Diana Eck has produced some of the most valuable modern work on Indian religion. Her best-known book is probably Banaras (Columbia University Press, 1998), a wonderfully detailed examination of the sacred geography of the holy city that Westerners used to call “Benares.” That book was so good because of Eck’s ability to understand the symbolic relationship between temples and shrines. Eck has the great gift of being able to see and to connect. In A New Religious America, however, only half of these abilities are displayed. She tells us a huge amount about the practice of once-foreign religions in North America—religions such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism—but I do not believe she is seeing anything like the whole picture: Concentrating on the individual trees prevents her from seeing the sacred wood.
Most of A New Religious America represents Eck’s explorations of the growing networks of “other” religions in the United States, accounts of visits to mosques in Detroit or Sikh gurdwaras in California. These stories are well told; they raise important questions about the religious and political assumptions of America in the coming century. From the simplest non-spiritual angle, we face such issues as how American Hindus by Muslims will vote in years to come. With their emphasis on business, family, and tradition, they seem like natural conservative Republicans, and a case has been made that the 2000 presidential election was decided by effective bloc voting of Muslims in key American states. Yet how will these “natural” alliances be affected by foreign-policy issues or by the negative effects of anti-immigration efforts? In the future, will some U.S. politicians have to treat the Palestinian cause as a sacred icon, just as their predecessors had to affect unquestioning loyalty to Irish unity or the state of Israel? Eck provides a useful guide to the emerging religious structures, to the generational conflicts dividing first- and second-generation immigrant groups, and to the ambiguous relationship between immigrants and natives.
A New Religious America is well worth reading, which makes it all the more unfortunate that its basic hypothesis is simply wrong. Just how far off base it is may be exaggerated by the advertising campaign orchestrated by Harper, which repeatedly punches home a simplistic core message that goes roughly as follows: America was once a “Christian country” (note the quotes), but that has changed. Now, we have true diversity, Christian hegemony is over, and at last we have pluralism, Dis gratias! (The distaste for Christianity in this tirade is overwhelmingly obvious.) We are experiencing a social and religious revolution, which makes Eck’s book “eye-opening.” According to religion scholar Wade Clark Roof, the book “shatters our old preconceptions.” Harper’s publicity materials stress the question, “Is the idea that ours is a fundamentally Christian nation fast becoming a myth?” (Obvious answer: You betcha!) A heavy-handed political message also emerges here: Why on earth do you want prayer in schools? Do you not realize an imam might be leading it? Best to keep with strict public secularism and the absolute separation of church and state. To claim otherwise is “strident” and bigoted.
What is wrong with Eck’s idea should be obvious to anyone who has ever walked an American city in quest of a Mexican mosque or Brazilian Buddhists. Such might conceivably exist, but they are rare beside the glaringly obvious immigrant Christian presence. Yes, the 1965 Immigration Reform Act transformed the ethnic character of the American population and ensured that the old white-black dichotomy was replaced by a polyglot and polychrome reality, with millions of new immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But the vast majority of those came from Christian countries or were converted to Christianity on these shores. In consequence, non-Christian religions account for the faith of only a small proportion of Americans—at most, five percent or so—and that number is not going to increase significantly over the coming century. (It might well decline, in fact.) Moreover, thanks to mass immigration, the “Christianity” of the great majority of Americans will probably change in character, coming to place new emphasis on fideistic, charismatic, and even fundamentalist approaches. America is becoming more Christian, not less so.
Latin Americans provide the most obvious aspect of this change. Virtually all Latinos come from strongly Christian cultures, though it is anyone’s guess whether future generations will be predominantly Catholic or Pentecostal. But Asians, too, have very substantial Christian communities. Just inspect the Chinese or Korean sections of a major American city, the sort that Eck visited to find her Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. What she does not mention is the preponderance of Christian churches in those same cities, the dozens of congregations with some Asian ethnic title, such as “Chinese Pentecostal” or “Korean Baptist.” Nor does she take into account services in ethnic languages offered by mainstream Catholic or Protestant churches, or people of Asian descent who attend mainstream Christian services in the English language.
African immigrant Christianity is more potent still. African churches have targeted the United States for evangelization, and their networks of congregations are spreading. With its 80,000 Nigerian residents, Houston plays a pivotal role in these schemes. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, which grows from Nigerian roots, now boasts “parishes in Dallas, Tallahassee, Houston, New York, Washington, and Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Maryland, etc.”
So what does Eck do with this ferment of emerging Christianity? In short, she ignores it. Pentecostalism, the world’s fastest-growing religious movement, rates just two brief references in her book. Many more pages are devoted to Catholicism, but on examination, these mainly focus on the historical experience of European immigrants in overcoming religious discrimination as a hopeful precedent for today’s Muslims and Buddhists. I do not think Diana Eck despises Christians, of whatever color: She just cannot see them. Churches, for her, are the commonplace, boring things you pass en route to the fascinating Zen-do, where you can find real religion.
[A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Now Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, by Diana Eck (San Francisco: Harper) 404 pp., $27.00]