On so many other points, we can observe issues currently under fierce debate in American churches, across the denominational spectrum. We see the familiar and fundamental debate over the existence of ethnic congregations: should churches try and keep newcomers at arm’s length, or integrate them fully into existing church life? What about the use of the English language, as opposed to the immigrant tongues?
Critically, what happens to immigrant groups in the second and third generations? Do they cling to ethnic churches, or seek out “mainstream” congregations, as they define themselves as White Americans rather than “ethnics”? Or do they abandon faith altogether?
One wonderful book on this theme of transition is Robert Orsi’s Thank You Saint Jude (1998), which uses the thousands of letters sent by ordinary Catholics to the national shrine of that saint of lost causes. Time and again, we hear the despairing voices of ethnic women of the second and third generations, as they strove to balance the competing expectations of their traditional-minded families with the progressive American world in which they lived their everyday lives. Change the names and the ethnic origins, and we could well be looking at the American stories of the next decade or two.
In no case are the lessons simple. But if you have any interest in the near future of American religion, start reading intensively on the nation’s Catholic history. Prepare to be amazed at the relevance and immediacy of the issues at stake.
Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor Universityand author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.