Thursday, August 30, 2012

Peggy Levitt: God Needs No Passport

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It's a common lefty thing to think that religion is any number of negative things; see if this rings a bell: bad, dangerous, backwards, regressive, oppressive, low-class, brainwashing, right-wing, etc. Some lefties want to pretend religion doesn't need to be discussed because it's so far "out there" and others think it is just a destabilizing force. I have a different feeling: I think that progressives (and everyone else) must discuss religion, as it's a huge force in so many people's life. Putting our collective heads in the sand is almost as bad as pretending to be a color-blind society. Religion is not something we'll all "get over," nor is it just "the opiate of the masses," nor is it just the purview of extremists- right wing evangelicals or Jews in settlements or pseudo-Muslim terrorists. Put another way: religious people are people, too.

Peggy Levitt goes a step further: immigrants are people. They're often religious people, and they're changing America. To freak out about it or to ignore it is to miss the potential for moving forward productively. Levitt argues for a new look at citizenship for (im)migrants: she is
interested here in migrants' subjective experiences than about how institutional arrangements constrain their ability to act on what they think and feel. The people who claimed religious citizenship understood it to work in a way that was similar to political citizenship. They used similar words and analogies to describe these two membership categories. In other words, the political limits to religious membership did not stop them from equating the two.
Essentially Levitt believes that citizenship legally means that one belongs to a "self-governing political community." Migrants who belong in what she calls the "global religious citizen" category often are connected to multiple countries, and are linked transnationally through their religious community. The transnational connections work both ways: they change the home country as well as America. She thinks of these as "religious passports," and argues that to understand immigrant communities, one must understand what's going on in religious communities both here and in home/sending countries. On the individual level, she argues, identity cannot be separated into citizenship status or country of origin and all other "subject positions": these subject positions must include religion. "Faith, directly or indirectly, permeates the lives of many people... [Some] assume, implicitly or explicitly, that imported faith comes in a one-size-fits-all package." It doesn't, and it's part of the immigration and citizenship discussions.

Levitt's argument is based in four communities that she seems to have studied intimately, though she doesn't explain her methodology- anthropology? ethnography?- which seemed a medium-sized flaw. She ties her argument nicely (at the beginning of "God Needs No Passport") to the bigger picture of the self-identity of America as a "melting pot":  the picture of we hold of America is that we create everything here wholesale, and that everyone should melt into good assimilated Christians. The truth is more complicated. Immigrants bring their cultures and religions (and always have) with them, and America changes with them. They also maintain strong ties (more so now than over with technological changes) with their home countries, changing America, whether the US will admit it or not. Levitt demonstrates how this works in communities in Ireland, Brazil, Pakistan, and India and their respective communities in the US. This, along with the lack of methodology, is a flaw with Levitt's book: it appears that Levitt is closely tied to Boston, and it's possible (though not explained) that these are very important sending countries in the Boston area. However, I have never encountered Brazilians Catholic/Evangelicals, Irish Catholics, or Indian Hindus of the sect she describes, and the groups are not contextualized at all. "God Needs No Passport" would have read better as a much shorter article without the details and short supporting quotes from group members, or as a much longer book with much more information.

Flaws aside, Levitt proposes (though doesn't expand) on a solution more progressives should consider: a "religious solution to the problem of religious diversity." Quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, she argues for each religion to act with humility and acknowledgement that "expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity." Mainstream America would need to drop the idea of the Protestant nation, and progressives will need to drop the snobbery of the backwards religious immigrants. It could happen...