Faith and Assimilation | VOX, CEPR Policy Portal

The growing international immigration flow has sparked a heated debate over the impact of immigrants on host society. A recurring concern expressed by some local residents is that ethnic religious organizations may undermine immigrants ’will and ability to assimilate. Regardless of their characteristics and the beliefs they are associated with, religious organizations are often blamed for perpetuating racial practices and for slowing down the adoption of rules prevalent in host society. In recent decades, Muslim immigrants have become the target of episodes of violence perpetrated by local residents (Abdelgadir and Foucault 2020, Bonsak et al. 2016, Bisin et al. 2008, Mueller and Schwartz 2020).

Although the religious groups that cause animosity to local residents may vary from time to time, the current animosity is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, between 1850 and 1920, when more than 30 million Europeans migrated to the United States in the era of mass immigration (Abramitzky and Boustan 2017), Catholic immigrants experienced similar adverse reactions (Higham 1955, Spiro 2009).

Despite the importance of the issue, the impact of religious organizations on the assimilation of immigrants has been surprisingly studied. Moreover, they are formerly obscure. On the one hand, ethnic religious organizations can preserve the legacy of national culture. On the other hand, they can reduce the cost of immigration by providing spiritual and material assistance, thus helping immigrants stay in the destination country and smooth adaptation. Religious organizations can promote economic and social integration by providing important public products such as education (Bajji et al. 2020).

Our recent work (Gagliarducci and Tabellini 2022) addresses these questions and studies the effects of ethnic religious organizations on the social, cultural and economic assimilation of immigrants. We consider the role of the Italian Catholic Churches in the United States between 1890 and 1920, when more than 4 million Italians migrated to the United States, representing the single largest national group at that time (Ferenczi 1929, Spitzer and Zimran 2018). A strange feature of the context we examine is that while Italian immigrants were ethnically Catholic, the United States was primarily Protestant because of the Anglo-Saxon settler tradition (Gilles 2000). Moreover, the anecdote and historical evidence highlight both the importance of the Catholic Church to Italian immigrants (Herberg 1983, Vecoli 1969) and the adverse reaction that the Church caused to the local population at that time (Higham 1955).

We collect and digitize historical records during the arrival of Italian Catholic priests and churches that were identified by the Catholic hierarchy to serve the Italian community. Figure 1 Map of counties that had at least one Italian church between 1890 and 1920. We combine this fancy dataset with the universe of Italian immigrants living in the United States between 1900 and 1920, which we got from a complete census of the U.S. population. In Figure 2, we plan the average Italian immigrant divide in U.S. counties between 1900 and 1920, with darker colors reflecting a higher presence of Italian immigrants.

Figure 1 Presence of the Italian Catholic Church (1890-1920)

Comments: Presence of at least one Italian Catholic Church between 1890 and 1920.
Formula: Counting Authors from Catholic Directories.

Figure 2 Average share of Italian immigrants (1900-1920)

Comments: 1900-1920 Average share of first generation Italian immigrants (more than the county population).
Formula: Calculation of authors from the IPUMS sample of the U.S. Census (Ruggles et al. 2020).

For every Italian immigrant, we count the years, within a decade, they were exposed to the presence of an Italian church in the county where they lived. We then compare immigrants living in the same state that was exposed separately to an Italian Catholic church in the previous decade, with the constant county consistent and state-time-changing invisible features.

To isolate the causal effects of church exposure, we further stabilize the county penetration trend of Italian churches and allow the Italian assimilation to develop differently across the county in 1900 depending on the county’s various characteristics such as size, richness and religiosity. Of the Italian community, which may be related to the time of the arrival of the church. That our empirical strategy is supported by lots of historical evidence Time The advent of churches between states and decades – the only source of exploited diversity in our work – depends on ideological factors such as the entrepreneurial attitude of priests and missionaries, the destruction of a church by fire, limited and unexpected supply of priests, and a building between the local Italian community and American bishops. Or the purchase of land necessary for the establishment of the church has long been discussed.1

We see that Italian churches have reduced the chances of Italians marrying and staying close to a Native American of local descent. According to our estimates, an additional five years of exposure (slightly lower than the sample average) to an Italian Catholic Church reduced intermarriage rates and residential consolidation by 0.5 and 2 percentage points, respectively (or, 61% and 13% compared to 1900) Italian churches also reduced naturalization rates. .

Italian churches have also increased the tendency of parents to name their (US-born) child after a Catholic saint, compared to siblings born before the arrival of the church. Figure 3 shows how the naming pattern of Italian parents developed before and after the arrival of the Italian church (represented by the black vertical line corresponding to the zero on the X-axis).

Figure 3 Possibility of naming a child after a Catholic saint

Comments: Figure Plot coefficients for each county (calendar) year with a 95% confidence interval on lead and lags equal to a dummy for entry into an Italian Catholic Church. The dependent variable is the Catholic score, i.e., the percentage of U.S.-born children (0-10) of the family named after a Catholic saint. The vertical black line signifies the arrival of the church in the county.

For economic results, the picture is more mixed. The presence of the Italian Church increased the labor force participation of Italians but reduced their professional status and the quality of their work, persuading Italian immigrants to specialize in more ‘usually Italian’ occupations (such as bootblack, barber, or fruit grader). These patterns are consistent with anecdotal accounts. They point out that Italian priests made it easier for immigrants to find jobs through their ethnic networks but that such jobs limited opportunities for professional advancement (Francesconi 1983).

We then investigate the mechanisms behind these patterns. First, and consistent with the abundant historical evidence, the churches enhance coordination within the Italian community, acting as a catalyst for immigrants. For example, after entering a church, the rate of intermarriage and residential integration further decreased where the size of the Italian community was larger.

Second, using the local press to measure the attitudes of local residents, we document that the presence of Italian churches increased the likelihood that the words ‘crime’ and ‘violent’ appeared together with the word ‘Italian’, reflecting abusive racial stereotypes. This suggests that the Italian churches aroused a response from longtime residents. We document and support the long-standing association with Italian churches with the high probability of opening a Ku Klux Klan Clavern (local unit) in the county during the second Klan era (1915-1940), characterized by a strong anti-Catholic position (Higham). 1955).

Our research suggests that Italian Catholic churches have reduced the social and lesser economic assimilation of Italian immigrants. Nevertheless, we have found evidence that they have helped immigrants integrate with other dimensions. In particular, immigrant children born in Italy and growing up in the county for a long time with an Italian church were more likely to speak and be educated in English. This pattern was even clearer for Italian churches that had an attached school. Also, Italian churches increase children’s ability to speak English – but not literacy – more in state counties with compulsory English law.

Our work focuses on the short-term impact of religious organization. Future research should study how ethnic religious organizations affect the assimilation of immigrants and, more broadly, long-term social cohesion. Also, we did not examine how the arrival of the Italian Catholic Church affected other ethnic groups. While other immigrant groups, especially non-Catholics, may benefit from changing perceptions of local residents, the opposite can also happen. Finally, more evidence from other contexts is needed to compare patterns across time and space.


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In Paper 1, we also perform a number of placebo exercises that document that Italian immigrants in the county who previously received an Italian church were not consolidating at a differential rate before entering the church.

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