Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Most definitions of ethnicity include two central elements: a shared culture and a real or putative common ancestry. E. K. Francis (1947) defined the ethnic group as a subtype of Gemeinschaft groups, which was a secondary group with some of the features of a primary group. The term ethnicity was first used by W. Lloyd Warner in his community studies, particularly in the work on "Yankee City" (Sollors 1981:259 f.). The use of the term ethnic dates to a century earlier but was not widely employed prior to the publication of William Graham Sumner's Folkways (1906). Since midcentury, both ethnicity and ethnic have been used widely to describe certain types of identity and group affiliation, although without consensus about what they mean.

Some scholars have sought to define the ethnic group in the broadest terms possible. This can be seen in the case of the editors of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Thernstrom et al. 1980:vi), when, in seeking to define ethnic groups, they offered the following list of features that they contended tend to coexist in various and differing combinations: common geographic origin; migratory status; race; language or dialect; religious faith or faiths; ties that transcend kinship, neighborhood, and community boundaries; shared traditions, values, and symbols; literature, folklore, and music; food preferences; settlement and employment patterns; special interests in regard to politics; institutions that specifically serve and maintain the group; an internal sense of distinctiveness; and an external perception of distinctiveness.

By contrast, other scholars have sought to construct far more parsimonious definitions. Wsevold Isajiw (1979:25), for example, defined the ethnic group as "an involuntary group of people who share the same culture or the descendants of such people who might identify themselves and/or are identified by others as belonging to the same involuntary group." He explicitly argued for the need to differentiate religious groups from ethnic groups.

However, most scholars have argued that religion and ethnicity are often intertwined and frequently mutually reinforcing. Indeed, like language, traditions, and values, religion is often one of the key building blocks of ethnic cultures (see Gordon 1964, Schermerhorn 1978).

Ethnic America

Given the sheer diversity of ethnic America, there is considerable variation in the relationships between ethnicity and religion among its constituent peoples. Historically, British settlers played a hegemonic role in constructing a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture. However, immigrants from the British Isles were not as religiously or culturally homogeneous as many commentators assume. While Cavaliers were traditionalists who remained loyal to the Church of England, Puritans and Quakers represented important dissenting religious groups that reflected distinctive constellations of cultural values. For example, while the Cavaliers were a central element among the slaveholding class in the South, the Quakers' antipathy toward slavery led to the establishment from within their ranks of the first antislavery society in the Western world. In the case of the Scots-Irish, a fusion of an ethnic identity defined as separate from the English and an allegiance to Presbyterianism set this group apart (Fischer 1989, Bailyn 1986).

In the case of Germans, the second largest European immigrant group after the British, Lutherans exhibited differences with both Reformed church bodies and Pietist sects. However, the differences within German America extended beyond Protestantism, as the ethnic community also included Roman Catholics and Enlightenment-inspired political radicals (e.g., the Forty-Eighters) who were outspoken opponents of religion.

By contrast, the Irish were clearly identified with Catholicism, and here religion played a crucial role in forging ethnic group identity and creating ethnic boundaries. The Irish quickly came to dominate the development of Roman Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Investing heavily in the institutional development of Catholicism, the Irish viewed it as a bulwark against absorption into the Anglo-American mainstream. Thus parochial schools were seen as an alternative to the public schools, which were perceived to be in the hands of Protestant elites who were hostile to Catholicism.

The Irish were the first voluntary immigrant group to confront intense nativist hostility, which achieved an organizational presence in such anti-Irish groups as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and the Know-Nothing Party. Anti-Irish sentiment had three components. First, the Irish were seen as a social problem, manifested in high levels of alcoholism, criminal activity, and other antisocial behavior. Second, they were accused of undermining democracy because of their propensity to align themselves with urban political machines. Finally, they were criticized because of their Catholicism, which was depicted as authoritarian and antidemocratic, and thus a potential threat to political freedom (Higham 1970).

This conflict would set the stage for the cultural wars that ensued during the period of the Great Migration—from 1880 to 1930—when the sheer volume of immigration transformed the ethnic character of the nation. During this period, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe outnumbered those from western Europe. Christians among these new immigrants were more likely to be Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox rather than Protestant. Two of the largest immigrant groups, Italians and Poles, were overwhelmingly identified with Roman Catholicism, while Greek immigrants constituted the largest group among the Eastern Orthodox. During the same time, approximately 3 million Jews from eastern Europe emigrated to the United States.

Religion and Ethnicity

The relationship between ethnicity and religion for these new arrivals varied. For example, religion and its institutional manifestations played a less significant role in the Italian community than it did in either the Irish or the Polish community. Italians had a long history of hostility to the Catholic Church, due to the impact of secular ideals, the continuing impact of magic in the place of religion, and a tradition of anticlericism. Added to these transplanted negative orientations toward Roman Catholicism, Italians in America were often suspicious of the Irish dominance of the Catholic Church in America; the Italian aversion to parochial education was partly due to a desire to protect their children from "Irishization" (Kivisto 1995).

