Have Religion, Will Travel

Peggy Levitt gave the keynote address. Photo: Maggie Mastricola

Harvard Divinity School’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) celebrated its 25th anniversary with a conference titled “Border Crossings.”

The conference title took on several meanings, as the keynote speaker talked about religion crossing national borders, while other participants discussed crossing borders of gender, genre, politics, race, religion, and discipline.

The WSRP promotes critical inquiry into the interaction between women and gender. It sponsors research and teaching in feminist theology, biblical studies, ethics, and women’s history, as well as interdisciplinary scholarship on women throughout the world’s religions. Each year, the program hosts five postdoctoral research associates who spend a year at the Divinity School pursuing their own research and offering a course based upon that research.

In her keynote lecture at the February 3 event, Peggy Levitt, Associate Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and a research fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard, made the case that religion transcends national boundaries for migrant communities.

Migrants to the United States, she said, “are changing what it means to be part of the U.S. and they’re changing what it means to be part of their religion.”

According to Levitt, many people expect migrants to trade in one membership card for another—that becoming American means leaving one’s homeland identity behind.

Instead, what happens is that people become American and retain their ties to their homeland, often through the mechanism of religious identity, and that this changes the face of religious diversity in the United States while changing religion and culture in the sending country. She cited the example of a U.S.-based Hindu community.

The local temple had become home not only to religious ceremony, but had also become a social center and a replacement for the extended family that had been left behind in India. Yet the temple and its members retain real ties to the homeland—and phone calls and other communications with the parent temple are frequent, both about official temple business and for less formal advice. The temple also hosts visitors, from the homeland as well as from temples around the world.

Thus, she said, to think of these people only as Americans ignores the ongoing influence of their homeland culture.

“We’re missing the boat if we continue to insist that religion and culture are nationally bounded.” “Migration,” Levitt said, “is as much about the people who stay behind as it is about the people who move.”

Migrants often send money back to their homeland, or they return and share the new ideas and practices that they’ve learned from their receiving countries. This changes the way people live and think.

Levitt described the way young women in Gujarat, India, had evolving thoughts about the traditions of marriage: “When I talked with young women about marriage, they were really describing a different kind of partnership.

They knew that men and women who lived in the U.S. were both more likely to work, both more likely to raise the children, and both more likely to take care of things in the household. And they observed that when they came back they treated people more equally, that women seemed to have more of a say in family dynamics. In response to these kinds of social remittances, they wanted a different kind of marriage—a different kind of partnership.

“God needs no passport,” continued Levitt, echoing the title of her lecture.

“Religion is the archetypal boundary crosser. It’s the vehicle that carries people between different sociocultural worlds—it transports them between one nation and another and helps them make the cultural transition to a globalized world.”