Skip Navigation

Immigration and Religious Freedom

(this is the text of the Director Paul Rasor's talk at the Jewish Museum and Cultural Center in Portsmouth, VA, on March 29, 2009)

I want to thank the Museum, and especially Minette Cooper for inviting me and Anna Fay Grayson for all her work arranging this event. I'm sure there are many others who also deserve much thanks.  It is an honor to be with you today and to participate in this series of inaugural events for the museum. My plan is to talk for about 35 minutes, and then I'd be happy to engage in some conversation with you.

You have asked me to speak on the topic of immigration and religious freedom. This is a good time to consider this fascinating and complex topic, because the United States is currently experiencing what is perhaps the largest and most religiously diverse immigration boom in its history. Over a period of two generations, since the 1960s, nearly 40 million immigrants have come to the United States from every continent on the globe. And these new immigrants are bringing their religious traditions and practices with them, adding new layers to the already rich tapestry of American religious pluralism. We see this every day right here in Hampton Roads, and the same kinds of changes are taking place in large cities and small towns all over the United States. Harvard scholar Diana Eck calls this "A New Religious America,"1 and it has important implications for our understanding of religious freedom.

In order to get at these issues, I want to weave together two main themes. The first is the basic relationship between immigration and religious freedom. To put it most simply, religious freedom depends on religious diversity, and immigration contributes to religious diversity. We can say, then, that immigration enhances religious freedom. We can also put this proposition the other way around: A healthy religious diversity depends on religious freedom. And since increased religious diversity tends to come with immigration, we can say that religious freedom encourages immigration. In other words, the point is that religious diversity and religious freedom are mutually reinforcing, and this means that immigration and religious freedom are also mutually reinforcing.

This relationship between religious freedom and religious diversity was clear to the American Founders as well. James Madison believed that religious pluralism was the best means of protecting both religious liberty and political liberty. Religious freedom, Madison said,

arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.2

A century later, the great African American abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass put it this way:

We should welcome men of every shade of religious opinion, as among the best means of checking the arrogance and intolerance which are the almost inevitable concomitants of general conformity. Religious liberty always flourishes best amid the clash and competition of rival religious creeds.3

I think Madison and Douglass are right. But I don't want to overstate the connection between immigration and religious freedom, because in practice it is not a simple one-to-one correlation. Much immigration today, probably most, takes place for reasons that have nothing to do with religion, and this was also true during the colonial period. And the political and legal structures that protect our religious freedom would continue to operate even if there were no immigration. But in the United States, at least, the two have often gone hand in hand, usually for the good of both.

Yet while this basic relationship is well understood, it is not universally celebrated. Many people are uncomfortable with the religious and cultural diversity that tends to come with immigration. In fact, many people are uncomfortable with any kind of difference. So it is not surprising that one of the byproducts of today's immigration boom is a resurgence of the anti-immigrant fear we see all too regularly throughout our history.

This points to one of the deep contradictions in American culture, and this is the second theme I want to address. The contradiction lies in the tension between our willingness to open our doors and welcome the stranger among us, on the one hand, and our equally strong readiness to bar the doors and shut out anyone whose presence might bring change, on the other.

I got a good lesson in this dynamic by my experience in Austin, Texas, where I lived for a couple of years during the 1980s while I was a visiting professor at the University of Texas Law School. Everywhere I went I met people who told me, "Austin is great. You're going to love it here. But it's too bad you couldn't have seen what it was like when I first got here. That was the real golden age." The trouble was that I heard this same thing from people who had lived there 5 years, or 2 years, or 20 years. It seemed to me that everyone who moved there wanted to be the last one.

We see a similar dynamic in our immigration experience. Both sides of this tension are always present, but at different times in our history one or the other becomes dominant. This affects not only our immigration policy, but also our self-understanding as a nation, and ultimately our understanding of the meaning of freedom.

We can get a sense of how this tension plays out in practice by comparing the current wave of immigration and its impact on religion in the United States with an earlier peak immigration period a century ago. In percentage terms, the largest immigration boom in U.S. history took place during the four and a half decades that mark the turn of the 20th century. Between 1880 and 1924, the population of the United States more than doubled, rising from 50 million to 114 million. Nearly 40% of this increase – 24 million people – was the result of immigration.  By 1910, 15% of the U.S. population were immigrants, the highest percentage ever. But this immigration boom did not produce the kind of religious and cultural diversity we see today. This is because the immigration laws during those years were highly discriminatory, even outright racist. Our doors facing Europe were opened wide, but our doors facing Asia, and even those that turned toward Latin America, were closed tight.