By contrast, the central institution of the Polish American community was the Roman Catholic Church. Polish religiosity was high, in no small part because religion and nationalism were intertwined in Poland, given that religion was a key ideological source of resistance to external domination. Not a surprise, in the United States, Poles reacted differently from Italians to Irish domination of the church. They demanded Polish-speaking priests in their parishes and sought representation in the ranks of the church hierarchy. In a conflict with the established church, the excommunication of a Polish priest led in 1904 to the establishment by the dissidents of an independent church body, the Polish National Church (Greene 1975), which was subsequently transported back to Poland (although relatively insignificant in its numbers).

For some groups, religion and ethnicity are integrally connected. Among these "religio-ethnic groups," we include Jews, Greeks, Amish, and Hutterites. Jews are the largest and most complicated of these religio-ethnic groups. The Jewish community was divided along several intersecting cleavages. First, as a diaspora people, Jews in America arrived from different geographic origins: Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, the earliest arrivals; Ashkenazic Jews from Germany, whose arrival began in the first half of the nineteenth century; and eastern European Jews, who arrived en masse after 1880. Jews were divided between secularists and religious practitioners. They were divided between those urging assimilation and those intent on remaining apart from the larger society. Within the world of religious Jewry, three major religious expressions emerged. Orthodox Jews represented the forces of traditionalism, with a demand for the strict observance of Jewish law (halach ). Reform Judaism was an assimilative response to Orthodox traditionalism. Reform Jews sought accommodation with the outside world and were receptive to modernization and Enlightenment thought. Between these poles, Conservative Jews sought to find a middle ground by seeking to balance the demands of traditionalism against the benefits of modernity.

Religious differences between the host society and the wave of new arrivals—Christians and Jews—were compounded by cultural and linguistic differences and by the generally impoverished state of the new immigrants. Nativist hostility intensified during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Racialist thought during the era tended to convolute biology and culture, the net result being the depiction of unbridled immigration leading to a degeneration of American culture—a culture seen as defined by "Nordic" peoples—due to the presence of large numbers of intellectual and moral inferiors. This presumed debasement of the culture meant that the righteous Protestant empire was under assault by papists, Christ-killers, and others seen as hostile to the religious worldview of the dominant culture.

Assimilation versus Pluralism

On the other hand, those with a more optimistic view about the transformative capacity of American society urged on the immigrants Americanization campaigns. These campaigns were intended to eradicate the cultural heritages of the immigrants, instilling in them what were deemed to be genuinely American cultural values. Advocates of the melting pot in the popular media and scholarly exponents of assimilationist theories—and these included most of the prominent sociologists associated with the Chicago School of sociology, such as William I. Thomas and Robert E. Park—thought this would be the inevitable outcome of intergroup relations over time. They did not specifically address what this meant in terms of the religious identities of the new immigrants: Although nobody suggested that a large-scale conversion to Protestantism was likely, they tended to assume either increased secularization, and with it the growing irrelevance of religious institutions, or the transformation of immigrant religions into modified forms modeled more or less closely after Protestantism.

An influential critique of the melting pot thesis came from philosopher Horace Kallen (1924 [1915]) in an article in The Nation titled "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot." He contended that the demand to repudiate ethnic cultures was antithetical to democratic ideals. Moreover, he claimed that self-identity was partially based on an identification with one's ancestral background. In calling for what he termed "cultural pluralism," Kallen urged the preservation and strengthening of ethnic ties, with the end being to ensure the perpetuation of distinctive and separate subcultures.

In a different fashion, cultural critic Randolph Bourne (1977[1916]) criticized the "100% Americanization" campaigns of the era, urging instead the emergence of what he referred to as a "trans-national America," which not merely implied the preservation of immigrant cultures but also saw their progressive integration into the culture as contributing to a transformation of American culture itself. This was seen as a way of rejuvenating the national culture, which would occur in a dialectical process in which both immigrant cultures and the national culture would be receptive to the other. The result would be a new culture, different from the heretofore hegemonic WASP culture.

Anti-immigration forces won out and in 1924 legislation was passed that effectively ended mass immigration for the next four decades. During that time, considerable assimilation occurred among the second- and third-generation offspring of the new immigrants. Ethnic communal institutions declined in numbers and influence, and members exited ethnic enclaves, frequently moving from central cities to the suburbs. In short, European-origin ethnic groups experienced considerable cultural and structural assimilation.

However, according to sociologist Ruby Jo Reeves Kennedy (1944), when looking at intermarriage, a crucial indicator of assimilation, one could detect a shift in which religion began to replace ethnicity as a barrier to intermarriage. In a study of New Haven, Connecticut, from 1870 to 1940, she contended that ethnic intermarriages increased for all groups except Jews, but that they did not occur randomly. British, German, and Scandinavians intermarried mutually, based on the common link of Protestantism. A similar pattern emerged among the Catholic groups in the city: Irish, Italians, and Poles. Among Jews, she detected movement across the lines of the three major religious expressions within the religio-ethnic community. Kennedy referred to this as the "triple melting pot." While Cheri Peach (1980) has reexamined Kennedy's findings and questioned whether or not religion actually did replace ethnicity as a determinant in mate selection, the notion of the triple melting pot had larger cultural implications.

