A New Multi-Religious America

A New Multi-Religious AmericaThe lightening of restrictions on immigration starting 1960s allowed for new waves of diverse immigration to America. As recent immigrant religious groups become more established in America they often build places of worship by either blending with existing organizations or forming new ones. Recent developments have thus created new opportunities and challenges for the American experiment in religious pluralism.

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Today America is more religiously and ethnically diverse than ever before. The wave of immigration in the early part of the 20th century made America a microcosm of Europe. But since 1965, with the new period of high immigration, America has become a microcosm of the world. The new multiculturalism has important religious implications, as new communities of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others put down roots in American soil. For all Americans, creating a truly pluralist society will mean more than just acknowledging this diversity; it will mean engaging this diversity in building a common society. Some doubt that it is possible and have argued once again for immigration restrictions. In the early 21st century, as in the last, the issues of immigration and xenophobia have once again risen to the top of the American agenda.

What sparked the new period of immigration? In the 1950s, America began to struggle seriously with its deep racial divisions. The movement for the civil rights of American blacks was already underway when John F. Kennedy was elected president. As Americans became critically aware of the deep structures of racism, they also saw that racial discrimination continued to shape American immigration law, excluding people from the “Asia-Pacific triangle.” President Kennedy prepared legislation to “eliminate discrimination between peoples and nations on a basis that is unrelated to any contribution immigrants can make and is inconsistent with our traditions of welcome.” In 1965, after his assassination, a new immigration act was signed into law by President Johnson.

In the half century since 1965, immigrants have come to the United States from all over the world. They have come from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, from Africa and the Middle East. A significant new Jewish population has come from the former Soviet Union. Muslims and Zoroastrians have come from Iran. However, the highest percentage growth rate has been in immigrants from Asia and the Pacific. As diverse as Asia is diverse, they have brought with them the many religious traditions of their homelands.

From India have come Hindus with all the many streams and strands of the Hindu religious tradition. They have gradually moved from makeshift quarters and rental space into elaborate and beautifully designed temples in such cities as Pittsburgh, Nashville, Atlanta, and Detroit. The Jain community, also from India, has created a nationwide network, building temples and launching a youth movement. Sikhs have built gurdwaras, sponsored Red Cross Blood Drives, and struggled to claim the right to wear their turbans, whether on hard-hat jobs or in the armed services.

Muslims have come from Pakistan and India, joining other Muslims from the Middle East and Africa to form Islamic centers. They have met their African American cousins and the Lebanese immigrants already settled in America, and together have worked to articulate an Islamic voice in American public affairs. They have both participated in public schools and established private Islamic schools. Today, mosques make their home in New York, Toledo, Houston, Phoenix and dozens of other cities.

From Taiwan and Hong Kong have come Buddhists, who have built some of the largest Buddhist temples in the Western hemisphere—the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, the Jade Buddhist temple in Houston, and the Chuang Yen Monastery in New York. From Korea have come both Pure Land Buddhists and Zen Buddhists, the latter attracting a large Euro-American following as well. Thais have established a network of over forty Thai temples in various American cities. Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian Buddhist communities have sprung up in all the cities where those who came as refugees in the wake of the Vietnam War have settled.

Christians have also been among the new wave of immigrants to America, with Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese bringing new diversity to American Christianity. They have nested for a time in the space of older, established churches and then gradually moved out into their own space, with burgeoning congregations. Hispanic immigrants have brought vibrant Catholic traditions to the United States, as well as a growing Hispanic Pentecostal movement. The Catholicism of immigrants from Cuba and Haiti is often subtly and seamlessly blended with Afro-Caribbean traditions.

No longer “Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish,” America is now appropriating a new multi-religious reality. Houston has over forty Islamic centers or masajid, fifteen Hindu temples, and Buddhist temples from every tradition of Asia and new Euro-American Buddhist communities. The city is home to eleven Sikh gurdwaras, a Jain temple, a Zoroastrian center, and a number of Bahá’í groups. In Silver Spring, Maryland, just beyond the Washington D.C. Beltway, is a stretch of New Hampshire Avenue just a few miles long that has come to symbolize this new multireligious reality. New neighbors sit side by side, one after another: a Cambodian Buddhist temple and monastery, a large mosque and Muslim Community Center, a Ukranian Orthodox Church, a Disciples of Christ church, a Hindu Chinmaya Mission, a Ukrainian Catholic Church, and a Gujarati Hindu temple. Along the way, Hispanic Pentecostalists, Vietnamese Catholics, and Korean evangelicals share facilities with more traditional English-speaking Presbyterian, Methodist, and Catholic congregations.

The new religious landscape of America has created new challenges for the American pluralist experiment. From the time of the first encounters of Native peoples and Christians, America has been challenged by the facts and tensions of religious difference. Never before, however, has the challenge of understanding been as great as it is today.

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The World House, Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to the issue of religious diversity here, in what would be one of his last writings, which he entitled “The World House.” He addressed the world situation with words that were remarkably apt for what in a few years would be the local and national situation in the U.S.

Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant,  Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.

…One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.

We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that suggestive phrase of Thoreau: “Improved means to an unimproved end.” This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem, confronting modern man. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the external of man’s nature subjugates the internal, dark storm clouds begin to form.

Western civilization is particularly vulnerable at this moment, for our material abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit. An Asian writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms:

You call your thousand material devices “laborsaving machinery,” yet you are forever “busy.” With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have, you want more; and wherever you are you want to go somewhere else…your devices are neither timesaving nor soulsaving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business. [Abraham Mitrie Rihbany, Wise Men from the East and from the West (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922) 137.]

This tells us something about our civilization that cannot be cast aside as a prejudiced charge by an Eastern thinker who is jealous of Western prosperity. We cannot escape the indictment.

This does not mean that we must turn back the clock of scientific progress. No one can overlook the wonders that science has wrought for our lives. The automobile will not abdicate in favor of the horse and buggy, or the train in favor of the stagecoach, or the tractor in favor of the hand plow, or the scientific method in favor of ignorance and superstition. But our moral and spiritual “lag” must be redeemed. When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly minimize the internal of our lives and maximize the external, we sign the warrant for our own day of doom.

Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to re-establish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments.

Among the moral imperatives of our time, we are challenged to work all over the world with unshakable determination to wipe out the last vestiges of racism. As early as 1906 W. E. B. DuBois prophesied that “the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line.” Now as we stand two thirds into this exciting period of history we know full well that racism is still that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.

Racism is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no geographical boundaries. In fact, racism and its perennial ally—economic exploitation—provide the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation.

…This is a treacherous foundation for a world house. Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western civilization. Arnold Toynbee has said that some twenty six civilizations have risen upon the face of the earth. Almost all of them have descended into the junk heaps of destruction. The decline and fall of these civilizations, according to Toynbee, was not caused by external invasions but by internal decay. They failed to respond creatively to the challenges impinging upon them. If Western civilization does not now respond constructively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.

…Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and tile crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This often misunderstood and misinterpreted concept has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love, I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John:  “Let us love one another: for love is of God: and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love…If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals who pursued this self defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee once said in a speech: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.

[From Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 167, 171, 172-3, 190-91. King’s Nobel Prize Lecture is available online in its entirety at nobelprize.org. “Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-lecture.html]

Buddhist Mayflower Crossing, 1976

A leader of the Chinese Buddhist community in America, C.T. Shen, speaks of a spirit of sympathy between the Buddhist and the American vision. In the prayer that preceded his well-known “Mayflower” speech, given at the Cathedral of the Pines in New Hampshire on July 4th, he likens the imaginative power of the Mayflower crossing the Atlantic to the Buddhist image of crossing the waters of danger and turbulence to the “far shore” of freedom. His use of the word “we,” linking himself to the ancestry of his new “imagined community” is revealing.

May we Americans, in this Bicentennial year, reaffirm the dedication of our ancestors and raise our Mayflower flag to sail across the vast ocean of hatred, discrimination, selfishness, and arrive on the other shore of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

May we Americans, in this Bicentennial year, reaffirm our determination to extend our love of brotherhood to all people on earth, and may we be guided by the collective wisdom of all world religions to save ourselves from self-destruction. Today our greatest fear is not of nature. Our greatest fear is of ourselves.

[From C.T. Shen, Mayflower II: On the Buddhist Voyage to Liberation (Taipei: Torch of Wisdom Publishing House, 1983), iii; (New York: Institute for Advance Studies of World Religions), 1987. Reprinted online via the Buddhist Association of the United States (www.baus.org/en).

Guru Nanak on Religious Freedom, 1994

In Washington, D.C. the editor of a Sikh newsletter reflected on the historic occasion of President Clinton’s signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, an event at which Sikhs were present.

This was almost a hundred years after the first Sikh migrants came to North America. Today over 300,000 Sikhs have adopted United States as their home. As we grow here as a community future generations of Sikhs will carry on the universal and eternal message of Guru Nanak in the United States. Our Gurus’ vision continues to hold true today in America as it was in India five hundred years ago—of a society where people are constantly aware of the Infinite within, where they live by honest labor and share with others.

[From The Newsletter of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, Washington, D.C. (Spring 1994). By permission of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation.]

The Contribution of Islam, Hassan Hathout, Fathi Osman

A group of Los Angeles Muslim leaders speak of their vision for America in their own terms. Hassan Hathout, Fathi Osman, and Maher Hathout, all leaders of the Muslim community on Vermont Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, have written extensively about a Muslim vision for America, including this 1989 statement addressed to Muslims in America.

