- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2000

Third of a three-part series

Rockville [Md.] 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."

Greeting diversity

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 [Va.] 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.
Fully developed pluralism asserts that every religious and cultural "truth" is equal. Pluralism applied in public schools is "multiculturalism." In a social struggle, it can give rise to "identity politics," where a voting bloc is organized around a sectarian or ethnic claim.
Despite these trends, however, world religions themselves hardly get ink in U.S. news media, according to a new study by the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media. "Christianity, Judaism and Islam nearly monopolize news … with other religions barely mentioned," the study says.
European immigration defined the history of the United States until 1965, when new entry laws allowed increased numbers of newcomers from Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Today, 10 percent of all Americans 27 million were born in a foreign nation. They have been transmitters of all the new faiths that Mr. O'Conor found near Washington.

Hispanic influence

The predominant religious influx has been Muslims from several nations and Spanish-speaking Roman Catholics or Protestants.
"Four or five religions still dominate America's religious landscape," says Philip L. Barlow, co-author of the New Historical Atlas of Religion in America.
On a map, these show up as Roman Catholics in the Northeast and Southwest, Baptists in the South, Lutherans in the upper Midwest, Mormons around Utah and Methodists in a belt from Nebraska to Virginia.
"The diversity of other religious groups is quite uneven, and usually shows up at the county level," Mr. Barlow says.
It also is showing up in the increased number of ethnic congregations attached to such large church groups as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Of its 46,000 churches, 10 percent are ethnic mostly a product of the past decade.
Moreover, nearly half of the newly started Southern Baptist churches and missions have been ethnic, predominantly Hispanic or Korean.
The vast majority of Hispanic immigrants come from Catholic countries such as Mexico, but only 24 percent of them are turning out to be "committed Catholics," according to a new study by the University of Texas.
While Protestant Hispanics are fewer 16 percent they have a nearly total commitment to churches they join.
"Church attendance rates are substantially higher among Latino Protestants than among Latino Catholics," says Christopher Ellison, the Texas sociologist who conducted the national survey.
Moreover, these Protestant Hispanics help drive what is being called a post-denominational age in American religion. "Denomination in the Latin mindset is not that important," says the Rev. Marcos Rivera of Primitive Christian Church in New York City.
Scholars of Catholicism also point to the Latin emphasis on devotion to the Virgin Mary, festivals and family rites of passage typically unseen in the more streamlined Vatican II churches of American suburbs. These two sensibilities now have met as one in every three U.S. Catholics is Hispanic and not always happily.
"We've put that all together," says the Rev. Michael Tyson of St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring, Md., where four in 10 weekend worshippers are Hispanic. "Still, there is some resistance."
St. Camillus has added outdoor processions on Good Friday and on the festival of Our Lady of Guadeloupe; the Lenten stations of the cross are done in Spanish, English and other tongues.
Ana Maria Diaz-Stevens is co-author of "Recognizing the Latin Resurgence in U.S. Religion." She argues that Spanish-speaking immigrants, who had few Spanish-speaking priests, pioneered lay leadership in the parish just as the Second Vatican Council of 1962-
1965 shifted some priestly duties to the laity.
"The Hispanics prepared the way for that kind of change in Vatican II," she says.
American culture and religion may be shaped in other ways as Hispanic presence grows, she says. "We are more family and group oriented. Our culture requires us to celebrate. Everything that is important to an individual is important to the group."

Two scenarios

The emergence of Hindu and Muslim centers in the Washington-Baltimore region where the Asian population of 5 percent is on par with the Hispanic presence illustrates just how recently religious pluralism has blossomed in the United States.
It was only last month that Northern Virginia's largest Hindu place of worship, the Rajdhani Temple in Chantilly, opened with the splendor of North Indian architecture. Still larger is the South Indian-style Murugan Temple of North America in Lanham, dedicated last year.
Similarly, the area's largest mosque, the Daral-Hijrah in Falls Church, formed as an association in 1983 and completed its building in the 1990s. To end the season of hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, 20,000 Muslims from the region worshipped last month at the Capital Expo Center in Fairfax County, a jump from 15,000 last year.
The story of religious immigration is tied closely to demographic patterns. Experts in this field speak of America having six major "gateway states" and 10 "gateway cities" where newcomers arrive, settle down or diffuse nationwide.
Looking at these immigrant hubs, demographers Jeff Passel of the Urban Institute and William H. Frey of the University of Michigan interpret the data two different ways.
Mr. Passel says immigration into rural America stands out most, since 10 years ago 5 million immigrants lived outside the six gateway states and now that number is 8 million. "The fastest-growing immigration rates are not in those six gateway states," he says, but in places such as North Carolina, Arizona and Arkansas.
Mr. Frey disagrees, arguing that immigrants stay in their gateway ports, creating "multiple melting pots" around the 10 metropolitan areas. Thus, it may be a myth to speak of diversity in America when only 21 of 3,097 counties (including 27 Alaska "divisions" and 64 Louisiana "parishes") are "truly racially diverse," Mr. Frey says.
"Today, you don't see the diffusion of immigrants out of the cities that you saw in the past," he says
If in Mr. Frey's scenario a few U.S. cities will become giant meccas of immigrants and world religions in stark contrast to the rest of America, in Mr. Passel's portrait, more and more rural communities may be seeing Hindu and Buddhist temples or Muslim mosques.

