Religious institutions and transnationalism: A case study of catholic and evangelical Salvadoran immigrants

Cecilia Menjívar

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

84 Scopus citations


All the churches in this study are eminently transnational in their broader objectives, but their local institutional responses to processes that increasingly link their immigrant membership to distant homelands result from the interaction between the churches' organizational structures and doctrines. A formally organized entity with a "communitarian" emphasis, such as the Catholic church, actively encourages policies that forge multicultural models in order to become more accessible and relevant to parishioners. But this is the church "from above," an approach that when applied locally relegates the membership's ethnic and national interests to a second plane, the expression of which is discouraged within the spaces that the church provides. Thus, Catholic leaders are faced with the challenge of trying to fulfill their communitarian mission within increasingly diverse parishes comprised of members with more transnational projects and obligations than ever before. The Catholic churches in this study thus strike a delicate balance to allow for specific cultural expressions of faith without compromising the unity that the church is attempting to cast, so as to become relevant to the immigrants' lives in the place where they live. The less formally structured God's Light, with an emphasis on the individual's personal relationship to God and a grassroots approach, makes for a malleable organization that not only accommodates easily to the challenges of transnationalism, but benefits from such trends to expand its mission. Entrusting each individual member with the important mission to take the Word to all corners, this church's objectives are particularly attuned to contemporary transnationalism. Thus, the leader's and the congregation's goals of universalizing their church contribute to create institutional social spaces for immigrants to sustain relations with communities of origin. And, importantly, this church's ethnic homogeneity further reinforces its ability to shape and focus the transnational interests and objectives of its adherents to one place of origin-rather than to all corners of the world, according to church objectives. In doing so, the church actively fosters institutional ties with religious institutions in the Salvadoran immigrants' communities of origin. Emmanuel's Temple shares important characteristics with both the Catholic churches and God's Light. On the one hand, it is similar to God's Light in its organizational structure and its fundamental approach. This church also delegates to each individual member the mission to "spread the Word," and because this objective is intimately linked to the church's teachings, it too contributes to foment key institutional links to the members' places of origin. This church, however, is ethnically heterogeneous, so it does not make direct efforts to forge links with one specific place of origin, but instead tries to create links to all the members' homelands. In this way, by forging such links, it achieves its universalist objective of spreading the Word to as many places as possible. Similar to the Catholic church's efforts to unite its membership under one umbrella, Emmanuel's Temple also forges such unity. But whereas for the Catholic leaders, encouraging a panethnic Latino identity-in line with non-religious, more politically rooted efforts-is a fundamental requirement to accomplish their communitarian objectives, for Emmanuel's Temple it is an expected component of its religious compromise. The objective here is to create a new "Christian" identity, not based on nationality but on the church's beliefs and principles. Thus, Emmanuel's Temple, manages to do both, to create spaces for institutional links within the church that converge neatly with its doctrine, and to unite its membership under one umbrella. Based on the cases presented here, it seems that there are certain factors that together tend to reinforce religious institutional links to immigrants' countries of origin. The ethnic composition of the churches' membership, their organizational structures, and their religious doctrines, all intertwine to create different religious institutional responses to contemporary processes of transnationalism. For instance, the transnational character and organizational structure of the Catholic church may be taken for granted and a response more in tune with an expanding global civil society is expected, since this church offers a space more compatible with its globalizing objectives. But when local translations of this approach are examined, it becomes clear that the ethnic composition of the particular parish and the church's communitarian doctrine impact greatly its response to trends of transnationalism. In the case of the evangelical churches, doctrine fundamentally shapes and is affected by the churches' objectives, organization, and congregations' efforts. The evangelical churches show, however, that even though they may also have universalist goals that lead them to transcend local ethnic or national differences, a critical mass of immigrants from the same country or region of a country can develop a nation-specific orientation within the church. Undoubtedly, the factors identified in this study-ethnic composition, doctrine, and organizational structure of the churches-may be found in different configurations across religious communities, such that Catholic and evangelical churches may operate dissimilarly from the cases discussed here. What remains heuristically important about these case studies is their contribution to an understanding of how different religious institutions result in their members' constructing dissimilar kinds of transnational identities and social spaces in localized settings, and of how by doing so, these individuals contribute, in their everyday life, to globalization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)589-612
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Journal of Politics, Culture and Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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