It's worth recounting some of the details of this story, because it shows how deep the negative exclusionary side of our national tension runs, and how deep an impact this can have on our freedoms. The story begins with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law that cut off all new immigration from China. In the three decades preceding this law, nearly a quarter of a million Chinese had immigrated to the Western United States. But anti-Chinese sentiment had been rising, and those who favored exclusion claimed that America had to keep these "strangers and intruders" out in order to protect against the Asian "Yellow Peril."4

This exclusionary immigration policy was eventually expanded to reach Japanese, Koreans, and other Asian groups. The result was that of the 24 million immigrants during this 45-year period, 95 percent – 22 of the 24 million – came from Europe. About 10% of these European immigrants – over 2 million – were Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe. There were still a few immigrants from Asia, mostly the Philippines (3%), as well as some from Mexico (2%) and a tiny handful from Australia. But the European bias of our immigration policy during these years was clear.

This immigration boom period ended in 1924 when even our European doorways were closed. A new immigration law, the so-called Johnson-Reed Act, established very restrictive quotas on all immigration. Things got even tighter during the Great Depression. During the boom years, from 1880 to 1924, immigration had averaged more than half a million a year. During the 1930s, it was one-tenth of that number, only half a million for the entire decade. The American welcome mat had been withdrawn.

Ironically, the Statue of Liberty, which had been planned for the 1876 Centennial, finally arrived in 1885 and was dedicated in October of 1886, four years after the Chinese Exclusion Act went into effect. Perhaps it is significant that Lady Liberty faces east, toward Europe. This whole period of our history, it seems to me, makes a mockery of the great sonnet written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 to help raise funds for the Statue and now engraved on it. "From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome," it reads.  Her "silent lips" cry

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

In another historical irony, the Statue of Liberty National Monument was established on October 15, 1924 – five months after the restrictive Johnson-Reed Immigration Act had closed this golden door. The Chinese Exclusion Act, by the way, was not repealed until 1943.

To come back to our main theme now, we can see that despite its European bias, the immigration boom of this earlier period did increase American religious diversity, though not in the sense we think of today. Largely as a result of immigration, the Catholic population grew three times faster than the general population during this period, reaching about 17 million by 1920. The American Jewish population rose even more radically, increasing from around 50,000 to more than 3 million.5 As a result, Catholics and Jews became more visibly active in American public life, though not enough to challenge the well-entrenched Protestant cultural and political establishment. That would not happen until the 1960s.

Another result, however, was that anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism rose sharply during the 1920s and 1930s. Once again we see the deep American tension at work. The mainstream prejudice against Catholics and Jews was of a piece with the violent racism against African Americans during this same period, and with the continuing anti-immigrant sentiment. Right-wing hate groups, many of them nominally Christian, gained new followers all across the country.

This exclusionism reached a low point in 1939 with the tragedy of the St. Louis, which I'm sure most of you are familiar with.  The St. Louis was a steamship carrying 900 Jews who had fled Nazi Germany. It sailed for Cuba, hoping eventually to make port in the United States. When it learned that it would not be allowed to dock in Cuba, it turned to the United States, only to be refused here as well.  The ship was forced to return to Europe, and while many of the passengers were accepted by other countries, many others ended up returning to Germany and to almost certain death.6 As Diana Eck says, "there could be no more tragic expression of America's sentiment for exclusion" than this.7

This whole sad chapter in our history shows a different kind of correlation between immigration and religious freedom – one in which xenophobia and anti-immigrant paranoia denied the basic freedoms of religious and ethnic minorities, the very groups the First Amendment of our Constitution was designed to protect. In these circumstances, both immigration and religious freedom suffered.

The good news is that this exclusionist sentiment began to ease following World War II. While immigration was still limited for a time, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic rhetoric diminished sharply. Protestant cultural dominance was coming to an end, a transformation symbolized by the election of the Catholic President John F. Kennedy in 1960.

