Transnational Religion

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Transnational Religion

The world of the late twentieth century has grown smaller. The garments we wear are manufactured globally from cotton grown in Peru and cloth made in India, which in turn is sewn together in the Dominican Republic. They are marketed according to tariffs set by international political institutions. Has religion also "gone global"?

In some sense, religion is the oldest of global institutions. Religious diasporas began when the Jews left Canaan. The conquerors and missionaries who disseminated Catholicism throughout the world created a lasting global religious empire. But what is different about today?

One thing is the way in which people move. While most earlier migrants cut off their ties to the countries they came from, contemporary migrants often remain connected to their countries of origin at the same time that they are being integrated into the countries that receive them. Many earn their livelihood across borders, sustain at least partial long-term membership in two polities, and enact their social and emotional lives transnationally. Their ability to live lives that cross borders changes religious practices as well. A transnational religious relationship emerges that transforms religious life in both settings.

The terms "transnational" and "global" are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. As Michael Kearney wrote in The Annual Review of Anthropology (1995), while global processes are not linked to specific national territories, transnational processes are anchored in but transcend one or more nation-states. Transnational religious relationships form at multiple levels. That is, migration may give rise to strong connections between parishes or chapters of the same organization in the respective sending and receiving country. Transnational ties also emerge when the national leadership of comparable denominations in the sending and receiving country enters into formal cooperative agreements in response to the increasing numbers of members these denominations share.

When large numbers from a small Dominican village settled in Boston, Massachusetts, but still remained strongly connected to their sending community, the relations between individual priests, parishes, and archdioceses, which evolved at multiple levels of the Catholic church hierarchy, created a transnational religious organization. Religious life in Boston and in the Dominican Republic was reciprocally changed or affected as a result. The social remittances migrants sent back to the island brought Dominican religious practices closer to those in the United States. Subsequent émigrés continued to infuse fresh "Dominicanness" into the Boston church, though it was a "Dominicanness" that was increasingly Anglicized in tone. In this way, transnational ties reinforced religious pluralism at the same time that they limit its scope.

Migrations involving greater numbers who are more loosely connected to one another may produce transnational religious fields characterized by weaker, more informal ties. Migration, however, is just one catalyst for the emergence of these transnational connections. Missionaries, tourists, and members of religious movements continue to disseminate religious ideas around the globe. Some researchers predict that this spread and thickening of religious structures and movements across borders will create a transnational civil society that challenges nation-states and security interests as we know them.

See alsoCyber Religion; Globalization; Syncretism.


Beyer, Peter. 1994. Religion and Globalization 1994.

Levitt, Peggy. "Local-Level Global Religion: The Case of U.S.-Dominican Migration." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 3 (1998): 74–89.

Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber, and James Piscatori, eds. Transnational Religion and Fading States. 1997.

Peggy Levitt