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Transnational Religious Connections

Author(s): Robert Wuthnow and Stephen Offutt

Source: Sociology of Religion, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 209-232
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Accessed: 29-08-2017 23:42 UTC

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Sociology of Religion 2008, 69:2 209-232

Transnational Religious Connections*

Robert Wuthnow
Princeton University

Stephen Offutt
Boston University

Globalization, defined as the increasing flow of people, information, goods, services, and other
resources across national boundaries, is altering social contexts in ways that influence religious prac
tices. Increasingly, religion is not only instantiated in local communities and national societes, but is
also linked with networks that span societal borders. Immigration is the most studied example.
However, other flows of people and resources need to be considered, as do the transnational political
and economic influences that shape religion. We review recent work in these disparate literatures and
show how they point to the growing variety and importance of religious connections that span borders.
We discuss evidence of the ways in which religious communities in the United States connect with peo
ple in other societies and consider these and other multilateral influences in parts of the Global South.

Scholars increasingly observe that religion in the United States cannot be

understood by considering only the United States. This observation has arisen
from several rather disparate lines of inquiry: theoretical arguments about global
ization, studies of immigrant congregations, surveys about Americans' attitudes
toward the world and the world's attitude toward America, discussions of global
Christianity, and missiological research, among others. From these various per
spectives, religion is increasingly viewed as a transnational phenomenon.
Although it exists in local communities and is distinctively influenced by a
national cultural and political context, it has connections with the wider world
and is influenced by these relations. Transnational religious connections consist
of actual flows of people, goods, services, and information across national bound
aries. They are facilitated by transnational organizations and by broader trends in
the global political economy.
The aim of this essay is to bring the insights of these diverse literatures into
closer conversation with one another and thus to offer a framework for consider

*Direct all correspondence to: Robert Wuthnow, Department of Sociology, Princeton University,
Princeton, NJ 08544 ( Support was provided by the Lilly Endowment.
The authors are grateful to Peggy Levitt, Wendy Cadge, David Yamane, and an anonymous review
er for comments on an earlier draft.


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ing the varieties of transnational religious connections. Researchers have quite

appropriately focused on specific ways of thinking about transnationalism, both
in studies of religion and about other topics. For instance, it is helpful to exam
ine immigrant communities to learn what they bring to American religion from
their countries of origin or in other instances to show that they retain closer ties
with those places than was possible for earlier waves of immigrants. It is equally
appropriate to examine cross border traffic, remittances, and short-term mission
trips, or to examine the shifting demographics of the world's Christian or Muslim
populations. We miss seeing the larger picture and the relationships among these
various processes, though, by considering each in isolation from the others.
A significant strand of scholarship on religion that spans national borders
concentrates on diasporas, immigrants and refugees, residents of cosmopolitan
cities, border towns, displaced workers, and traders. Evidence of transnationalism
shows up among Cambodians in Vietnam, Senegalese in Italy, Central
Americans in Houston, Portuguese in Boston, Muslims in Paris, Haitians in
Harlem, Christians in China, Chinese in Calcutta, Moroccans in Rotterdam, and
so on (Bowen 2004; McAlister 1998; Oxfield 1993; Ebaugh 2004; Riccio 2001;
Hirono 2004; Salemink 2006). Not surprisingly, the people living in these com
munities often have mixed loyalties and a religious identity that transcends local
boundaries. But, oddly enough, hardly any of this work includes the vast majori
ty of congregations in which the U.S. population participates. Much of the liter
ature on those organizations and their members suggests that they are oriented
almost exclusively to the needs and interests of local communities (or are heavi
ly nationalistic). Thus, one of the more popular interpretations of global
Christianity in recent years suggests that churches in the southern hemisphere
are flourishing entirely on their own (Jenkins 2002). In this view, there is a com
plete disconnect between congregations in the United States and the rest of the
But obviously this interpretation deviates from common sense. People who
are not themselves recent immigrants or located in diasporic border towns are
also influenced by globalization. They watch CNN, travel, visit friends and rela
tives in other countries, work for multinational corporations, and purchase goods
from abroad. They live in a world in which transnationalism is very much pres
ent. If they are not themselves immigrants, they are increasingly involved in an
economy based on transnational flows of labor and capital. They more easily
travel abroad and communicate with friends and family in other countries than
people did in the past. They receive instant news from around the world, and
they often contribute to international relief organizations. With relative ease,
they can talk to people in other countries who speak their language, converse
about having shopped at Wal-Mart, and for sake of variety listen to "world music"
or read imported books. Surely the religious organizations to which they belong
are somehow involved in these transnational processes.

