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The Hidden History Of Immigration: Part 2 of 3

by Martin Ford

If America has been a graveyard for languages, it has also been a seedbed for religions. Perhaps no scene evokes this disparate religious heritage so vividly as the silhouette of varied spires, steeples and cupolas against an urban skyline. From hilltops overlooking many old American cities, particularly "Rustbelt" cities of the Northeast and Midwest, one can survey many decades of American religious diversity. A trained architectural eye might discern the denomination of each place of worship, as well as when each was built, and from these monuments to our ethnic past infer much about the peopling of the old neighborhoods.

With today's influx of newcomers, America's religious landscape is rapidly changing. As the descendants of the Ellis Island immigrants have moved from city to suburb, new ethnic congregations have taken over the old churches. Sometimes the newcomers represent the same religion as the founders, often not. The new religious pattern is more apt to be revealed in the suburbs. For example, the stretch of New Hampshire Avenue running from Silver Spring to Ashton, Maryland, has been called "Heaven's Highway" in recognition of the many places of worship along the way.

It used to be that "place of worship" meant church or synagogue. In addition to these staple houses of worship, Heaven's Highway is lined with temples, mosques, ashrams and prayer centers. Together they represent a variety of faiths, including Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu sects. One can drive out from any immigrant Gateway City and find the same phenomenon-East and West, Orthodox and Charismatic, Evangelical and Reformed, Monotheistic and Polytheistic, side by side.

In the early 19th century, America was a far cry from such heterogeneous religiosity. Ninety-eight percent of the population was Protestant, 1 percent Catholic and 1 percent "other." Today, America is the most diversely Christian country in the world. Although a slight majority of Americans (52 percent) remain Protestant, Catholicism is the largest single denomination, claiming more than one in four Americans. Practicing Jews make up 1.3 percent of the population. While Muslims seem to represent less than 1 percent, they appear to be America's fastest growing religious minority.

Although the promise of religious tolerance attracted Pilgrim, Jewish, Quaker and Pietist immigrants to America from the earliest years, our religious efflorescence began in earnest with the mass migration of Irish-Catholic peasants escaping the Great Famine in the mid-1800s. From our contemporary ecumenical vantage, it is difficult to conceive the level of fear and hatred directed towards the Irish, the first major non-Protestant group. A significant number of immigrants had come from Ireland during colonial times. These Scotch-Irish, or Ulstermen, settled along the colonial frontier, where they served as a vanguard against the Indians. Most were Protestant. Though considered uncouth, they were also admired for a flinty toughness, epitomized by Andrew Jackson. The son of Northern Irish immigrants, "Old Hickory" was elected president largely by virtue of his folk-hero standing as an Indian fighter.

The waves of Famine Irish who survived the "coffin ships" and streamed in ever greater numbers into the tenements of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore seemed so different from the Scotch-Irish. No longer was the Irishman the crass bumpkin, he was now perceived as the drunken, bellicose foot soldier of a Pope whose aim was to become "supreme head of the world."

Anti-Catholicism found political expression in the emergence of the American Party, or Know-Nothings, whose platform denouncing "Paddy and the Pope" won more than one hundred Congressional seats in 1854. Editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast fanned the flames with cartoons that portrayed the Irishman as an ape-like brute, a cudgel in one hand, a bottle of whiskey in the other. By contrast, Nast's Pope was a cunning potentate with colonial ambitions. To an earnestly Protestant America, which prized individual liberty and despised the authoritarian regimes of Europe, a legion of dumb and dutiful infiltrators in service to a foreign power was a fearful combination.

The reaction was severe. Protestant clergy delivered rabidly anti-Catholic sermons, occasionally rousing their congregations to all-out applause. At least one nativist meeting broke up suddenly when a latecomer breathlessly reported seeing the Pope skulking in the bushes outside. Americans suspected that the hordes of Irish flocking to the police force and enlisting in the army were sleeper agents for a Romish invasion, which would engulf America on orders from the Pope. They even suspected that the Catholic hierarchy built their churches in the Gothic style, not for aesthetic reasons, but from a practical imperative. These formidable edifices could easily be converted into armed fortresses once the Pope gave the order for conquest. The expected invasion never came. The Civil War momentarily halted immigration, and despite their leading role in the New York City draft riots, the Irish generally served well in the Army of the North, muting anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Once immigration picked up again in the 1880s, Catholics from many other countries and immigrants professing other faiths made America's religious mosaic more complex, but by now America's Catholic bishops-most of them Irish-Americans-had adopted an assimilationist ethic and firmly resisted efforts to establish foreign-language parishes. They presided over the development of a national church that absorbed subsequent waves of Catholic newcomers. Today, as Michael Novak has observed, American Catholicism is more Protestant than its European counterparts. American Catholics do not share the anti-clericalism of their Italian or Spanish co-religionists. They express great respect for the Pope, but also claim individual freedom of conscience, and are at odds with Church teaching on contraception and divorce, if not abortion. In short, Catholicism has been naturalized.

