By R. Stephen Warner’s own admission, if people have heard of him, it’s because of his work in the sociology of religion — but that branch of the field isn’t what he was trained in.
Nonetheless, Warner, professor of sociology emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will give a lecture titled “Race is to the U.S. as Religion is to Europe: Immigration, Religion and Race in a Comparative Perspective” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Warner said he began to study the role of religion in immigration to the United States after he got tenure at UIC. There, he taught a class on the sociology of religion, but quickly ran into terminology barriers with his students.
“I realized that the students didn’t have the background to understand what the textbooks talked about,” Warner said.
Several of the students were the children or grandchildren of immigrants that were still closely tied to their familial traditions. As a result, many had little to no knowledge of other faiths.
To resolve the issue, Warner began to organize field trips to religious services and allowed his students to suggest their own. These trips gave Warner insight into the importance of religion to immigrant communities in America.
“I began to learn a lot, a huge amount,” Warner said.
At that time, he said, there had been very little academic work done on the religious life of immigrants after 1965.
The insights gained on these field trips lead to Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration, a collection of studies on the subject edited by Warner and his colleague Judith Whitner.
“It wasn’t the first [book on the topic] by any means, but it was very early in what has now become a very substantial literature in religion in immigration post-1965,” Warner said.
Warner said that his talk today will focus on the use of religion by immigrant groups to overcome the racial biases they often face when moving to America.
“Our religiousness, which is heavily Christian — and some of it really obnoxious in my opinion — is not a deterrent,” Warner said. “It’s not a ‘go home’ sign to immigrants who aren’t Christian, because what it says is, ‘We respect religion.’ Now, not everyone [in America] does, but … just as the Confederate battle flag [came] down, those voices for exclusion are drowned out by the leading edge, the educated, the liberals, and the elite, who say, ‘No, this is part of who we are, to be welcoming of religion.’ ”
This religious tolerance but racial exclusivity is in opposition to the racial tolerance and religious exclusivity that is often found in Europe, Warner said.
“Religion sets up what’s called a ‘bright boundary,’ a barrier for immigrants to Europe when they’re not Christian,” he said. “But that doesn’t happen here. In the institutional sector, religion functions as a welcome, but race is the hurdle.”
Even though this is the case, Warner sees movement away from the more exclusive past on both sides of the Atlantic.
“What I say is that Europe is constitutively Christian, [America is] are constitutively white, and we’re [both] trying to overcome that,” Warner said.