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We focus on the activities of churches and church members in the United

States that cross U.S. borders and, where possible, situate these activities in rela
tion to information about religious practices in other countries. Our approach
follows the literature on globalization that treats transnationalism as flows of peo
ple, goods, information, and other resources across national boundaries (Freeman
2006; Hannerz 1996; Kellner 2002; Steger 2003; United Nations 2004). Flows
that have been of interest in this literature include trade, foreign investment,
capital, migration, telephone calls, remittances, music, pornography, protest net
works, terrorist networks, and tourism (Asal, et al. 2007; Della Porta, et al. 2006;
Harris 2005; Hjalager 2007; Page and Plaza 2006; Palm 2002; Rosecrance and
Thompson 2003; Sachs 2007; Salisbury and Barnett 1999; Stallings 2007; Tarrow
2005; Zook 2003). In much of this literature, the more readily quantifiable flows
have been examined not only descriptively but also with an eye toward under
standing their consequences for a broad range of social phenomena, such as eco
nomic development, inequality, the authority of nation-states, and the structure
of cities (Alderson and Beckfield 2004; Farrell 2006; Marcotullio 2003; Sacks, et
al. 2001; Schularick 2006; Tsai 2007). However, in the case of transnational reli
gious connections, as with many other aspects of globalization, few of the descrip
tive questions have been fully addressed. This is especially evident when the
complexity of these flows is recognized. Not only is it necessary to take account
of different kinds (e.g. people, information), but also to consider their location
(many are transnational, but few are truly global) and duration, as well as such
aspects as speed, scope of societal involvement, and mode of organization (Steger
2003; Rosenberg 2000).
In emphasizing flows, our approach differs from that of studies in which
transnationalism is taken to exist only if people develop an alternative sense of
themselves as being citizens of no particular country or attach primary loyalty to
a religious community that exists in several countries or engage in business activ
ities that cause them to live and work on two sides of a border over a long peri
od of time.1 We understand that scholars investigating other topics have some
times felt it necessary to define transnationalism in these ways. But for our pur
poses, a broader definition is essential in the same way it is for understanding the
flows of people, goods, information, and resources in other spheres affected by
Any discussion of transnational religious connections must begin by
acknowledging that relations of this kind have been around for a long time.
Itinerant Buddhist monks in China and Japan, Spanish and Portuguese priests in
South America, and the churching of North America by European immigrants

1 Among the approaches that take a different approach are treatments of religion and
globalization that emphasize the theoretical implications of long-term modernization process
es (Beyer 1994; Robertson 1992), and studies that consider transnationalism only in the con
text of immigrant communities that sit astride political borders to such an extent that they are
neither here nor there (Portes 1997, 1999; Portes, et al. 1999).

