American Orthodox Christianity Series 1, The Insignificance Of Orthodox Christianity To America, Post 5: The Ghettoization Of American Orthodoxy

In this post, I thought I’d highlight the main reason for the insignificance of Orthodoxy that is often given: ethnic ghettos.  Indeed, this is the standard sociological narrative and, indeed, a narrative given by many Orthodox themselves.[1]  Now, there is a fair amount of  truth to this.  The new immigrants often formed brotherhoods, or mutual aid societies, which created life insurance and other social support systems for the new immigrant communities.  Also, there was real, legitimate discrimination against the new immigrants.  For example, new Orthodox immigrants might be given low wages or sometimes not paid at all or even run out of town!  [Perhaps I’ll post on some of these specific examples in the future.]  My own work in American Orthodox historical theology has been, in large part, to show that such ghettoization is not the entire story.  Yet, it has been a very important, ongoing part of the story.  Even to this day, one may still find parishes in America that are heavily identified by their attachment to a particular Eastern European or Middle Eastern ethnicity.

Some aspects of American culture reinforced this “refuge-seeking” aspect of American Orthodox Church life, even beyond the need to respond to American Nativism.  Or, perhaps stated more accurately, American Nativism affected more than simply hiring practices and whether a group might be run out of town on rare occasion.  For example, when Orthodox did make the newspapers for their services and such, it was presented as something “exotic,” as something “other,” sometime not quite typically American but weird and strange, even if the journalist happened to like the music or service itself.  Or, as I believe I’ve mentioned on here before, Orthodox Christianity wasn’t something the Selective Service formally recognized.  Relatedly, when there were public, ecumenical prayer events, one might find a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor, and a Jewish rabbi, but not an Orthodox priest.  All of these additional cultural factors reinforced the “ethnic ghetto” aspect of Orthodox religion.

So, although I would contend such does not summarize all of earlier American Orthodox history, it did play an important role.  This is especially true when one considers that  ethnic ghettos meant Serbs, Greeks, Russians, and Ukrainians would each go to their own church in their own neighborhood.  This has had consequences for Orthodox.  This ethnic division has slowed Orthodox cooperation and unification in America.  What the future will bring on this, is hard to say, but certainly, this ethnic ghetto approach has helped make Orthodox Christianity insignificant for American religion and culture in many ways.

[As a programming note, this ends the first American Orthodox Christianity Series.  In my second series, I’ll note some ways in which American Orthodoxy has worked to be significant for American religion and culture.]

[1] See, for example, Peter Berger, who claimed Orthodoxy has responded “defensively.”  Peter L. Berger, “Orthodoxy and the Pluralistic Challenge,” in the Orthodox Parish in America: Faithfulness to the Past and Responsibility for the Future, edited by Anton C. Vrame (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003), 39.