We must then look elsewhere for the dramatic and continuing differences in religious behavior that separate modern Europe and the United States. One distinguishing feature is America's constant history of immigration, and the ethnic diversification that accumulates over time. When people move to a new country, they form institutions that allow them to combine together for mutual support and to help them share and transmit the values of their familiar societies. Commonly, the most important such institutions have been religious, whether churches, synagogues, or mosques. Through American history, successive waves of immigration have produced many new denominations, which at least for the early generations are closely linked to national or ethnic loyalties. As Martin Marty famously remarked, ethnicity is the skeleton of American religion.53
Also, involvement in migrant churches produces a much greater degree of active religiosity than was common in the home country. This was true, for instance, of Italian-Catholic migrants to the United States during the early twentieth century, who came from societies with a lively streak of anti-clericalism, and in which religious life was often assumed to be a female preserve. On American soil, however, Catholic practice and identity both grew more intense. Among modern Latino immigrants likewise, the journey from Central America to El Norte produces much greater religious interest and involvement than is customary at home, and the new enthusiasm resonates through both Catholic and Protestant congregations. Of course, international population movements have also occurred in European history, in terms of both labor migration and political exile, but until modern times the continent has known nothing to compare with the constant infusions of new stock that have marked the United States.
Within the United States too, domestic mobility has been much greater than in Europe. Throughout American history, people have moved far and often, to the point that late twentieth-century families were quite likely to uproot and move their homes every few years. Moreover, such movements have occurred over a much larger geographical area than is common in Europe, and this would be the appropriate place to point out the very different geographical scale of the two regions under discussion, a theme to which we will return on several occasions.
As a country, the United States is far larger than any European nation. If we take the eight European nations with the largest land areas (France, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Norway, Italy, Great Britain), then their combined physical size is still less than a third that of the United States. Britain covers about the same land area as Oregon, Italy as Arizona; Belgium is about the size of Maryland. The United States is a nation; it is also a subcontinent. An American who travels from New York City to Dallas has traversed 1,600 miles but remains entirely within a single nation throughout the trip. A European who travels a like distance has gone from London to Moscow, perhaps, or to Istanbul; or has gone from Stockholm to the far south of Sicily. In the process, our European traveler has passed through or over several different nations, cultures, and language zones. Traveling from New York City to Phoenix covers 2,500 miles of United States territory. A comparable journey within the Old World would take a traveler from London beyond the confines of Europe altogether, into Kazakhstan or Iraq, or to the legendary African city of Timbuktu.
The difference in geographical size has many implications, but let us just consider the consequences for internal migration. A German or a British person who relocates to the far distant end of his or her own country has usually traveled at most a few hundred miles, while a move of comparable distance within the United States might well leave a family within the same state. Even before the advent of modern air travel, a migrating European was thus likely to maintain touch with his or her roots, unlike an American counterpart who moved, say, from the East Coast to the West Coast. In the United States, therefore, frequent movement and internal migration are more likely to leave individuals cut off from their homes and familiar social networks, driving them to seek new networks and forms of instant community. Often, the best and easiest place to find such interaction is within a hospitable church in a well-known denomination, a singularly attractive setting for young families with children. A society marked by constant movement, by frequent uprooting and replanting, by ever-growing cultural diversity is more accustomed to seek the institutional support of religious bodies, and also to accept the spiritual ideas presented in that environment. Attendance at these institutions thrives, even as styles of belief and practice increasingly accommodate to the standards of the wider society and as denominational distinctions fade steadily. Secularization theory does work in general, but other factors can counterbalance it.
While such social factors do not necessarily offer a complete explanation of Euro-American differences, they are suggestive. They also have implications for projecting the likely religious coloring of a Europe that has in recent decades accepted non-European migrants on an unprecedented scale. Powerful social pressures drive migrant communities to conform to European secular norms. The most potent of all concern gender roles and concepts of family, with birth rates and numbers of children as a vital index of assimilation to European societies. At the same time, though, constant infusions of new stock help make mosques, churches, and temples the critical centers for immigrant religious life, promoting a sense of community and ethnic identification. Thus Turks in Germany or Moroccans in Sweden are likely to attend mosques, much more so perhaps than they might have done in their home countries. Continuing immigration and extensive cross-border movement do not defeat the process of secularization but might well slow or modify it. Ethnicity might yet become the skeleton of European religion.
Not even the most optimistic observer could pretend that European Christianity is in a healthy state, whether in comparison with global South societies, or with that great transatlantic anomaly, the
United States. But institutional weakness is not necessarily the same as total religious apathy, and among all the grim statistics, there are some surprising signs of life. European Christians, after all, have the longest experience of living in a secular environment, and some at least attempt quite successfully to evolve religious structures far removed from the older assumptions of Christendom. Contrary to widespread assumptions, then, rising Islam will not be expanding into an ideological or religious vacuum.
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