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are familiar examples. An early example that illustrates U.S. influences overseas
is the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. It was founded in
1810 by Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and by 1835 had distributed 90
million pages of religious tracts, opened 63 overseas mission stations with 311
staff members, and initiated 474 schools for upwards of 80,000 pupils (Anderson
1861). Religion is transnational because human flows so often transcend arbitrary
political demarcations, but also because religious teachings frequently encourage
geographic expansion.
If transnational ties are not new, they have become more pronounced and of
greater interest in recent decades. Technological innovations have facilitated
such connections in the past. London Missionary Society founder William Carey
wrote in 1792 that the invention of the mariner's compass was key to the rising
missionary movement. This is no less the case at present with email, the Internet,
faster aviation, and cheaper shipping making it easier to communicate and trav
el. The United States-which ranked fourth overall in a recent ranking of coun
tries on measures of globalization (Kearny 2006)-is increasingly connected with
other countries through trade, migration, international investment, and tech
nology. These linkages frequently facilitate religious connections as well.
We proceed as follows. First, we discuss transnational religious connections
that can be conceptualized as flows of people, considering migration involving
change of residence, but also more transitory connections that are increasingly
important. Second, we discuss transnational religious connections that involve
flows of goods, services, information, money, and other material resources.
Finally, we discuss changing aspects of the global political economy that shape
these other connections and constitute transnational influences on local and
national religious communities.
The empirical information and examples we provide are mostly concerned
with the religious connections between the United States and other countries,
but include some research conducted in other countries. Besides published
research, we draw on new results from the Religion and Global Issues Survey,
conducted by Wuthnow in 2005 among a representative national sample of 2,231
active church members in the United States, supplemented with approximately
300 qualitative interviews with clergy and lay leaders of international organiza
tions.2 In addition, we draw some information from qualitative interviews con

2Conducted by Schulman, Ronca, and Bucuvalas, Inc., between January 19 and June 22,
2005, and consisting of approximately 200 fixed-response questions asked in 35 minute tele
phone interviews, including interviews in Spanish. Sampling was achieved through an ran
dom digit dialing (RDD) method, with screening asking how many adults age 18 or older in
the household were "church members or attend church services at least once a month," after
selecting the designated person within the household verifying that the respondent was in fact
"a member of a church or attend religious services at least once a month." In all, 41 percent
of the households contacted included an eligible church member by this criterion. The coop
eration rate for the study was 68.4 percent and the response rate was 56.2 percent.

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ducted by Offutt in South Africa and El Salvador in which questions were includ
ed about connections to U.S. churches.3


Two presuppositions guide the argument of this paper. First, the United
States is a dominant player within the current international political and eco
nomic system, and continues to be a prolific producer and exporter of religion,
especially of Christianity (Noll 2002; Yang and Ebaugh 2001). Our findings sug
gest that this situation will not change in the near future, as recent decades have
witnessed significant increases in both the mechanisms by which the U.S.
exports religion and the volume of religious actors and artifacts that flow through
those mechanisms. Second, today's greatest religious dynamism can be found in
the so-called "Global South." Evangelical Pentecostalism is flourishing in Africa,
Asia, and Latin America, and various forms of Islam are also growing rapidly. The
Catholic Church continues to grow apace, and new developments in Hinduism
and Buddhism are making waves in India, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere.
These two global dynamics-the continuing role of the United States in the
transnational spread of religion and the religious dynamism of the Global
South-do not operate in isolation from one another. South-South (as well as
North-South) transnational religious connections often bear the mark of U.S.
influence. Consider, for instance, the Nigerian who attends a Bible College in
South Africa, and is taught there by an American professor. Or the evangelical
Honduran who, while on a business trip to El Salvador, relaxes in the evening
with a book by Atlanta-based pastor John Maxwell. It is also true that religious
communities in the United States are increasingly on the receiving end of reli
gious transmissions originating in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. These newer
influences join older foreign influences on the United States, such as missionar
ies reporting from the field to their sending churches (Robert 2002).
Unlike economic transactions, transnational religious connections cannot be
summarized in numeric indices. Much of the relevant information is either qual
itative or limited in scope. Our impression from examining this information is
that the extent of transnational activity among U.S. religious organizations is
probably greater than many observers may have assumed on the basis of previous
research. For instance, one study found that only eight percent of Americans
attend congregations that sponsor or participate in "programs explicitly men
tioning beneficiaries outside the United States, including Crop Walk," and
another concluded that only 11 percent of Americans had given time or money

3In all, Offutt conducted 118 interviews in 2006 and 2007 as part of his ethnographic
research in the two countries.

