We are surprised to find that there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians, more Muslims than members of the Presbyterian Church USA, as many Muslims as there are Jews, that is, between five and seven million. We are astonished to learn that Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world, with a Buddhist population spanning the whole range of the Asian Buddhist world from Sri Lanka to Korea, along with a multitude of native-born American Buddhists. We know that many of our internists, surgeons, and nurses are of Indian origin, but we have not stopped to consider that they too have a religious life, that they might pause in the morning for few minutes' prayer at an altar in the family room of their home, that they might bring fruits and flowers to the local Shiva-Vishnu Temple on the weekend. We are well aware of Latino immigration from Mexico and Central America and of the large Spanish speaking population of our cities, and yet we may not readily recognize what a profound impact this is having on American Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, from hymnody to festivals.
Historians will tell us that America has always been a land of many religions, and this is true. There was a vast, textured pluralism already here in the life ways of the Native Peoples --even before the European settlers came to these shores. The wide diversity of Native religious practices continues today, from the Piscataway of Maryland to the Blackfeet of Montana. The people who came across the Atlantic from Europe also had diverse religious traditions --Spanish and French Catholics, British Anglicans and Quakers, Sephardic Jews, and Dutch Reform Christians. As we shall see, this diversity broadened over the course of three hundred years of settlement. Many of the Africans brought to these shores with the slave trade were Muslims. The Chinese and Japanese who came to seek their fortune in the mines and fields of the West brought with them a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian traditions. Eastern European Jews, and Irish and Italian Catholics also arrived in force in the nineteenth century. Both Christian and Muslim immigrants came from the Middle East. Punjabis from Northwest India came in the first decade of the twentieth century. Most of them were Sikhs who settled in the Central and Imperial Valleys of California, built America's first gurdwaras, and intermarried with Mexican women, creating a rich Sikh-Spanish sub-culture. The stories of all these peoples are an important part of America's immigration history.
The immigrants of the last three decades, however, have expanded the diversity of our religious life dramatically, exponentially. 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 have also come 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. There is not a city in the land where church signboards do not display the meeting times of Korean or Latino congregations that nest within the walls of old urban Protestant and Catholic churches. While the central chapters of this book focus on the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim streams of America's religious life, old and new, it is important to hold in mind that these are but part of a far more complex religious reality of encyclopedic dimensions.
Reprinted from A New Religious America by Diana Eck. Copyright Diana Eck 2001. Used by permission of the publisher, Harper SanFrancisco. All rights reserved.
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