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Columbia The New Americans: Homelands and Diasporas

Building Religious Communities: America's New Religious Architecture

Book Review: God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape
By Karim Bardeesy, August 6, 2007

The national immigration debate in the United States focuses on issues of mechanics and justice: Should undocumented aliens be deported or granted a path to citizenship? Should the U.S. have a guest worker program? Should the reunification of families remain a priority?

Behind the current debate is a fundamental assumption that America can bestow or withhold membership to its community. Despite this assumption, however, new immigrants do not automatically shed a substantial connection with their homeland.

In God Needs No Passport, Peggy Levitt traces how new immigrant communities maintain a vital relationship with their home countries through religion. This relationship deepens their own spiritual life in America and has the potential to change attitudes about America back home. As long as there are immigrants, Levitt demonstrates, there will be a dialogue between the home country and America.

Levitt, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, follows the paths of four immigrant communities that have settled in the greater Boston area: Hindus from Gujarat in western India; Muslims from the cities of Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan; Roman Catholics from the Inishowen peninsula in the north of Ireland; and evangelical Protestants from Governador Valadares in southeastern Brazil. She visited the home regions of all four immigrant groups with the help of a team of researchers and conducted 247 interviews – many of them excerpted throughout the book.

The book’s central concept is what Levitt calls a new “religious architecture.” New immigrants send money back to their homeland. But they also set up new chapters of their home religious organizations in America. Their religious leaders may train in the United States and then return home, or vice versa (For an example of this exchange, see the stories on Nigerian and Hispanic Roman Catholic priests on the New Americans News21 site). The new immigrants’ travels bring them in contact with a host of people who have never been to America but, through family stories, come to know it intimately. Levitt is an exceptional guide; in particular, her explanation of how various Hindu organizations grow and build their membership in the United States, with rallies featuring gurus and teachers who draw thousands of devotees, merits wider circulation.

In Levitt’s travels, three images and stories stand out: a Portuguese-language mass at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Somerville, Mass., is broadcast on local television in Governador Valadares, Brazil. Why? So that the Brazilians in Governador Valdares can catch a glimpse of their family members in the United States.

In another tale, Jagdish Chandra Maharaj, a spiritual leader of the Bhagat Hindu community, travels to New Jersey to visit his followers. Maharaj, who is based in India, struggles to connect with his English-speaking followers who have been influenced by American values. These American Bhagats begin to look for other ways to continue their devotion and build alternate community ties to their homeland.

Finally, when talking about how he tries to uphold some of the ancient tenets of Islam, Malik, a 50-year-old immigrant, explains, “I didn’t choose to be born in this century, in this day and age. But God brought me here, so I’ve got to live in the enviroment that I have. I can’t really try to live in the environment that was thirteen hundred years ago.”

These compelling anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the book. Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend enough time with any one person or family to allow a deeper exploration of their personal experience. Levitt’s desire to address both academic and general interest audiences –- be ready for occasional digressions on cosmopolitanism and building social capital – dictates this choice. The narrative sometimes suffers as a result, though the academic concepts are useful and Levitt explains them deftly. (More theoretical content and debates are relegated to the extensive endnotes.) Levitt also focuses on first-generation immigrants and only touches on the ways new immigrants are changing U.S.-born faith communities. (For an example of worship in transition, see our reports from Utica, N.Y..)

God Needs No Passport gives succour and discomfort to American liberals and conservatives in equal measure. Liberals wary of latent cultural conservatism of immigrant groups will see that the range of belief and practice of new immigrants mirrors the American population at large. Conservatives expecting a rejection of fundamental American values will find new immigrants embracing the tolerance and freedom they perceive in America (and worrying about the nation’s consumerism and lack of family values). But both groups looking to appropriate immigrant groups for political ends will be struck by the complexity of belief systems among individuals and within the four groups Levitt examines. They will need new strategies to address the hostility Levitt found regarding political life. (Here is another view, with stories of immigrants of faith making the leap to U.S. political life.)

Ideas like religious architecture and social remittances may have a tough competition with easy metaphors such as "the melting pot" or "the mosaic" to describe the shape of America’s public life. Peggy Levitt challenges us to join new immigrants on their journeys of spirituality and community-building – journeys that should resonate with all Americans, no matter where they’re from.

Columbia News21 fellows met with a number of religion experts in India and the United States during our travels. Sociologist Peggy Levitt, author of God Needs No Passport, dropped by our newsroom. Read a review of the book at left.

Peggy Levitt sat down with us to talk about the challenges and opportunities that new immigrants of faith present to the United States. Click on the image below to launch the video. (Video produced by Brett Elliott.)

For more information about Peggy Levitt, go to

Image: Levitt 200

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Over six months, members of the Columbia News21 team traveled 525,000 miles across the United States, Canada, India and Iran in search of a better understanding of minority religions and the immigrants who practice them.

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