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Exploring Religion

Session 8: Overview

Race, Ethnicity, Immigration

Learning objectives

  • Become aware of the racial and ethnic diversity of religion in the U.S.
  • Understand how ethnicity and immigration shape religion in the U.S.
  • Understand how race and racism shape religion in the U.S.

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When people move around and groups experience each other for the first time, differences between groups are likely to become important markers and often barriers. In the U.S., the dual legacies of slavery and immigration have shaped not only the social, but also the religious, context in profound ways. From its founding, race and immigration have been sources of religious conflict, competition and growth in the U.S. Debates about slavery and abolition embroiled religious groups in the 18th and 19th centuries, reconfiguring denominational loyalties and influencing theological differences. Today, the legacy of religion and race being  intertwined in American history continues to guide stances towards issues of racism, racial justice and racial diversity within and between religious groups. 

Immigration and ethnicity similarly unites and divides religious groups in the U.S., though the religious identity of immigrants has changed over the centuries. Whereas the first religious immigrants to come to the U.S. after the colonial Protestants were Italian and Irish Catholics, recent waves of religious immigrants have included more Buddhist, Hindus and Muslims from countries throughout Asia and Catholic and Pentecostal immigrants from Central and South America. Immigrants to the U.S. tend to be religious, and this also tends to make places where they settle more religious. Religion is a source of solidarity among immigrant communities and within ethnic enclaves. Religion also is used to support antagonism towards ethnic and national “others.” This has been particularly apparent in anti-Muslim sentiment since 9/11.

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(Photo provided by Christopher Scheitle and Roger Finke. For more information on the photos, see Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2012).)

Racial and ethnic diversity also is importantly related to religious diversity around the world. The countries with the most out-migration also tend to be those that restrict religious practice and religious diversity. Religious diversity also tends to follow along ethnic lines in much of the world. For instance, in Nigeria, the north is predominantly Muslim among the Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri ethnic groups, while the south is predominantly Christian among the Igno, Ogoni and some Yoruba, who began converting following national independence in the 1960s. Such ethnic/religious diversity often is a source of conflict within and between nations around the world.

Despite the conflict, racial and ethnic diversity among religious adherents in the U.S. is increasing and reshaping religious groups and attitudes. In this module, we will explore the racial and ethnic diversity of religious adherents in the U.S., and we’ll investigate how increasing diversity and immigration shape religion in the U.S. We’ll also focus on the fraught relationship between race, racism and religion in hopes of better understanding the issues involved.

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