Evangelicals & evangelicalisms:

The evangelical complexion

posted by Joel Carpenter

Just who are America’s evangelicals? Conventional wisdom says that evangelical Protestantism is a white-bread, white people’s religion. The movement’s leading voices in public affairs discourse—Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, megachurch pastors Bill Hybels and Rick Warren and essayist Lauren Winner—all are quite white. Recent polls by the Pew Forum underscore this general impression. More than eighty percent of those polled who are members of evangelical Protestant denominations or independent churches are Caucasians.

There are good reasons for seeing the historic black churches as a tradition unto themselves, both as a sociological fact and in their worship and outlook as well. But very soon if not already, the standard Protestant categories we have been taught to use—mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and black Protestant—are going to become decreasingly clear, either for political purposes, or for understanding American religious life more generally. It is confusing enough to note that there have been Spirit-filled “charismatic” evangelical movements among American mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics for more than forty years now, or that several of the Orthodox communions in the States—most notably the Antiochian Orthodox Church—have become havens for evangelicals seeking more ancient roots. But I am thinking of yet another level of complexity in sorting out who’s who in American religion. It comes from recent patterns of immigration.

The conventional wisdom about immigration is that it has increased religious diversity. Mosques and temples are now more visibly part of the American landscape than before, even here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Yet the most important religious dynamic of recent immigration, sociologist Steve Warner argues, is that it has brought even more diversity to American Christianity. Two-thirds of the new immigrants are Christians. The most prominent factor in this realm is Latin American immigration and the burgeoning Latino population in the United States. The conventional wisdom is that Latin America is pervasively Roman Catholic, and so are Latinos in the United States. Indeed, some 68 percent of Latinos in the U.S. are Roman Catholic and Latinos now are 30 percent of all U.S. Catholics. More than half of Latino Catholics in the U.S., however, identify with the charismatic movement. Another major piece of news is the rise of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America and among U.S. Latinos. In both Latin America as a whole and among U.S. Latinos, about 15 percent are now evangelical Protestants.

Although Latin Americans make up half of the nation’s foreign born, the other half of the story is even more interesting and complex. Arab Americans, both foreign- and U.S.-born, constitute about 3.5 million in the United States, and more than 60 percent of them are Christians (35% are Catholics, 18% are Orthodox, and 10% are Protestants). The Philippines—Asia’s one nation where Christianity is in the majority (85 percent)—is the second largest national source of immigrants to the U.S., after Mexico. And although most Asian Americans come from a region where Christianity is mostly a small minority, Asian immigrants to the U.S. often include higher percentages of Christians than the populations at home. Christians constitute 30 percent of the South Korean population, but in the U.S., the Korean community is 80 percent Christian. China is the third-largest national source of immigrants. Christians there total less than ten percent of the population, experts estimate, but Christians appear to be much better represented among Chinese immigrants to the U.S. Chinese Americans have founded well over 1,000 new Christian congregations in the past 25 years, most of them evangelical and Pentecostal. Koreans now have more than 2,000 American congregations.

African-born American residents make up one of the smaller new immigrant groups, at 1.2 million, but it is growing rapidly. Seven percent of new immigrants each year come from Africa. Unlike the African migration to Europe, which is weighted toward predominantly Muslim North Africa and Francophone West Africa, the majority of the African immigrants in the U.S. are from Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa and the majority are Christian. Recent news stories about support for Barack Obama in the African immigrant communities mention the natural affinities that these recent migrants feel for the candidate, but they do not mention another important source of affinity: Obama’s “born-again” Christian experience. Churches founded by African immigrants are springing up by the hundreds. One Nigerian denomination, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Pentecostal denomination founded in 1952, has 250 congregations and home worship groups meeting regularly in the U.S. African immigrants are among the nation’s best educated new arrivals, and their leadership potential is emerging already. The dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the U.S., is Dr. Tite Tiénou, from Burkina Faso, West Africa.

The growth of evangelical Christianity among the new immigrants is affecting homegrown evangelical ministries too. In the past few years, some of the most prominent churches representing evangelical Christianity in America have been either slowing in growth or not growing. For the fifth year in a row, the Southern Baptist Convention has reported declining baptisms. But some smaller evangelical denominations are sustaining their size and growth rates by welcoming immigrant congregations. Both the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Evangelical Covenant Church now report that a quarter or more of their adherents in the U.S. worship in immigrant congregations. Larger bodies, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches, report that were it not for growing immigrant and ethnic minority congregations, their annual statistics would be even more negative.

One area where the new immigrants—Asian Americans in particular—are making a dramatic difference is in campus ministries. According to sociologist Rebecca Kim, the number of Asians in the Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship has nearly tripled over the past 15 years. At Yale, the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ was 100 percent white in the 1980s; today it is 90 percent Asian American. At UC Berkeley and UCLA, where 40 percent of the student body is Asian American, 80 percent of the students in the evangelical campus ministries are Asian American. These student Christian movements have been important seedbeds for the next generation’s evangelical leaders, so we should expect to see more Asians in the movement’s leadership in the years to come.

What might be the political impact of this growing diversity among U.S. evangelicals? Only citizens may vote, so today’s political analysts may feel justified in leaving these complicating factors out of their equations. But today’s immigrants and their children are tomorrow’s voting citizens. And it is quite clear where the United States is headed demographically. In another quarter-century, the United States’ general population will look like that of California, with no ethnic or racial group comprising a majority. Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the U.S. Census, states: “We’re on our way to becoming the first country in history that is literally made up of every part of the world.”

As American evangelical Christianity is increasingly made up of people and movements from every part of the world, some things may change in evangelical Christians’ outlook. One can expect that the modest current trend, especially in the rising generation, toward more concern about poverty at home and abroad, will continue to grow. So might interest in foreign policy; today’s evangelicals are already growing increasingly concerned about human rights abroad, and the many new immigrants in their midst likely will support those views. Concern about fixing the broken immigration system will also grow. Other things that currently characterize evangelical opinion and outlook will likely be fortified, such as traditional views about sexual behavior and families.

Among Latinos, the one politically important group today with a large immigrant population, these trends are already clear. Latino evangelicals support government programs to help the poor and vulnerable, but also strong “pro-life” and “traditional marriage” social views. Which political party benefits? Latino evangelicals are fairly evenly split at the moment, Pew polls show, with 32 percent favoring the Democrats and 37 percent favoring the Republicans. Latino evangelicals going Republican has been a much-discussed trend, but neither party at the moment lines up as a perfect match for the group’s concerns. For many, the subtitle of Jim Wallis’ recent book, God’s Politics, pretty much sums up how these views cross-cut current partisanship: “the right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it.”

So John Schmalzbauer is right to suggest that evangelicals’ social and political views are more varied than is commonly supposed. One of the reasons why this is so, and will remain so for a long time, is that evangelicals are more culturally varied than is commonly supposed. They are coming from all over the world, and they are expressing revivalist Christianity in more ways than ever before.

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