The Role of Religion in the Origins and Adaptation of Immigrant Groups in the United States1


  • 1

    Revision of a paper presented at the conference on “Conceptual and Methodological Developments in the Study of International Migration” at Princeton University, May 23–25, 2003 sponsored by the Center for Migration and Development, Princeton University and the Social Science Research Council Committee on International Migration. I am grateful to Josh DeWind, Calvin Goldscheider, Alejandro Portes, and Lydio Tomasi for their insightful and constructive comments on an earlier draft of this paper. My reading and review of the literature benefited from the excellent assistance of Duc Ngo.


The classical model of the role of religion in the lives of immigrants to the United States, formulated in the writings of Will Herberg and Oscar Handlin, emphasized cultural continuity and the psychological benefits of religious faith following the trauma of immigration. Although this perspective captures an important reason for the centrality of religion in most immigrant communities (but not for all immigrants), the classical model does not address the equally important socioeconomic role of churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques in American society. The creation of an immigrant church or temple often provided ethnic communities with refuge from the hostility and discrimination from the broader society as well as opportunities for economic mobility and social recognition. In turn, the successive waves of immigrants have probably shaped the character as well as the content of American religious institutions.