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to support "international programs" through a religious venue (Chaves 2004;

Green 2003). The evidence we discuss points to significantly higher levels of
involvement. In any case, these transnational activities need to be considered
alongside the more commonly discussed evidence about congregations' and indi
viduals' local activities and personal religious concerns.
We recognize that flows, networks, and connections are but one way in
which religious transnationalism can be conceived. A different approach, for
instance, stresses what might be termed transnational identity, such as people
identifying themselves as global citizens rather than as members of a particular
nation, or organizations promoting an idea of world culture or deterritorialized
identity (Levitt 1998, 2001, 2004; Kastoryano 2002, 2007). Our argument is that
these shifts toward a transnational or global identity are often rooted in concrete
instances of people moving across national boundaries, sending resources across
borders, and developing organizations to administer such linkages. Thus, our
emphasis is on connections rather than identity.
Our interest in conceptualizing transnational religious connections is espe
cially motivated by the influential thinking that has taken place in recent years
about global Christianity (Jenkins 2002). Attention has been drawn to the
important fact that the majority of the world's Christian population is located in
Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the developing world, rather than in
the United States and Western Europe. Much discussion has followed about the
apparent vitality of indigenous churches in the Global South and what this
recentering may imply about churches in the Global North. However, we have
been surprised that relatively little attention has been paid to the continuing
and in some instances, increasing-linkages between churches in the two hemi
spheres. As Christianity grows in developing countries, these linkages deserve
more attention.


People who cross national borders to live, work, or travel in other countries
constitute one important kind of transnational connection that often has a reli
gious dimension. Immigration has received considerable attention because of its
role in the formation of new ethnically defined religious congregations. People
flows also include full-time religious workers, short-term volunteers, and tourists.

The past several decades have witnessed historic movements of people across
borders. Between 1965, when immigration laws changed, and 2000, an estimat
ed 22 million people immigrated legally to the United States and between seven
and ten million more may have come as undocumented workers. The impact of
immigration was especially evident among young adults where the proportion of

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men in their twenties who were non-citizens or naturalized citizens grew from
four percent in 1970 to 18 percent in 2000 (Wuthnow 2007).
Migration to the United States is part of a larger global phenomenon.
Immigrants to Britain made up 7.5 percent of the population in 2000, and the
resulting religious diversity is challenging some to recast Britain's national iden
tity as one of overlapping spiritual identities (Bradley 2007). France's immigrant
population in 2000 was 11 percent, and has brought Islam decisively into the
French context (Bowen 2007). Across the Middle East and Asia, city-states and
select countries are being completely reshaped through migration. For instance,
58 percent of those living in Kuwait, 40 percent in. Bahrain and Hong Kong, and
66 percent in Macao are immigrants. Although South Africa's foreign-born pop
ulation of three to five percent appears to be more modest (Schlemmer 2006), 41
percent of Botswanans and 54 percent of Mozambiquans in 2000 said their par
ents worked in South Africa, reflecting labor cycles that have long characterized
economic life in Southern Africa (Crush, et al. 2005). Meanwhile, sending coun
tries are also being restructured. At least 17 countries in the developing world
experienced at least two percent annual population losses in the 1990s (United
Nations 2004). Even countries that continue to grow are affected by a still more
quickly growing diaspora. El Salvador's population, for example, is about seven
million, but an estimated 3.2 million more Salvadorans now live outside the
country, with roughly 2.5 million of those living in the United States.
Immigrants not only add to the religious diversity of host societies, but also
forge connections between societies. These ties emerge organically, but can gen
erally be classified as connections between immigrants and their home country,
immigrants and non-immigrants, or immigrants of different countries. Churches
become intimately involved in the transnational ties of their congregants, and
over time help to institutionalize and routinize these connections. Levitt (2004)
notes three strategies used by churches in this endeavor-extended, negotiated,
and recreated-and the different types of religious organizations that most often
employ them (Catholic, Protestant, and Hindu, respectively). The level of diver
sity between transnational patterns is, however, somewhat limited because immi
grant churches of all stripes, as Ebaugh and Chafetz (2000b) point out, tend
toward the "de facto congregationalism" adopted by religious communities in
America (Warner 1994).
The ties between immigrants and their home countries often allow them to
participate in two communities simultaneously. Levitt (2007) has shown that
immigrants frequently make return trips to their countries of origin, maintain
dual residences, and even participate in elections in more than one country.
Remittances tend to be dominated by flows from host to sending countries, but
forms of media flow freely in both directions, including newspapers, movies, tel
evision shows, radio programs, phone calls, email, and videos. Wuthnow's (2006)
New Elites Project-a study of 200 well-established, occupationally successful
first-and second-generation immigrants from 35 countries-finds similar evi

