.html

  • Gary Novak

    In “The Social Sources of Denominationalism” (a work Berger has referenced a number of times over the years) H. Richard Niebuhr describes denominationalism as “an unacknowledged hypocrisy . . . [which] represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste-system of human society” (p. 6). The black and Greek churches are just two more examples of a perennial problem in the church. Niebuhr was more concerned about the class origins of denominations than the ethnic origins, but undue social influences of any kind on the life of the church will prevent it from representing the universality of the faith.

    And the problem deepens when the church which fails to represent the universality of the faith is successful in representing something else: slavery, black theology, socialism, bourgeois refinement, or carbon sequestration. The problem is generalizable beyond religion. Discussing “the complexities of solidarity” (in “Race in the Mind of America’) Paul Wachtel writes that solidarity and identification “are an enormous strength to any group, but are especially important for a people struggling to overcome oppression and discrimination. At the same time, however, they may lead to drawing a tight boundary around the group, and thereby to a potentially restrictive separation of the group from the rest of society” (p. 173).

    Richard Rodriguez tells of his visit to a Los Angeles high school where all the lunch tables were rigidly (but, of course, voluntarily) segregated by race and ethnicity. Even the Mexican-Americans and Chicanos did not mix. One thinks of blacks who are the first in their family to attend college—and live in a black dorm and major in ethnic studies. These are, of course, familiar problems, but they become more distressing when they occur in the church, the one institution which, if it lives up to its mission, should be able to effect identity alternations. When even the church does not liberate but tightens the boundary around the social self, what hope is there? When the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?

    But we can head for the hills—The Shepherd of the Hills Church! Unlike traditional ethnic churches, such churches may have an easy time explaining their existence within the tumultuous religious and cultural pluralism of America. But I wonder if, even there, the church is leading the way or simply recruiting those who have found a path to inter-ethnic solidarity somewhere else—say, the basketball court. What I am fairly sure of, unfortunately, is that until society reaches that magic tipping point when racial preferences (and, therefore, racial identity) are obsolete, those who fashioned their identities in the race industry (Jesse Jackson, Jeremiah Wright, etc.) will continue to be more upset than heartened by the spectacle of “inauthentic blacks” (John McWhorter, Ward Connerly, etc.) loosening the boundaries.

  • http://www.peterjessen-gpa.com Peter Jessen

    Berger has written in another setting of how visiting Martians might wonder at our multiple realities (unless it had picked up decades of programming from SETI beamed into space to maybe civilizations). Berger’s 3 questions are seminal and cut to the key curiosities that any Martians would see and ask about upon their arrival:

    1. “How does a church that only contains blacks or only Greeks [or other ethnic] represent the universality of the faith?”
    2. “How to explain their existence within the tumultuous religious and cultural pluralism of America?”
    3. “What does my tradition have to offer to people not raised in it?”

    Our Martians would wonder how we could ask how any can use the term “universal” when each group has so many gods, from the thousands of the Hindus to the hundreds of Roman Catholicism (saints and all that), or the three of strict Trinitarians, leaving them, as outsiders, seeing only one religion with one god: Judaism. They will wonder how so many with so many similarities can each claim to be “the one” when all fit the “universal.” “They might even think they understand a phrase they over hear, “all roads lead to Rome,” until they realize there are so many that claim to be Rome.

    Or the Martians might cut to the chase and simply ask, “Who is really in charge? Who is your leader?”

    Will they think they have stumbled onto the answer to the question of Babel, of how people of different tongues can find their way to the top of the same Jacob’s ladder? This is at the heart of both religious and political fundamentalism, as well as religious and political relativism (which also addresses the question Berger sets aside for the moment, endorsements by tax-exempt institutions).

    And how is it that two of the most irrelevant volunteer organizations have achieved almost Black Denominational status, albeit secular, and used by politicians as being the high priests of what the Black community wants, speaking “The Word,” when less that half of one percent of Blacks in America belong to the NAACP, and less than one tenth of one percent are members of the Urban League?

    Berger aptly reminds us that “as Reinhold Niebuhr long ago showed, the denomination is the prototypically American religious institution—that is, a religious institution which is based on voluntary association and which recognizes the right of other such institutions to exist in the society.” Today’s political and religious denominations seem to have the prayers of the Civil War combatants Lincoln referenced in his second inaugural (the “hypocrisy” discussed by Niebuhr noted by Novak): “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” Today’s culture wars are similar, God’s children on one side praying to Got to defeat God’s children on the other side, and vice versa.

    And what of Black organizations becoming what we could call secular denominations? First we had Obama as the “savior” in “ethnic Black Christianity” (recall Jamie Foxx calling the President “our Lord and Savior”). Then the Rev. Andy Stanley from North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., said, after Obama’s visit to Sandy Hook, that he should be called the “Pastor in Chief”? And then the Sunday before the inauguration, Pastor Ronald E. Braxton, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, declared, with the President and family in attendance, that the Republicans were the enemies, comparing Obama with Moses, and declaring that Obama’s opponents were like the Biblical enemies of Moses.

    Despite the nod to the altars of secularism (Lusvardi’s helpful alert regarding the “National Observatory of Secularism” demonstrates the strength of the attempt. Hollende announced the forming of the NOS last month, as he gave a hats off to sociologist Emile Poulat, who helped to “promote secularism as an essential value of our living-together”. The NOS will “monitor” religious groups with the objective of “dissolving cases of religious pathology.” This is a reminder that the French adopted a law in 1905 establishing secularism as state policy in France.”

    The affirmation of our Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable rights”, is a synthesis not just of Christianity, but also a synthesis of the Enlightenment, a “both/and” statement, not, as with the French, an “either/or” statement. Our Declaration is also clear rejection of feudalism and the “old rule” known as the Ancien Régime. It fits the enlightenment’s canon that objectivity is, as Irving Louis Horowitz used to say, “its own reward”. My sense is that Berger and Weber would agree.

    As an aside, as public schools continue to eliminate recess and P.E., as well as the arts and music, churches that build gymnasiums to enable team sports as well as a state at one end for the performing arts, will begin to become a magnet for young people as education money goes more and more to pensions, COLAs, and current and retirement health care obligations and not the class room. As the schools abdicate these area and churches pick them up, evangelism will take on an athletic or physical movement nature, as Lusvardi’s excellent example of Shepherd of the Hills Church in suburban Porter Ranch in Los Angeles County demonstrates. In such “extra curricular” activities, churches may well find a working formula to demonstrate to others a more expansive effort of demonstrating what their tradition has to offer to people not raised in it.

    The Red Shield Youth Center where I played in the mid-1950s, in the Ramparts area (Little Korea now), that its presence took the area off the Los Angeles 10 worst areas of juvenile delinquency. That’s a civil influence in society that any tradition would, it seems to me, be thankful and proud to have helped achieve.

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