Warner: America more multicultural than some may think

RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer

R. Stephen Warner, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, speaks about religion among immigrants in both Europe and the United States during the Interfaith Lecture Monday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy.

As America continues to grapple with its glaring racial divide, R. Stephen Warner argued Monday that the nation excels in one field of diversity: religion.

Warner delivered the Interfaith Lecture from the Hall of Philosophy titled, “Race is to the U.S. as Religion is to Europe: Immigration, Religion and Race in a Comparative Perspective.” Now serving as professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Warner said the title of his lecture is only a premise of his argument, not the thesis itself. His core argument focused on America’s tendency to accept immigrants’ religions — not their races.

“The United States is experienced by immigrants as a place where they can freely preach and practice their religions,” Warner said. “This is an aspect of our society that is experienced by them as welcoming.”

This open-arms sentiment to religion, Warner said, is the opposite of what immigrants are experiencing in Europe. In the U.S., however, the tables turn as racial and ethnic minorities are marginalized more so than religious minorities.

“Compared to Europe, racial difference is the problematic difference in the United States,” Warner said. “Compared to the United States, religious difference is the problematic difference in Europe.”

Tracing this trend back through American history, Warner attributes this socio-religious finding to the colonization and formation of America. Back then, Warner said, immigrants were encouraged to leave all facets of their home lives — besides their religion — behind them.

In continuance, the sociopolitical dominance of white Americans that the colonists began runs parallel to the Christian sociopolitical dominance that runs rampant throughout Europe.

“My argument is that the barrier thrown up by Europe against immigrant religions, especially Islam, is [due to] the fact that Europe is constitutively Christian,” Warner said. “If that is a defensible statement, then it is equally fair to say that the barrier confronting immigrants to the United States, who are overwhelmingly people of color, is that the U.S. is constitutively white.”

Supporting this claim, Warner pointed to the colonists’ treatment of African-Americans, Native Americans and Mexicans as they spread westward. Through the course of the expansion and race-based subordination, different denominations of Christians tolerated one another as they unified via their common denominator of race.

“The U.S. is founded neither as a Christian nation nor a secular nation,” Warner said. “It was founded as a racialized nation. Race was a category applied to determine the invidious distribution of rights. Religion was a protective sphere through which rights could be claimed.”

Despite America’s poor racial relations — especially in the wake of high-profile police brutality and hate crime allegations in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as Baltimore, and terrorist attacks in Charleston, South Carolina — Warner said that religion can be used by minority racial or ethnic groups to assimilate.

As an example, Warner pointed to Muslims in America. After 9/11, Islamophobia hit its apex in the U.S. Despite this backlash, however, Warner argued that Muslim communities stepped up to become more engaged as civic Americans. He pointed out that, between 2000 and 2011, the number of Mosques in the U.S. increased by 72 percent, and the number of Muslim leaders that regard American society as hostile to Muslims decreased from over 50 percent to less than 25 percent.

“Publicly embracing Islam is far from embracing a guarantee of just treatment, but it is not a sign of alienation,” Warner said. “In effect, Muslims are challenging the United States to live up to its promise of religious freedom”

This tactic of racial or ethnic assimilation in America by way of religion is not unique to Muslims, Warner said. Different groups — Korean Americans, Latinos and African-Americans — have all followed the same track.

Closing his lecture, Warner left those in attendance with some practical advice on how attendees can facilitate assimilation in their own communities.

“Welcoming strangers to your precincts, your grounds, your turfs, is good, wonderful and admirable,” Warner said. “Visiting them on their own turf, going to their churches, their synagogues, mosques and temples is better. You relinquish the privilege of being at home. You submit yourself to the risk and opportunity to hear what they say to each other not simply to you when they’re in your presence. And you offer the respect of accepting their leadership and the humility of being indebted to them as your hosts.”