The growth of immigrant religions in the U.S. has often been associated with increasing civic involvement as congregations create “social capital” (skills and resources) for their members to participate in their wider communities.
But recent studies suggest that other dynamics and demands made upon congregations may not always generate expected civic commitments. At the late October conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) RW attended in Norfolk, Va., three presentations highlighted some of the ways that immigrant congregations and religions may resist or struggle with civic involvement.
In an analysis of the Putnam Social Capital Benchmark Survey of nearly 29,000 Americans, Elaine Howard Ecklund of Cornell University and Jerry Z. Park of Notre Dame University found the data on Asian-Americans showing a mixed picture when it comes to civic involvement. Asian-American Christians were more likely to volunteer in non-religious activities than other Asian-Americans. Participation in church activities, including attendance, appears to lead to greater involvement with their community (outside of the congregation).
With some surprise, Ecklund and Park found that those involved in Eastern religious traditions are no more likely to participate in their communities than are the unaffilated. The researchers speculate that it may be that Christian congregations are more established and accepted in American society and provide an easier way to volunteer with others than more ethnic Eastern religious groups.
While Eastern Orthodoxy has been present in the U.S. for well over two centuries, new waves of immigration in the 1990s may be reviving the strong ethnic and cultural dimensions of these churches. One consequence of this process is the decreasing civic involvement of Orthodox churches in wider American society. That was one of the conclusions of a presentation by Russian sociologist Alexey D. Krindatch at the SSSR. In presenting results from a study on Eastern Christianity in North America completed in 2000-2002 (more information is available at:http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/research_orthodoxindex.html), Krindatch finds that about 40 percent of the membership of the Eastern Orthodox churches studied (Ukrainian, Albanian, Romanian, Syrian and Russian jurisdictions) are first-generation immigrants, thereby increasing the role that ethnicity plays in parish life.
This is also leading to new conflicts between older Americanized members and new immigrant members [see last month’s cover article on converts and ethnic parishes] and to more opposition among clergy to inter-Christian marriages (between Orthodox and Christian) and ecumenical activities.
Most of the churches surveyed showed a low level of interest in active social participation in wider American society, and in many cases social services (such as soup kitchens) that are provided by the parishes are frequently offered exclusively to the members of the parish and not to all members of the surrounding community. Krindatch expected that the greater the duration of a U.S.-born group or parish in the U.S., the more involvement they would have in society.
But the influence of a parish’s particular ethnic heritage and “mother church” [most U.S. Orthodox churches are still tied to the national churches of their origin] have more influence than the duration of their presence in the U.S. Krindatch found that even American born priests reflect these traditional views because clergy “are more likely to be found among those persons for whom the keeping of traditional ethnic culture and identity is of essential significance.”
Although not focusing on Islam and civic life, Ihsan Bagby’s presentation of a survey of Muslims also suggest a pattern of resistance to integration into mainstream American society and political life. In a survey of six mosques with 600 respondents, the University of Kentucky’s Bagby found that 28 percent of leaders and 26 percent of laity strongly agree that America is immoral.
Two-thirds of all respondents agree that America is corrupt. Those taking the Koran most literally and Sunni Muslim groups were the most likely to agree that the U.S. is immoral, while African-American Muslims showed the lowest rate of agreement. Bagby did find that those agreeing with the statement that the U.S. is immoral tended to show lower political activiity. But this greater reluctance to be politically involved did not translate into rejection of all community involvement.
Bagby’s conclusion may apply to other immigrants showing resistance to integration into American civil life: “They’re negotiating their position in the dominant culture….It’s not so much isolation as insulation. They go into society but want to be insulated from the negative effects of U.S. society, just as Catholics and Mormons did before them.”