There is an opportunity for Islam in America, and there is an opportunity for America in Islam. There exists a mutual suitability between America and Islam and Muslims. A healthy Islamic existence and a positive Islamic contribution to American life is as good for Muslims as for non-Muslims in the United States, as well as in Muslim countries, and as a matter of fact, in the whole world…

It is an inclusive duty of every Muslim to make Islam known to those who do not know it. We cannot escape that duty in America. “Say, this is my way, I call unto Allah upon clear vision, and I and those who follow me.” (Quran: 12/108)

We shall never be able to attempt that if we isolate ourselves from the society. In this respect we have a triple motivation.

The foremost is the responsibility placed upon us by God to make Islam known to the people we live with. We have found that the majority of the American people know little about Islam. They have misconceptions and mistrust. This state of affairs cannot be reconciled with the fact that at present there are millions of Muslims residing in America. Who should bear the sin of leaving the majority of Americans with a very ugly and false picture of Islam?

The second motivation is that now America is our mother country. Our children and grandchildren after us will live in this country. If we feel that the environment is morally decadent, then we should take an interest (even on selfish grounds) in cleaning it for our sake and theirs.

The third motivation is a sense of duty towards our country. To be American is not to blindly accept America as it is, but to strive to make it cleaner and better by using the available freedom, the constitutional rights and the democratic process persistently and relentlessly towards reaching that goal…

We have, therefore, decided to make our positive contribution to the American life whenever we have an opportunity. Out youth take food to the homeless. We are in touch with organizations fighting drugs, alcohol, pornography, abortion and licentiousness. We participate in dialogues with the followers of other religions and creeds on religious, cultural, social, and educational issues.

We never refuse to visit schools, universities, associations or institutions or be visited by them if this bears an opportunity for the truths about Islam to be known. Even personal relations at or outside work, providing the good example of a Muslim, is part of our duty. We are keen to be amicable and persuasive, for it we behave in a repellent way, then it is Islam we are repelling people from.

We are very conscious of God’s description of the message entrusted to the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran clearly states: “We have sent you not but as a mercy to the worlds.” This is the ultimate goal of Islam.

[From Hassan Hathout, Fathi Osman, and Maher Hathout, In Fraternity: A Message to Muslims in America (Los Angeles: Minaret Publishing House, 1989), 3-4, 28-31. By permission of Maher M. Hathout, spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Southern California.]

Building Temples and Hindus, Padma Rangaswamy, 1994

The Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago sits on a wooded hilltop in the suburb of Lemont, Illinois. When this community dedicated its temple to the Hindu gods Ganesha, Shiva, and Durga in 1994, it published a souvenir program with reflections by community members on the American Hindu experience. A South Indian Hindu woman, Padma Rangaswamy, wrote about the special importance of Hindu temples and rituals for American Hindus.

It is a truism that many Hindus who live in India go through life without asking themselves what it means to be a Hindu. But we who live abroad as minorities in a multi-cultural setting are forced to ask ourselves the fundamental questions. How can we be Hindus in America? What do we want to learn about Hinduism? By subjecting our Hinduism to the logic of question and answer, and analyzing why we do certain things, we become shapers and interpreters of Hinduism. And our interpretations are no less authentic than those of the priests and the ascetics whose spiritual lead we often seek to follow.

The transmission of Hindu religious tradition is today an international phenomenon, spanning the globe, stretching across the continents of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Here in North America, we are part of a tradition that recognizes the timeless and changeless nature of some aspects of Hinduism, but is not afraid to reinterpret traditional beliefs and practices in the light of our changing needs.

For starters, all of us from different parts of India have pooled our resources and established a temple in which we can worship in common. We are instrumental in the evolution of a trans-ethnic Hinduism that is responsive to the needs of Punjabis and Gujaratis and Tamilians alike, to name but three of the many linguistic groups who congregate under one roof. Our rituals may be somewhat different from our constituent regional traditions, but they represent a distinctly traditional Hinduism that reflects our perception of the continuity of our religious life from its ancient past.

Building and consecrating a temple is part of the process of understanding and explaining our religion to ourselves, our children, and our community. As we struggle with the important questions concerning the conduct of our lives, what choices to make regarding marriage, parent-child relationships, career options, we need to keep in mind that such choices will be far more difficult to make if we do not have any religious knowledge and if our ability to understand hidden, inner truths remains undeveloped.

The temple and temple-oriented religion are also important for us because they represent the only way we have of transmitting received tradition in a foreign setting. Without minimizing the significance of the inward or contemplative aspects of our religion, we must acknowledge the value of the ritual experiences, especially for the second and third generations who have no memory of experiences in the old country to fall back upon.

The temple can be a place for us to both remember tradition and create it anew. This is an invitation to the second generation to use your temple to learn about your religion in an open-ended process, to explore Hinduism all you want, and find out how it can meet your needs. Whatever symbolic interpretation we ascribe to the rituals we witness here on this auspicious occasion will tell us something of how we envision ourselves as Hindus in America.

[From Padma Rangaswamy, “On the Need for Temple Ritual,” Ganesha-Shiva-Durga Temple Kumbhabhishekam, commemorative souvenir (Lemont, Illinois: Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, 1994). By permission of the author.]