Vol. 10, No. 8 email@example.com www.thespiritualherald.org August 2011 © 2011 Eastern Tsalagi Publishing Co.
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Catholics and Evangelicals Vie for No. 1 Religion in U.S.
By Tom Toolen
WASHINGTON--Fierce competition—now developing among economically hard-hit European, Latin American, African and Middle Eastern countries—may soon decide which denomination will emerge as the number one religion in America.
As of now, Catholics and Evangelicals are running neck-to-neck. Catholics comprise 23.9 percent, whereas Evangelical Protestants have topped the list of religions in recent years with a whopping 26.3 percent, replacing the long-running Catholic lead.
However, due to the economic turmoil in Europe, the Evangelical foothold here may soon slip. The majority of immigrants—both legal and illegal—come from countries that are mostly Catholic. They include Ireland, Portugal, Spain and even Italy. Many immigrants are expected to come from Greece, although its people are mostly Greek Orthodox.
The exploding immigration in the nation is no longer only Catholic, however, as many faiths, especially Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, are increasing their presence throughout the nation, mostly in cities and urban areas.
Catholicism lost its standing as the top religion because millions of Latin Americans, who had been mostly Catholic, adopted the Pentecostal faith in recent years. In addition, due to priest scandals and other political problems, many Latinos, who are strongly religious, may continue to move away from Catholicism.
Immigration experts point out that Europeans, especially the Irish, are already here—many illegally. There are an estimated 50,000 Irish illegal immigrants in the U.S., and 30,000 of them live in New York City, especially in the Bronx, Queens and Upper Manhattan.
The Irish are not alone in increasing the number of Catholics in the United States. New York City, which served as the entry point for the early immigrants, continues to attract many diverse races from across the globe.
Not since the turn of the 20th century has there been such a large influx of Catholics. During the 1920s, many of the same aforementioned European groups—along with European Jews— flooded the United States, making Catholicism the number one religion in America. Another reason for the increased numbers of Catholics is the church’s opposition to abortion and birth control. Thus, Catholics have been known to produce children at a faster rate than many other faiths.
Like the previous immigrants, the new wave is leaving their respective countries because of the economic strife that has consumed Western Europe as much as it has America. In fact, many European countries are slated to default on their debt obligations. Many economists believe that it is no longer a question of whether they will default, but when it will happen. Spain and Ireland are among the most troubled countries. Greece, which is on the list, however, is not a Catholic country, but is Greek Orthodox.
“They are said to be coming from the nations where their ancestors did so many decades ago,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington. “But most of the new immigrants are from Latin America, Africa and Asia.”
“Only 10 percent of today’s immigrants come from Europe,” said Aaron Terrazas, policy analyst at the Migration Institute, “so most of the new arrivals are coming from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South and Central America.
“So if we look at other immigrant groups beyond Hispanics—essentially from Korea—communities were coalesced around Protestant churches,” he said. “Immigrants from South Asia and China tend to maintain their Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths.”
While the growing Hispanic immigration from Mexico and Central America still is Catholic, a large number of them are Pentecostals, or are converting to the religion.
So the rising number of European arrivals is going to challenge the immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East for jobs and housing. And many Europeans are willing to compete for the low-paying jobs that their long-ago ancestors once performed upon arrival on these shores.
Because of their prior immigration and political connections, the Irish especially have less trouble finding jobs, said Niall O’Dowd, chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.
“The Irish have positive political identification and a lot of access to both Democratic and Republican leaders,” he said. “Every group has its strengths, but the key for immigrants is to have sympathetic politicians of the same ethnic background, as well as the backing of the local church.”
Despite the potential of large numbers of European Catholics coming to America, their domination is not a slam-dunk. There are other groups that are moving in, such as the Chinese and East Indians who may themselves turn the tide.
A random survey by The Spiritual Herald reveals that the transition of new immigrants changing old neighborhoods is taking place largely in urban cities. For example, in the South Bronx, which has been a Puerto Rican Catholic stronghold for nearly a half century, there is a growing number of Mexicans and even Bangladeshis, the latter of whom are Muslim. “But now they are battling other groups for space and power in areas they once controlled,” said Terrazas. Many Puerto Ricans are now finding new neighborhoods in nearby suburbs.
In so-called Spanish Harlem, Mexican Evangelicals are also beginning to edge out Puerto Rican Catholics, who have been in that community since the 1950s.
“Urban areas like New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago are the places where immigrants used to settle, but that too is changing,” said Terrazas. “That was true a century ago and up until 1960, but it is not so much anymore.”
Perhaps the most unusual situation is in Nassau County, an affluent community east of New York City. There, the once dominant Catholic population has seen a strong increase of Muslims from various countries in the Middle East and who are actively competing with Catholics.
Despite the friction between Christianity and Islam, Muslim immigrants continue to come to America. There are an estimated three million Muslims in the United States, and this number is expected to grow.
“Since the majority of immigrants to America are Hispanic,” noted Lugo, “the overall population of the United States may remain Catholic. Immigration is tilting the nation toward Catholicism. We will soon be a minority Protestant country.”
But he added that Pentecostals are making inroads in Catholic growth too. “Pentecostals and charismatic worship styles in American churches are greatly favored by immigrants from the global south, which includes Central and South America,” he said.
Another major shift has been occurring for the past decade from the millions of undocumented Hispanics who are becoming Pentecostal. For centuries, many of the Hispanics from Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia and other South and Central American countries have belonged to the Catholic faith.
The new immigration pattern reflects a remarkable change because, with the exception of Jews, virtually all of the immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Catholics.
They included such ethnic groups as Irish, Italians, Polish and Germans. These groups are largely responsible for making Catholicism the number one religion in the United States.
According to Terrazas, immigrants are increasingly settling around the country in the suburbs, and in some cases these “places do not have a lot of experience with immigrants.”
As a result, immigrants are subject to groups that do not understand or trust them as much as those in urban locales, so they grasp onto their religious customs as a buffer which makes them slow to assimilate.
In addition, integration into American culture has taken on an increased significance in this country, adding pressure for immigrants to assimilate.
“We don’t want anyone to lose their identity or forget where they come from, but becoming American and contributing to their new country is of prime importance,” said Ira Mehlman, national media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
Despite popular thought, tension and difficult assimilation among immigrant groups is not a new occurrence. During the great wave of the 1920s, the Irish, Italians, Polish and Germans experienced a similar affair.
“People look at the great immigration wave and say ‘look how great assimilation worked out,’” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA.
“What they don’t understand is that they didn’t do so well during the great wave,” he continued. “They had the same kinds of problems that the Hispanic groups have now—meaning lower incomes, urban slums, etc. When the immigration was high during the great wave, immigrants suffered. Their lives only got better when the great wave ended and the number of immigrants came down.”