This process of religious naturalization continues among today's immigrants, but along different paths. One path can be seen in the increasing appeal of Protestantism among immigrants from Latin America. Numbering more than 37 million-14 million foreign-born-Latinos recently displaced Blacks as the nation's largest minority. While around 70 percent are Roman Catholic, a growing minority has been drawn to charismatic and evangelical Protestantism, helping to fuel the current proliferation of independent churches in the United States.

Another path is manifest in the Asian immigrant turn to Christianity on coming to this country. For example, less than 25 percent of South Korea's population is Christian. Yet more than 70 percent of the 1.5 million Korean-Americans in the United States embrace Christianity, most having converted to mainstream Protestant faiths after arrival. One hallmark of this change is the many Korean-language signs one sees in front of churches that also house American congregations-but these seem in danger of disappearing as younger Koreans, "the 1.5 generation" and American-born, turn increasingly to English language services. The rate of conversion is also striking among the largest Asian immigrant group, America's 2.5 million Chinese. With no significant Christian tradition in their homeland, more than one-third of Chinese immigrants converted to Christianity after moving to the United States.

A third path of religious naturalization lies in the newcomers' imbuing the American Church with traditional values, as many Latinos, Filipinos and Vietnamese are doing for Catholicism. Typically, the immigrants are more observant of the Church's conservative teachings on marriage, contraception and abortion than are native-born "Cafeteria Catholics," who pick and choose which doctrine to follow. Their arrival has counterbalanced liberalizing tendencies, for example, quieting the call for women in the priesthood, bolstering enrollments in parochial schools and increasing vocations. This is a kind of "reverse missionizing," with the formerly converted now preaching to their proselytizers.

None of these trends sparks controversy among native-born Americans. The old fear of religious threat is largely gone, with one exception-the growing presence of Islam in America. Estimates of the number of Muslims in the United States vary widely, from a high of 6 to 7 million cited by the Mosque Study Project 2000 to the significantly smaller 2 to 3 million estimate of the American Jewish Committee in research it commissioned in 2001. Six million Muslims would place Islam even with Judaism as America's second largest religion after the various forms of Christianity. Even the low-end figure of 2 million would indicate a doubling of the Muslim population since 1990.

Most Americans equate Islam with Arab culture, but Arabs are a minority of Muslims worldwide, and in this country, most Arabs are Christian. Only 25 percent of American Muslims are Arab; 33 percent are South Asian; 30 percent are African American. Muslims in America are remarkably diverse, reflecting greater national, linguistic and doctrinal differences than the larger Muslim populations of France or Germany, for example. Moreover, like American Jews, Muslims in the United States are overwhelmingly secular, with the majority rarely attending mosque. Radical fundamentalist sects appeal to few among them.

The position of Muslims in America today is not unlike that of Irish Catholics 150 years ago. Whereas the Irish were feared as agents of an external power attempting to influence domestic affairs, Muslims are seen as representing Middle Eastern interests inimical to freedom and democracy. How Islam takes shape in the United States depends greatly on how America conducts the War on Terrorism. Political Scientist Peter Skerry suggests that U.S. government security efforts aimed indiscriminately at Muslims risk turning a disparate congeries of people into a disaffected, aggrieved minority. This would be tragic, particularly given the great potential of Islam in America to advocate among other Muslims for liberal democracy and against the corrosive forces of fundamentalism.

An alternative scenario would have Christianity and Judaism finding common ground with Islam. After all, Christians and Jews, so virulently opposed through much of their mutual history, have achieved a unique rapprochement in modern America. Members of both faiths now acknowledge a "Judeo-Christian ethic," a neologism that stresses common roots and shared traditions. Since September 11, 2001, ecumenical efforts have been particularly evident, as during the past holiday season, when Eid-al-Fitr, Hanukkah and Christmas occurred within weeks of each other. Interfaith communities throughout the country seized the opportunity to celebrate together the three faiths that trace their roots to Abraham. If this atmosphere of toleration can persist, Islam in America, like the Catholic Church before it, will forge its own course, resisting impositions from abroad, while serving as a countervailing force against extremism.

Next week: The Hidden History Of Immigration: Part 3 of 3

Originally appeared in Potomac Review, Issue 35, Spring/Summer 2003 issue


About The Author

Martin Ford is the Associate Director of the Maryland Office for New Americans.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.


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