Have you made any special place for Quincentennial Day? It promises to be a huge even, conceivably even more spectacular than the overblown Y2K phenomenon a couple of years back. I am referring, of course, to December 12, 2031. This is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, in the year that marks the 500th anniversary of the original apparition of the Virgin to Aztec peasant Juan Diego. The event will no doubt be commemorated with a vast celebration of Mexican and Chicano Catholic identity, both north and south of the Rio Grande, and if current trends are anything to go by, it should appeal to Latinos across North America. That year will probably be seen as America’s true and proper Quincentennial, without all of the perilous ambiguities associated with the celebration of Columbus’s landing in 1992.
By the middle of the present century, the United States will have a population radically different from what existed as recently as 1965: About a third of Americans will be of wither Latino or Asian heritage. Such a sea change will naturally have its impact on the nation’s religious life, but probably not in the manner many of us now expect. When we think of the effects of immigration, we often visualize them through religious symbols—through images of masques and Hindu temples in American suburbs, of women wearing Muslim garb on America’s city streets. It seems all too likely that the emerging polyglot America will be utterly de-Christianized, Religion scholar Diana Eck recently published a book entitled A New Religious America, which boasts “How a Christian Country Has Become the World’s Most Religious Diverse Nation.”
A moment’s reflection should indicate the gaping holes in this theory. If, indeed, the United States in 2050 contains 100 million Latinos, we cannot be too certain whether they will be cthefly Catholic or Pentecostal, but it is a virtual certainty that they will not be attending mosques or Taoist temples. Then as now, Latinos will overwhelmingly be Christian. And so, perhaps surprisingly, will be the bulk of the Asian population. Some Asian immigrants today follow traditional religions such as Buddhism, but many others are Christian. Many derive from strongly Christian homelands, like the Philippines, or from countries with large Christian minorities, such as Vietnam or South Korea. Other Asian migrants are recent converts. Among Korean-Americans today, Christians outnumber Buddhists by ten or twenty to one. The “Pacific Rim” is looking ever more like a Christian Arc.
The number of new immigrants who practice non-Christian religions is far less than most might suppose. Buddhist or Taoist numbers are smaller than they appear, and the numbers commonly given for American Muslims are likewise exaggerated. Though we read suggestions that the United States is home to as many as eight million Muslims, actual numbers remain a good deal smaller—probably four million or so, amounting to 1.5 percent of the population. Though Americans tend to assume that all Middle Eastern immigrants must be Muslim, many Arab-Americans are, in fact, Christian. The United States has been a popular destination for better-off Arab Christians from Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. And any likely Muslim growth through immigration will be far exceeded by the continuing Christian influx from Africa, Asia, and—above all—Latin America.
The strength of American Christianity, present and future, contradicts much of the received wisdom. However many chadors are worn on the streets of New York City or Los Angeles, the number of adherents of non-Christian religions in the United States is strikingly small. If we combine the plausible estimates for the numbers of American Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, then we are speaking of about four or five percent of the total population. According to the respected World Christian Encyclopedia, even by 2025, the combined strength of the non-Christian religions will only be about seven percent. This makes the United States about as religiously diverse as most European nations, and less so than some. Adherents of non-Christian religions already make up ten percent of the population of France, four percent of Great Britain, and five percent of Germany and the Netherlands.
Projections about the future of American religion have become an important weapon in debates over the separation of church and state. When conservatives demand school prayer, liberals object that the present Christian predominance will not last much longer and that demographic trends might lead to Islam or Buddhism growing quietly in the United States. The implications are clear: Would those Christians who want school prayer or public displays of religion really make the same demands if they were forced to listen to Muslim prayers, to see Buddhist shrines on public grounds? Do Christians want to see tax dollars flowing to faith-based organizations if the faiths in question are Muslim or Buddhist?
The realities, however, are quite different. To adapt Professor Eck’s title, what we are really seeing is “How Mass Immigration Ensured That a Christian Country Has Become an Even More Christian Country” And these new Christian communities tend to be very socially conservative. They rarely share traditional American qualms about mixing church and state. In 2031, we can expect to see a lot of statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside city halls. However much Christian conservatives and traditionalists dislike mass immigration, they have—in religious terms at least—a great deal to gain.
We can see a striking contrast between immigration patterns in the United States and Western Europe, where the bulk of the new ethnic groups are non-Christian—specifically Muslim—and major cultural transformations have resulted. In response, some conservative Europeans have argued that governments should deliberately promote Christian immigration to reduce Islamic influence. In Italy in 2000, Bologna’s Giacomo Cardinal Biffi made the controversial suggestion that, while immigrants were definitely needed, preference should be given to people of Catholic background. “And there are many,” he said, “Latin Americans, Filipinos and Eritreans.” Naturally, his ideas ignited furious denunciation as a manifestation of racial bigotry (which they clearly were not). Americans can only gaze at this controversy with wonder. Quite unconsciously and accidentally, the United States has, for 30 years, been pursuing something very similar to the Biffi policy of favoriug mass Christian immigration. How appalled our thoroughly secular rulers would be if only they had known what they were doing.