- Preserving Ethnicity Through Religion in America: Korean Protestants and Indian Hindus across Generations
The central empirical finding in Pyong Gap Min's carefully researched book is illustrated with two illustrative vignettes in the opening chapter. First, he introduces us to "Peter Park," a second-generation Korean American (technically a 1.5 generation as he was born in Korea but was brought to the United States as a child). Park is active in an English language Korean evangelical church. When asked, he clearly makes a distinction between his Korean cultural identity and his evangelical religious identity. Further, he does not believe that his church should necessarily have much to do with preserving ethnic culture. Its purpose is religious and spiritual, not "cultural." His priority is his religious life, and he is very active in his church. We then meet Rani Ambany, also a 1.5-generation immigrant, from India. Nominally Hindu growing up, the family did have a home altar and participated in major religious holidays. She continues to practice Hindu rites, but for her this is important as an integral part of her Indian identity, and meaningful largely for that reason. Min sums these opposing tendencies as "Koreans' very strong commitment to Christian values weakens their ethnic identity, and Indian Hindus' generally moderate embrace of their Hinduism tends to enhance their Indian identity and ethnic heritage" (2).
Min notes that the primary function attributed to immigrant religion in the sociological literature is that it allows immigrant communities to maintain cultural connections to their home societies, while simultaneously providing resources for adaptation to a new setting. Religion is, among other things, a vehicle for subcultural reproduction. And Min's title, Preserving Ethnicity Through Religion, makes it clear that this observation continues to ring true. But as the opening vignette demonstrates, this clearly does not work the same way for all groups, and particularly not the second generation. As he shows with Korean Protestants, religion can even undermine ethnic identity preservation. [End Page 451]
Min postulates a complex relationship between religion, ethnic heritage, and immigrant adaptation, and investigates it with a solid research plan. He examines both first- and second-generation Korean Protestants and first- and second-generation Indian Hindus. That way he can compare across ethno-religious groups and within religious groups across generation. Thus, even if religion does have a similar outcome as is postulated in the academic literature, Min can examine whether that is true for both the immigrant generation and their children, and if so what processes help that to happen. He conducted surveys and personal interviews, complemented by ethnographic observations at both a Korean Protestant church and a Hindu temple, both in the New York City area.
Min finds that religion preserves ethnicity in different ways for the two groups, and with different effects on the second generation. Korean Protestants are devoted Christians, and deeply involved in their local congregations. Since most Korean Protestants attend ethnic Korean churches in order to enjoy the comforts being around coethnics, this intense institutional involvement leads to dense social networks and reinforces ethnic identity. However, Christianity is not "indigenous" to Korea, and there is not a strong tie between Christianity, particularly evangelical Protestant Christianity, and Korean folk culture. Indeed, while many Korean Buddhists attend evangelical churches in the United States in order to be around fellow Koreans, over time evangelical religion weakens their connections to Korean folk culture. By the time second-generation Koreans are starting to choose their own churches, they are beginning to distance themselves from Korean ethnicity. In part, they become "racialized" and often attend pan-Asian, English-language evangelical churches. Evangelical religious identity becomes separated from Korean ethnic identity.
Indian Hindus, on the other hand, have the advantage of a very strong relationship between religious practices and identity, and ethnic folk culture. It is not hard for them to believe that to be Indian is to be Hindu, and vice versa. The practice of Hinduism...