From the perspective of immigration, the real change began in 1965 with a new and far-reaching immigration law. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 reopened America's doors – not only those facing east to Europe, but those facing west and south as well. This new law abolished the restrictive quotas of earlier immigration laws, expanded family related immigration, and – at long last – eliminated the systematic exclusion of Asians that had been going on for nearly a century. In this sense, the new immigration law was part of the larger package of civil rights legislation enacted during the 1960s. Robert Kennedy, who was Attorney General of the United States at the time, put it this way: "As we are working to remove the vestiges of racism from our public life, we cannot maintain racism as the cornerstone of our immigration law."8 This new law was signed by President Johnson on the Fourth of July, 1965, in a ceremony fittingly held in front of the Statue of Liberty.

The 1965 Immigration law triggered the second great immigration wave, which is still going on. In the four and a half decades since 1965, approximately 38 million immigrants have come to the United States, far more than came during the earlier period. Immigrants now make up one-eighth (12.5%) of the U.S. population, a percentage only slightly below the peak year of 1910. But far more important than the numbers is the diversity of these new immigrants.  Recall that during the earlier peak period, between 1880 and 1924, 95% of all immigrants had come from Europe. Today, only 13% are from Europe. Half, just under 20 million, are from Latin America; a quarter – around 10 million – are from Asia and the Middle East, and about 4%, or one and a half million, are from Africa.9 This geographic inclusiveness is largely responsible for the radical religious pluralism we now see everywhere in the United States.

Religious pluralism is not new, of course. Even in colonial times, those who came to the American continent from Europe were not all alike. These early settlers included a diverse range of Christians, including Catholics, Quakers, Unitarians, and Protestants of all stripes, as well as Jews, pagans, groups who practiced magic and folk traditions, and more. The Native peoples who were already here also had a range of religious practices that differed from place to place. And those who came in chains from Africa continued to practice a variety of African religions, and many were Muslim. Many historians have pointed out that there was far more religious pluralism during the Founding period than is commonly supposed.

But the pluralism of today is of a different order. Diana Eck nicely captures its flavor in the following passage from her book A New Religious America:

Buddhists have come from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Korea; Hindus from India, East Africa, and Trinidad; Muslims from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Middle East, and Nigeria; Sikhs and Jains from India; and Zoroastrians from both India and Iran. Immigrants from Haiti and Cuba have brought Afro-Caribbean traditions, blending both African and Catholic symbols and images. New Jewish immigrants have come from Russia and the Ukraine, and the internal diversity of American Judaism is greater than ever before. The face of American Christianity has also changed with large Latino, Filipino, and Vietnamese Catholic communities; Chinese, Haitian, and Brazilian Pentecostal communities; Korean Presbyterians, Indian Mar Thomas, and Egyptian Copts. In every city in the land church signboards display the meeting times of Korean or Latino congregations that nest within the walls of old urban Protestant and Catholic churches. … [And this] is but part of a far more complex reality of encyclopedic dimensions.10

The upshot of this new immigration wave is suggested by the subtitle of Professor Eck's book: "How a 'Christian Country' Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation." I don't want to overload you with numbers here, but it's worth mentioning that the percentage of Christians in the United States has dropped from 86% to just over 75% in less than two decades. Protestants are only barely a majority today, at 51%, and there is no doubt that this number will soon drop below 50%. In fact, I think that the huge diversity in American Protestantism, which includes everything from Fundamentalists to liberals, Pentecostals to rationalists, and Evangelicals to feminist liberationists, means that it is meaningless to speak of a Protestant or even a Christian majority. We are all religious minorities now, whether we are recent immigrants or not.

The change we see everywhere around us is not just about numbers. The nature of today's immigrants is different than those of a century ago in other important ways too – ways that affect how religious freedom is played out. For one thing, today's immigrants are on the whole far more educated than their counterparts of a century ago. Over the past 20 years, the educational level of immigrants other than Hispanics has been higher than the average educational level of native-born Americans.11 I suspect that this is at least partly attributable to the inadequacies of the American educational system. But the most important reason is that the 1965 Immigration law established preferences for professionals and skilled workers. As we all know from our own experience, many of our doctors, engineers, and scientists are foreign born. Interestingly, the religious group with the highest educational and income levels in the U.S. today is not Jews or Unitarian Universalists, or even Episcopalians, as you might guess, but Hindus.12

Another important difference from the earlier immigration period is the reality of globalization. A century ago, most immigrants did not expect ever to go back, or even to maintain regular contact with their homeland or the families they left behind. But today, the realities of world-wide air travel, the internet, and satellite-based cell phone technology mean that immigrants can easily maintain strong ties with their homelands. They can read hometown newspapers on the web, receive radio and television programs in their native languages, and even return home for family weddings or holiday festivals. And, they can bring to the United States skilled artisans and religious leaders from the homeland who can build and guide new worship spaces in traditional ways.

