Monthly Archives: October 2009

Author-Meets-Critics Panel at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

In October 2009, Kevin Christiano of Notre Dame convened an author-meets-critics panel on my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. The three panelists were Michael Emerson of Rice University, Melissa Wilde of the University of Pennsylvania, and Richard Wood of the University of New Mexico. All three panelists were extremely complementary about the ambitious three-country research design, the large amount of ethnographic work done, and the passionate writing. In blogs below, I address some of the questions raised by each of the panelists. I would like to thank Kevin Christiano for convening the panel and offering his insights on the Quebec case, with which he is very familiar. When we were talking about whether voluntary organizations, including faith-based ones, are necessary to complement state provided social services, Kevin described to the audience how for many Quebecois, the state is ipso facto better than the church at providing social services. Because the Catholic Church dominated social life for nearly 200 years while French Quebecois were under the rule of Anglophone Quebecois and Canadians, since the 1960s Quiet Revolution many Quebecois have held firmly to the opinion that they need to be liberated from traditional control of the church. Although I agree with this statement, in a discussion after the panel, I told Kevin that it seemed to me that Quebec was still strongly culturally Catholic, even nearly 50 years after the Quiet Revolution begun. In my work with Haitian immigrants, I found that Catholic leaders and organizations–both Haitians and Quebecois–were instrumental in assisting the settlement and adaptation of Haitians who arrived in Quebec from the 1960s-1990s. These Catholic leaders and associations had many connections to the Quebecois state that helped them in their work with Haitians. It was only when large numbers of non-Catholic immigrants began arriving in Quebec and their religious leaders sought to engage the public sphere that the people of Quebec began to really question cooperation between religious organizations and the state. Thus, although the Quiet Revolution clearly altered the social position of the Catholic Church in Quebec, this change occurred slowly and many connections still exist.

Michael Emerson’s Comments

All of the panelists commented that they enjoyed my use of theological concepts in the book, something that is not very common among sociologists who study religion. Michael Emerson asked me to expand on what I meant when I wrote at the end of the introduction that, in my book, a theological imagination accompanies the sociological imagination. In the course of my fieldwork, I experienced the shortcomings of the position from where I started my inquiry. What I saw again and again in my fieldwork was: I was trying to bracket out their faith, move past it quickly, and get to what “really” mattered from the position where I started: immigrants need social services, legal papers, health care and I thought the church helped them get there. But I realized that something was wrong with the position from which I started my inquiry. Over and over again, my interviewees wanted to talk to me first about their faith in God. I came to realize that their theological imagination—their understanding of who God is and how they relate to God—profoundly influences their social struggles. So in writing Faith Makes us Live, I invite my readers to leave behind their position from which they would look into this situation and take seriously the position from which the people I interviewed began their inquiry. I realized that for the people I interviewed just the fact that someone from a very different position in the world was trying to understand their position in the world itself was a powerful healing force for all the suffering they had experience. From their position, using a theological imagination, I am also a child of God, thus I could understand their suffering and console them even though I am from a different social background. My interviewees didn’t see me as simply the product of social forces that have made me a light-skinned, highly educated Cuban-American. They saw me as another human being capable of entering not only their material world, but their symbolical world. I genuinely trying to understand their meaning, I reinforced their belief that faith can triumph over suffering and that faith can trump differences in class, race, and power. In sharing their suffering with me, we met on a level deeper than that of social class, skin color, money. We met as human persons. By entering into their world personally, I learned better what was going on at these faith communities more generally: communion with others relieves suffering. Eucharistic communion as celebrated in Catholic communities is not just about a one-on-one encounter with Jesus, it is about a community coming together to heal, fortify and build strength. Thus, the theological imagination leads us to transcendence, to the concept of the person as a gift and in relationship to others through his or her relationship to God.