These implications were made explicit in Will Herberg's highly influential Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Doubleday 1955). Herberg contended, parallel to Kennedy's thesis, that the salience of ethnicity would progressively erode, to be replaced by a heightened affiliative salience of the three religious traditions. Herberg argued, in effect, that the religious character of the nation has changed. America was by the middle of the twentieth century no longer a Protestant empire but defined itself as a Judeo-Christian land in which each of these three religious expressions was accorded a place in the nation's religious pantheon. This was, not surprisingly, an era in which anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic prejudice declined considerably and the ecumenical movement was at its peak. It was a period that stressed religious tolerance and the mutual appreciation of these major religions expressions, each of which was accorded a prominent place under the sacred canopy of the American civil religion.

The New Immigrants

In 1965, a reformulation of existing immigration laws established the basis for a new wave of mass immigration, which has been occurring since 1968, when the new law took effect. Three consequences of the Hart-Cellar Act are of particular importance: It made possible a sizable increase in the volume of immigration; by ending racist-inspired national quotas, it facilitated a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants from Asia and Latin America; and it encouraged professionals (an instance of the "brain drain" from the less developed countries) to migrate, thereby increasing the number of middle-class immigrants (Takaki 1993).

As a consequence of the recommencement of mass immigration, the ethnic landscape has changed in significant ways. In the first place, the newcomers are overwhelmingly from places other than Europe. Asians account for 37% of the total number of immigrants arriving between 1960 and 1989, with the largest Asian groups being Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. Hispanics from various Latin American nations account for 39% of immigrants during the same period. They have come primarily from Mexico, Puerto Rico (these are not strictly speaking immigrants given the island's territorial status), and Cuba. Although their numbers are much smaller than the above-noted groups, immigrants from the Middle East have had an impact on certain regional areas, such as the Syrian and Lebanese populations in metropolitan Detroit. In addition, a number of smaller groups have arrived. These include such diverse peoples as Jews (from Russia, Israel, and elsewhere in the Middle East), Haitians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Salvadorans, Colombians, and Cambodians.

Among the changes that are in process is the infusion of new coreligionists within Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. The largest infusion is from Catholic immigrants, with the result being that Catholics are now a higher percentage of the total population than before. This is primarily due to the fact that most Latin American and Filipino immigrants are Catholic. At the same time, new Protestants have arrived, especially from Korea (although South Korea is predominantly Buddhist, most immigrants are Protestants) and from Latin America, which is witnessing inroads by evangelical Protestants. For Jews, many of the new arrivals come from cultures quite different from those rooted in Europe, and this has led to problems of mutual accommodation.

The second change brought about by recent immigration is the rise in the numbers of people who are neither Christian nor Jewish. While a wide range of new religions are represented among the new immigrants, including Jamaican Rastafarians, Caribbean practitioners of Santeria, and Sikhs and Jains from India, of particular consequence is the rise in the number of adherents to the major world religious traditions: Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Although it is difficult to determine precise numbers of adherents to these traditions, it is clear that Islam, with an estimated 2-3 million members in America today, has the largest presence among these traditions. It is also clear that, particularly in major metropolitan areas where new immigrants are concentrated, an institutional presence is being created, with an expanding number of mosques and temples. The result, as R. Stephen Warner (1993:1061) posed it, is that "the purely religious boundaries of American religious pluralism have expanded." It is this expansion of pluralism that has become a focal point of the recent cultural "wars," as those on the political right have voiced concerns about the impact of new religious traditions on American culture, while multiculturalists (the era's cultural pluralists) argue for the need for inclusiveness.

Peter Kivisto


B. Bailyn, The Peopling of North America (New York: Knopf, 1986)

R. Bourne, The Radical Will (New York: Urizen, 1977)

D. Fischer, Albion's Seed (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)

E. K. Francis, "The Nature of the Ethnic Group," American Journal of Sociology 52(1947):393-400

M. Gordon, Assimilation in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964)

V. Greene, For God and Country (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1975)

J. Higham, Strangers in the Land (New York: Atheneum, 1970)

W. Isajiw, Definitions of Ethnicity (Toronto: Multicultural History Society, 1979)

H. Kallen, Culture and Democracy in the United States (Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1924)

R. Kennedy, "Single or Triple Melting Pot?" American Journal of Sociology 49(1944):331-339

P. Kivisto, Americans All (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1995)

C. Peach, "Which Triple Melting Pot?" Ethnic and Racial Studies 3(1980):1-16

R. A. Schermerhorn, Comparative Ethnic Relations (New York: Random House, 1978)

W. Sollors, "Theories of Ethnicity," American Quarterly 33(1981):257-283

W. G. Sumner, Folkways (Boston: Ginn, 1906)

R. Takaki, A Different Mirror (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993)

S. Thernstrom et al., Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press, 1980)

R. S. Warner, "Toward a New Paradigm," American Journal of Sociology 98(1993):1044-1093.

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