Religious traditions are never static; they evolve over time in response to new situations and by virtue of coming into contact with other religions and cultures. This is happening today on a huge scale. Buddhism in California, for example, does not look like Buddhism in Thailand or Vietnam, and Islam in Virginia does not look like Islam in Iran or Indonesia. But at the same time, globalization means that many of the traditional religious and cultural practices are also being preserved. We are far less likely today to see the kind of assimilation that was the norm in the first half of the 20th century.

Religious pluralism right here in Hampton Roads is part of this picture, and I'd be remiss if I didn't offer a few observations on this as well. Here too we see the effects of immigration. The connection between immigration, religious pluralism, and religious freedom has long been an important part of the Virginia story. Virginia is in many ways the birthplace of our modern understanding of religious freedom, thanks largely to Mr. Jefferson's famous statute. I like to think of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College as contributing to this long Virginia tradition.

We are fortunate to be able to see our local religious pluralism close up. To the rest of the country, the most well-known and visible religious institutions in Hampton Roads are probably Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University, and Edgar Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightenment, both located in Virginia Beach. I often wish we could afford to put a large display featuring our Center in the Norfolk Airport concourse, ideally right next to the larger than life picture of Pat Robertson that greets Norfolk arrivals.  The rest of the country also knows that we are in the Bible belt, so outsiders would expect to find the large number of Evangelical Protestant churches we have. In the current edition of the Verizon yellow pages, the listing for Baptist churches alone goes on for eleven full columns over four pages.

But we all know that there is more to religion in Hampton Roads than this. Jews have been present since the end of the 18th century – since 1787 to be precise, when Moses Myers moved here from New York the same year the U.S. Constitution was written. Jewish immigration from Germany in the mid-19th century enabled the first local Jewish congregation to be formed in the 1840s, and later led to the dedication of the first synagogue in 1859, I believe. The Jewish community expanded again in the 1880s and 1890s, as Jews from Eastern Europe came to Hampton Roads as part of the peak immigration period I've already discussed.13 This process has continued, and today there are more than a dozen congregations in Hampton Roads, including Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations.

The appearance of Islam in Hampton Roads is more recent. According to my Virginia Wesleyan colleague Dr. Craig Wansink, the current Muslim community in Hampton Roads is usually dated from the late 1960s, and it has grown rapidly since then.14 Today, there are about a dozen mosques and Islamic community centers in the area. The current immigration wave is responsible for much of this growth, and Muslims in Hampton Roads come from all areas of Asia and the Middle East, among other places.

But, like their Jewish counterparts, local Muslim congregations also include many American-born members who converted to Islam from other faiths, often from Christianity. We will explore this phenomenon in our Nexus Interfaith Dialogue program tomorrow evening at Virginia Wesleyan College, just as we did for Judaism in February.  Finally, we should also note that in 1997 the Norfolk Naval Station became the home of the first mosque on any U.S. military installation, as well as the first Muslim Navy Chaplain.

Immigration has contributed to the growth of several other religious groups in Hampton Roads as well, including the large Hindu congregation whose Temple is located in Chesapeake, several small and highly diverse Buddhist groups scattered throughout Hampton Roads, and two active Sikh congregations in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.

And this is only part of Hampton Road's healthy religious pluralism. Some of you will remember that the Nexus Interfaith Dialogue programs started as a forum for Jewish-Christian dialogue. The Nexus program for 1999-2000 is listed precisely in these terms. But Nexus has also become more inclusive over the years, reflecting the increased religious pluralism of our community.  Over the past three years, our panel discussions have included Evangelical Protestants, mainline and liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostals, Muslims, Wiccans, Hindus, Quakers, Baha'is, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Mormons, Sikhs, Native Americans, and Seventh Day Adventists. These dialogues contribute to religious freedom by encouraging greater interfaith understanding.

This does not mean that our work is done. We still face many challenges, and the forces of exclusion and closed doors continue to be felt. In fact, our very diversity inevitably brings its own set of challenges. Misunderstandings are often unavoidable as so many groups, with so many different religious practices and beliefs, negotiate for their share of the American social and political space.  Immigration plays a role here too, since religious differences are often grounded in cultural and language differences.