Melissa Wilde’s Comments


Melissa Wilde commented on my argument that although France and Quebec try to define an officially “neutral” policy toward religion, in practice their policies do not seem neutral. To extend my argument in the book, I argue that the state cannot be neutral towards religion any more than the state can be neutral to the good. Neutrality among religions is possible, at least more possible, than neutrality towards religion in general. State enforcement of non-expression of religion in the public sphere over allowing religious expressions in the public sphere, the general aim of French laicite and Quebec’s open secularism, is not neutrality toward religion: is it privileging non-religion, and that privilege of non-religion needs to be justified on some kind of legitimate moral grounds. Thus, how religion is included or excluded from public sphere is part of a larger debate about the moral legitimacy of the state and about how non-state actors formulate moral criticism of state power and actions. Melissa questioned why, if second generation Haitians in Montreal and Paris are becoming more secular, I still think that religious communities will be important for their assimilation. Although I am saying that, in comparative perspective, more Haitians in Montreal or Paris will decline in religious practice, but at least some will retain their faith and practice. I’m not saying that faith based services should be the only kind of social services, but they are part of the picture and should be acknowledged for their contributions. Although I’m not trying to say that the US model is perfect, I am trying to say that the French and Quebec model marginalizes one important way that immigrants traditionally have found mobility. Religion alone does not determine any particular assimilation outcome, but it interacts with just about every other thing that influences how immigrants adapt: where people settle, education, family, job hunting, community building, and political advocacy. The narrative of hope provided by religion can help people take advantage of opportunities that are there, rather than turn away from them. For immigrants like many Haitians who are poor, black, not highly educated, and not very welcomed, religion is an extra social support. Religion can moderate the effect of good state policies, that is, make those state policies work better. Religion can also mediate between individuals and the state and market—people can find opportunities for mobility through their religious community. I am not trying to argue that religious communities by themselves can achieve immigrant assimilation, but I am saying that the French and Quebec model weaken one community resource among Haitians–their religious faith–and that the greater secular environment of Montreal and Paris has negative consequences for immigrant assimilation because immigrants there do feel excluded yet they have fewer symbolic and material resources with which to be agents in their own assimilation.

Richard Wood’s Comments


Richard Wood asked for clarification on why I thought faith-based mediating institutions were necessary for successful immigrant assimilation. Can’t the French system, for example, guarantee upward immigrant mobility through other means? Isn’t the reason we have a strong state, Wood asked, because of the limits of a voluntaristic approach to social services, which would undoubtedly leave many gaps? To answer, I argue in Faith Makes Us Live that an empirical examination of Haitian immigrant assimilation in all three cases show that the state cannot do everything to achieve this assimilation. The downward assimilation of some Haitians and some members of other immigrant groups in each country I studied is a reality. As Steve Offutt in the audience noted, voluntary associations or associations of civil society exist to complement, not replace, the state social welfare system. No matter what country you are talking about, he said, there will be failures in the state and the market, and thus the voluntary sector will always have some role to play. In addition, I think that voluntary sector organizations have an important advocacy role in pointing out to the state and the market what their failures are. Thus, I argue that the successful assimilation of immigrants into new societies requires strong communities, and for many immigrants, these communities will be religious. These religious communities give a sense of meaning and hope to make sense of the difficulties in this assimilation–something the state does not do well. Furthermore, religious communities often help provide real material resources and political advocacy to forward assimilation goals. Comparative research needs to move beyond taking national discourses at face value and confront ideology and narrative with empirical cases, thus refining our theories, concepts and understandings. As Steve Warner said from the audience, the fact that I point out the consequences of these different national models of church-state relations for immigrant assimilation does not mean that it is simple to derive policy implications from my work. As Steve aptly put it, I am not trying to say that France or Quebec needs to turn its back on its own history and traditions, but I am pointing out some of the weaknesses of their approach that emerge in comparative perspective. For example, I argue that laicite and Republicanism lack legitimacy among many in the immigrant banlieue.