Using Religion to Unite Racial Groups
In my previous post,“The Downside of Diversity?” I wrote about a new study by a Harvard professor that concluded that in areas with high levels of racial/ethnic diversity, residents are more likely to feel alienated and distrustful of each other. I wrote that these findings directly challenge a long-standing and widely-accepted notion among liberals -- that diversity is a positive thing for American society.
As the New York Times reports, in many communities around the country recent influxes of new immigrants have led to increased racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their towns and cities--and also in their churches. In contrast to the findings I described above, these demographic and social developments have actually strengthened the social bonds between church members:
The Clarkston International Bible Church, which sits along an active freight rail line down the road from the former Ku Klux Klan bastion of Stone Mountain, is now home to parishioners from more than 15 countries. . . The church’s Sunday potluck lunch features African stews and Asian vegetable dishes alongside hot dogs, sweet tea and homemade cherry pie.
The transformation of what was long known as the Clarkston Baptist Church speaks to a broader change among other American churches. Many evangelical Christians who have long believed in spreading their religion in faraway lands have found that immigrants offer an opportunity for church work within one’s own community. And many immigrants and refugees are drawn by the warm welcome they get from the parishioners, which can stand in stark contrast to the more competitive and alienating nature of working in America.
Indeed, evangelical churches have begun to stand out as rare centers of ethnic mixing in a country that researchers say has become more culturally fragmented, in part because of immigration.
The article argues that the transition to a multi-ethnic and multicultural church was not an easy one. As their town was experiencing these profound demographic changes, many old-time white residents became appalled and convinced that “their town” was being “taken over,” and many decided to move elsewhere rather than live near immigrants and people of color.
Nonetheless, other long-time residents turned to the Bible for guidance on how to deal with these social changes and found the answer in Jesus’s example of praying for unity among his followers. As a result, the church described in the article decided to rent out its facilities to Filipino, Vietnamese, and African groups for their own services. Eventually, the church invited these separate congregations to join them to form an expanded and inclusive congregation.
All groups involved had to change a little: “Merging congregations has meant compromise for everyone. The immigrants who join the main congregation have to give up worshiping in their native languages. Older Southern Baptist parishioners have given up traditional hymns and organ music.”
In so many ways, this story about the evolution of the Clarkston International Bible Church is a great example of sociology at work. The first lesson is that globalization and demographic change are practical realities of American society. With that in mind, “traditionalists” can keep running away and moving from town to town if they like, but eventually they will have to deal with these changes one way or another.
Alternatively, as people can follow the example of Clarkston church member William Perrin, the former navy pilot who swore never to use derogatory racial terms ever again. Rather than avoid the issue and such social changes, they can summon up the courage to consciously adapt and learn to even embrace change. These kinds of challenges make us stronger and more united as a community and as a society.
A third lesson we might learn from this story is the positive power of religion to facilitate social unity and solidarity. Some Americans (particularly many academics) are rather skeptical and even hostile towards organized religion. In many cases, they see religion as a divisive force that only serves to perpetuate “us versus them” mentalities.
These critics of religion sometimes have a valid point. There are plenty of examples of fundamentalist expressions of fanaticism from virtually all of the major religions of the world. Nonetheless, as this article illustrates, not all aspects of organized religion are divisive and in fact, as the Clarkston example shows, religion can serve as a powerful and effective focal point that can bring together people from diverse backgrounds.
When used in conjunction with compassion, a willingness to evolve, and inclusion, religion can have many positive powers that go beyond simple faith and spirituality. In fact, religion can meet many practical needs and foster positive responses to a variety of changes -- organizational, economic, and demographic.
The final sociological lesson is that rather than leading to more alienation and distrust as some studies suggest, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity -- with the help of some kind of “social glue” like religion -- can indeed offer us the opportunity to become better American citizens.