Some of our challenges arise from the simple fact that our religious differences are often quite visible today. An obvious example is distinctive clothing. Even before the 1965 immigration reform, many of us grew up seeing Jewish men wearing skullcaps or tassled prayer shawls, or Catholic priests in their clerical collars and nuns wearing habits or veils, or, depending on where you lived, perhaps Amish families in plain dress. Today we also see Buddhist monks in robes, Sikh men in turbans and beards, Muslim women in hijabs or burqas, Hindu women in Saris, and more. These kinds of religious markers often make easy targets for hate groups, as we saw in the aftermath of 9/11.

Here, religious freedom requires greater education and increased understanding, one of the things to which the Center is devoted. Without this, we can easily fall into stereotypes even when we think we are being tolerant. I recall an incident several years ago when I went to one of the major New York comedy clubs. The comic was doing one of those shticks where he talked to the audience and then tried to create funny responses to the things people told him.  He had already made a few questionable attempts at ethnic humor when he noticed a man at one of the rear tables wearing a turban.  "Tell me, sir," he said to the man, "where are you from?" "Brooklyn," came the answer.  The comic had no response to this.

Other challenges may be less visible, and many of them raise difficult legal questions. Can a Muslim woman who is a school bus driver be forced to remove her veil?  Can a Sikh high school student carry the small dagger symbolizing his religious initiation to school? Does a Hindu temple have to comply with zoning laws requiring all new construction to conform to a particular architectural style, such as Spanish stucco or New England clapboard? Must employers accommodate the daily prayer obligations of their Muslim employees? Can a Seventh Day Adventist be fired for refusing to accept an overtime shift on Saturday?15

While many of these issues will have to be resolved in the courts, others will be resolved through dialogue, as neighbors of diverse backgrounds get to know each other and communities adjust to these new realities. I believe that if we approach these challenges with open minds and welcoming hearts, our mutual understanding will deepen simply as a result of having to face them. This is also part of the meaning of religious freedom.

Religious pluralism is a reality of modern life, and so is continuous world-wide immigration. There is no going back to any simpler time. Our communities, schools, and workplaces bring us into daily contact with persons of widely divergent religious practices and beliefs, many of whom were born in other countries. Some people respond to this diversity by ignoring it. Others perceive difference as a threat, and respond with suspicion and fear. The better path is to see our differences as possibilities for mutual understanding and growth. This approach affirms both our common humanity and our profound differences. It also strengthens the democratic principles that support religious freedom. As James Madison recognized, a healthy religious pluralism is as vital to democracy as a healthy democracy is to religious pluralism. Or as Diana Eck once said, "Democracy doesn't function well if you're afraid of your neighbors."

In the end, religious freedom is not simply about political structures and constitutional law. This means that it cannot be protected solely by our political and legal institutions. It also requires social space, and creating and protecting this space is up to us. The social space for religious freedom expands as new groups continue to find their place in our vast American polyglot.  And immigration contributes to this process by helping nurture and revitalize this space.

The presence of the Jewish Museum and Cultural Center here in Portsmouth will help expand this vital social space in Hampton Roads, and in turn help nurture the religious freedom we all cherish. I want to thank all of you for your contributions to this ongoing work, and I am grateful to be able to share this cultural space with you.

Thank you.

1. Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How A "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).

2. James Madison, "General Defense of the Constitution," June 12, 1788; in Robert S. Alley, ed., James Madison on Religious Liberty (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1985), 71.

3. Quoted in Eck, p. 57.

4. Eck, 51-52.

5. William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 138.

6. The story is told in See also Eck, 60-61.

7. Eck, 61.

8. Quoted in Eck, 7.

9. See Michael W. Foley and Dean R. Hoge, Religion and the New Immigrants: How Faith Communities Form Our Newest Citizens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 57-58.

10. Eck, 3-4.

11. Foley and Hoge, 58.

12. Pew Landscape Survey, 2008.

13. See Melvin I. Urosky, Commonwealth and Community: The Jewish Experience in Virginia (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1997), 63-64.

14. See Craig S. Wansink, "Faith of Our Neighbors: World Religions in Hampton Roads," in Catharine Cookson, ed., Religious/Freedom Southern Style (Norfolk: Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College, 2002):68-77, at 73-74.

15. See Eck, p. 8, for additional examples.

Website Comments/Feedback

©2014 Virginia Wesleyan College