West meets East

One other way American Christians and Jews make contact with the world's other faiths is by helping refugees, who in the 1990s arrived at annual rates of 70,000 to 110,000.
"It is an interaction between religions, but it is more on the basis of humanitarian feeling," says Edwin Shapiro of Hebrew Immigration Assistance. "When you bring in immigrants who have been denied the right to practice their religion, you appreciate what we have."
In Catonsville, Md., Salem Lutheran Church has hosted refugee families and last year welcomed a Muslim family of six Albanians who fled from Kosovo.
"We offered them a prayer rug. We were eager to make that affirmation," the Rev. Ed Whetstone says. The family, however, turned out not to be religious and the opportunity for a Christian-Muslim exchange did not arise.
Perhaps the hardest thing to judge as world religions mix in the United States is how much they influence each other and majority Christianity. The Protestant tradition of pulpit preaching and weekend worship has shaped both Judaism in America and the Buddhist churches of America, whose congregations gather Sundays for hymns but with an Amida Buddha at the altar.
India's ancient Hindu religion also has adapted to the modern American work week.
"Hinduism is a religion that is home-based, but in the context of American churches and Sunday school, the organization of a temple came as a way to socialize children," says Raymond Brady Williams, a Wabash College scholar of Asian Indian immigration. "The temples are also a way to give the community visibility."
Hinduism made its first dramatic showing in America in Swami Vivekananda, a celebrity at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Since then, Americans founded Vendanta Societies, small study circles of Hindu philosophy.
Yet it was not until 1965, when Indian doctors and technicians, along with the "missionary Hinduism" of the saffron-robed Hare Krishnas, arrived through the new immigration gates that the United States truly noticed that heritage.
Today, the number of Asian Indian immigrants is "well over a million," Mr. Williams says, and most are Hindus.
"There are many ideas of India that Americans have typically been positive toward, and Gandhi's in particular," he says. These include nonviolence, vegetarianism and religious tolerance.
Americans' interest in New Age philosophies has some ties to Hindu belief, he says, but they are "tenuous at best."
American Buddhists are small in number, but their profile is magnified by celebrity adherents.
"All my students know who the Dalai Lama is," says Hamilton College professor Richard Seager, author of "Buddhism in America."
Hollywood, which usually sneers at Christianity, has spawned movies on Buddhism and prominent practitioners include actor Richard Gere, action star Steven Seagal and rock singer Tina Turner.
Buddhist immigration goes back five generations, bolstered by a new wave since 1965 and then added to by American converts. The meaning of a "convert" still is a theoretical debate, Mr. Seager says, so estimates of their number ranges from 100,000 to 800,000. Immigrants are said to number from 2.2 million to 5 million.
"I do think one can say that Buddhism's emphasis on meditation has drawn the attention of many people," Mr. Seager says. "Christianity has a rich contemplative tradition, but Buddhism for some reason has made meditation popular."

Muslim influx

The world's second-largest faith, Islam, shows the largest immigration in the United States.
Thirty countries are more than half Muslim, while Hindus come principally from India and Nepal. Thus, there are many more Muslim immigrants to the United States than Hindus, owing to the U.S. policy of allotments by country.
Although the numbers are in dispute, 3 million to 6 million Americans are are believed to be Muslim, 1 million of them black converts.
Besides Sikhs, who wear turbans, Muslims may be the most visible immigrant faith. Muslim women wear head scarves and the faithful gather for traditional group prayers, especially on Fridays.
"Islam was invisible until 15 years ago, and for many Muslims being invisible was a choice," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
Contrary to popular images, he says, "Muslims in America are enormously diverse. They do not think alike or worship alike. In fact, there are a significant number of Muslims who are secular, or very private in their practice. They are very much grappling with assimilation and integration."
Demographers note that Muslims have tended to cluster as immigrant groups while most Hindus, immigrating with professional skills, have dispersed according to economic opportunity.
"New immigrant groups tend to stay together, and especially if they need their institutions," says demographer Patricia Becker, who studied Dearborn, Mich., which is considered the largest Arab immigrant community.
"The community began as Arab Christians from Syria and Lebanon, but now it is Muslim," Mrs. Becker says.
The Michigan census puts their number at around 100,000, but Muslim activists say the figure is closer to 250,000.
There was little cultural spill-over, Mrs. Becker says, since the community was self-sufficient in its retail management and clerical professions until students went to the nearby college.
"In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful," one female Muslim student intoned in Arabic at the beginning of a talk in her English class at Washtenaw Community College in January. Afterward, her teacher advised her not to "pray" again because church and state are separated at tax-funded colleges.
The student filed a complaint, national Muslim groups protested and the college president apologized.
"It was on television, and now people are beginning to realize that Muslims say these words before everything they do," Mrs. Becker says.

Please visit parts one and two in this series

Part I: Americans' spiritual growth hunt being swept up in a 'new wave'
Part II: Neo-Pentecostalism re-energizes the spiritual life for many blacks

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