Not long ago I had a conversation with the dean of a mainline Protestant divinity school. I asked him what his students are like these days. He said that there are three main groups: white women—most of them feminists and/or GLBT activists—African-Americans and Koreans, most in both groups being fundamentalists. He laughed and said that he was exaggerating a bit. He was indeed, though what he said rings a bell. Only the third group relates to immigration, which is the topic of my comments here.
On September 23, 2013, Religion News Service carried a story entitled “The hidden immigration impact on American churches”, by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America). There has been much interest in the growth of non-Christian religions in the United States, which Diana Eck (who started the “pluralist project” at Harvard) has called “the most religiously diverse country in the world”. Maybe so, but as Granberg-Michaelson points out, about 60% of immigrants currently arriving in the US are Christians: “While millennials [young people] are walking out the front door of U.S. congregations, immigrant Christian communities are appearing right around the corner, and sometimes knocking at the back door. And they may hold the key to vitality for American Christianity”.
There is little doubt about the vitality “knocking at the back door”. How will this affect what comes in by the front door? The question is relevant for both the Catholic and Protestant churches. Of course the largest group of present immigrants (both legal and illegal) consists of Latinos—the majority Catholics, but with a robust minority of Protestants (somewhere between 25% and 30%). Both groups exhibit “a vibrant spiritual life”. The same is true of Christians coming from Africa and the Caribbean, and of Asians (coming from China and Overseas Chinese communities, the Philippines and Korea—more about the last in a moment). As has always been the case with immigrants, the first generation worships in ethnic churches, even if these are affiliated with larger American denominations. With the second and third generations, there is a spillover effect as many of these people affiliate with non-ethnic congregations (some because they have become Americanized, some because they live in places where there are no ethnically defined churches). Does the “vitality” go with them? There is no conclusive evidence of this, but I think that the answer is probably yes, at least for a while. There is also the factor of differential fertility, especially among Latinos—it is projected that by 2050 there will be 106 million Latinos in the United States and as Granberg-Michaelson observes, “their presence will quite literally change the face of American Christianity”.
Some immigrants change their religious behavior after they come here, but most continue to reflect the religious situation in their country of origin. The Korean case is particularly interesting. The Philippines is the only Asian country with a Christian majority (still mainly Catholic, as a result of Spanish colonialism). But South Korea comes next—interestingly, since it had been colonialized, not by Europeans, but by Japan. Christianity has grown exponentially. In 1945 about 2% of the population was Christian. In 1991 34% was Protestant (about 8 million) and 11% Catholic (about 2.5 million). I don’t how many Protestants are Pentecostals or leaning in that direction, but most of Korean Protestantism is staunchly Evangelical. In 2009 Korea exported about 20,000 missionaries (second in numbers to the US). Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul is the world’s largest mega-church. In 2001 there were 3,375 Korean churches in the US.
All of this is interesting in itself, but I would propose that the most important fact here (only alluded to in the RNS article) is this: Compared with North America and Europe, most Christians in the non-Western World (now commonly referred to as the Global South) are much more conservative, both theologically and morally.
Both in their theology and religious practice, non-Western Christians are more conservative. Their worldview is strongly supernaturalist: The spiritual world, both benign and sinister, is very close—the Holy Spirit, the Virgin and the saints, miracles of healing—but also the devil and other malevolent spirits. This supernaturalism is strongest in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, but it is also very visible in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. But non-Western Christians are also more conservative in their moral convictions—very little sympathy here for the feminism, let alone the agenda of the gay movement, that has become so prominent in mainline Protestantism in America—and, I suspect, would be more prominent in American Catholicism, were it not for surveillance and intervention from Rome.
The implication of all this is simple and exceedingly important: Immigration will strengthen the conservative forces in American Christianity. This effect is likely to diminish as the children of immigrants become more assimilated to American culture (some, no doubt, will become more skeptical about miracles or will discover the joy of being gay). However, unlike immigrants in earlier periods of American history, those who come today don’t just stay put; rather they go back and forth. Also, unless immigration becomes much more restrictive, there will be recurring waves of newcomers, reinforcing the cultural pull of the “old country”. As ethnic identity weakens, the children of immigrants will find indigenous, “Anglo” churches with a conservative bent that will appeal to them.