What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Immigration and Religion in the U.S.

By Allison Adrian, PhD. candidate at the University of Minnesota's School of Music, IHRC Affiliate

While religious freedom is thought of as the primary appeal for immigrants who set their sights on the United States in the 17th century, recent immigration seems to have less to do with religious choice and more to do with political asylum or economic opportunity. How much does religion matter in the current process of immigration to the United States? How does religion factor in to the process of making the U.S. home?

The United States continues to remain a predominantly Christian nation, but the last fifty years have been witness to a dramatic rise in American religious pluralism as millions of adherents of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and more have made the U.S. their home. Take Minnesota as an example: While Minnesota is thought of by many as an American Scandinavia, it ranks second in the nation for proportion of refugees to residents. From 1990-2000 Minnesota increased its foreign-born population by 130% to 260,000. Mosques and Hindu and Buddhist temples now dot the predominantly Christian landscape of the Twin Cities.

Iraqi Immigration and Religion

The war on Iraq has placed the United States in the strange position as both the culprit of escalated levels of religious persecution in Iraq and a refuge offering asylum for those persecuted. U.S. immigration policy towards Middle Easterners tightened after 9/11, at the same time that many Middle Easterners were in greater need of immigrating. A Media Line article details the effect of changing immigration policy on the amount of Middle Eastern immigrants in the U.S. http://www.themedialine.org/news/news_detail.asp?NewsID=16754
The article reports that tension around religion – Shi’ites & Sunnis, Christians & Muslims -- seems to dissipate once individuals leave the Middle East for the U.S. A Palestinian-American journalist at the end of the story alludes to a source of “peace? in the United States: “I think when people weigh it up, they figure if they can get good money then ‘what the hell, we can manage’.? Can economic prosperity really reduce religious tensions? And, if so, was the conflict truly religious to begin with?

While Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds struggle to create a new Iraq, the plight of smaller Iraqi groups is sometimes overlooked. A Seattle Times article posted on the 17th outlines the predicament of Mandaean Iraqis who look to John the Baptist as their spiritual leader. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/faithvalues/2003576055_mandaeanism17.html
Because of their small numbers, they are threatened by both Islamic extremists in Iraq and as a consequence of the violence against them in Iraq, by their geographic dispersal around the United States. In fact, most Mandaeans cannot imagine their religious community existing into the third generation in the U.S. and most are convinced there will soon be no Mandaeans left in Iraq.

Immigration and Religious Tension in the U.S.

As U.S. foreign policy renders the Middle East uninhabitable for many groups, it must accommodate more and more people onto American soil. Some American Jews see the expanding boundaries of religious pluralism as a threat to their lifestyle. One article in recent press reports that the increasing Muslim population in the U.S. “jeopardizes? Jews. http://worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=54278
Meanwhile, a conference held February 15-17 at Dartmouth College explored similarities in the migratory struggles of the two groups. http://www.thedartmouth.com/article.php?aid=2007021901060
Instead of pitting the two groups against one another, speakers sought to explore Judeophobia and Islamophobia in a comparative context, highlighting the contradiction between the western world’s self-perceived openness and growing anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment. One speaker sought to use Jewish migration experience as a template to ease Muslim integration into western life. Another drew comparisons between suburban Parisian neighborhoods largely inhabited by North Africans today and their history during WW II as Jewish immigrant neighborhoods.

Religious Plurality and the Media

Regardless of the U.S.’s self-congratulatory attitude of national unity despite cultural and religious diversity, religious plurality in the media is highlighted as a largely negative force that renders individuals unable to reconcile their differences. It is often used as an easy explanation to violence. A random mall-shooting by a teenager left five dead in Salt Lake City. Because the guilty teenager happened to be Bosnian and because the current climate happens to be anti-Islamic, the mayor sent out a vitriolic reaction to media sources stating the shooter was an “Islamic terrorist? regardless of the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that the incident had religious motivations. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=2879307

While the American Muslim population is growing at a quick clip, the U.S.’s strong roots in Protestantism also attract Christians from around the world and often convert those that migrate here. The Chinese Christian Church is now the predominant religious institution among the Chinese in the United States. Whereas only 1-5% of the population in China is Christian, a third of American Chinese are Christian. http://religion.ssrc.org/reforum/Kim/
Despite rhetoric that increased immigration and religious plurality endangers American religious life, it is a sign that religion in the U.S. is alive and well, perhaps more vibrant than ever.


Allison Adrian is a PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota’s School of Music. Her research explores the worship music of Lutheran immigrant congregations formed within the past twenty years in the Twin Cities.

Contact information: adri0032@umn.edu

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Ott published on February 23, 2007 11:33 AM.

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