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dence of continuing transnational interaction despite these immigrants' success

ful assimilation into more general cultural norms within the United States. For
instance, 73 percent had personally visited siblings or other immediate family
members who lived outside the United States at least once a year. There is also
ample evidence of the role played by transnational networks prior to their
becoming permanent U.S. residents: 43 percent had previously worked in anoth
er country, 78 percent knew someone in the U.S. who helped them find a job or
get settled, and 67 percent had studied abroad. In all of these ways, immigrants
create and maintain ties to their countries of origin.
Besides these direct transnational ties, immigrants interact with other immi
grants and with non-immigrants, often in churches. This is one way in which the
impact of transnational ties extends beyond immigrant communities into the
wider society. In Wuthnow's Global Issues Survey, eight percent of active U.S.
church members were immigrants, but 74 percent of members attended congre
gations in which recent immigrants were present. Qualitative information shows
that the presence of immigrants has various effects, both formal and informal,
such as initiating special Bible study groups for non-English speakers and spin
ning off start-up ministries in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods. In addi
tion, the presence of a few recent immigrants sometimes helps in initiating part
nerships with churches in other countries and humanitarian programs. There are
also increasing instances of congregations drawing together immigrants from dif
ferent countries-sometimes from the same region and with the same language
(Ebaugh and Chafetz 2000a, 2002), and sometimes from multiple continents (as
in the case of a Philadelphia church in which members come from China, India,
Kenya, and several Latin American countries).

Religious Workers
Professional and other full-time religious workers who go from one country
to live and work in another country-i.e., missionaries-continue to be an impor
tant kind of transnational religious connection. Although casual observers often
argue that the missionary era is over (e.g., MacLeod 2004; Siermon-Netto 2003),
figures collected by Protestant mission agencies and denominations in 2001 show
that there were 42,787 U.S. citizens working full-time as missionaries in other
countries, representing an increase of approximately 16 percent over the previ
ous decade, and significantly higher than the comparable number in the 1950s at
the often assumed height of overseas missionary endeavors. Among Catholics, as
of 2004, 111 American-born diocesan priests and 1,420 American-born religious
priests were serving abroad. Unlike the upward trend among U.S. Protestant mis
sionaries working abroad, this figure was approximately one-sixth the number of
Catholic clergy who had served abroad in 1968. Instead, the number of foreign
born priests serving in the United States appears to be growing, judging from the
fact that, in 2005, 16 percent of all U.S. priests and 27 percent of those recently
ordained were foreign-born (Lefevere 2006).

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While the large majority of religious workers in most countries are indige
nous, foreign religious workers create important transnational linkages.
According to the most comprehensive source for global Christian statistics, eight
percent of full-time Christian workers worldwide in 2000 were non-citizens
(Barrett and Johnson 2001:420-21). Non-citizens comprised nine percent of all
Christian workers in Asia, 11 percent in Africa, 16 percent in Oceania, and 23
percent in Latin America, but only six percent in Europe and two percent in
North America. Differences between poorer and richer parts of the world were
also evident in the fact that the ratio of foreign religious workers received to reli
gious workers sent abroad was 5.2 in Africa, 2.6 in Latin America, 2.4 in Asia,
and 1.9 in Oceania, whereas it was 0.5 for Europe and 0.3 for North America.
Comparable data for other religions are unavailable; however, one estimate
counted 141,630 Islamic da'wah groups (propagators of the faith) engaged in for
eign missions worldwide (Johnson and Scoggins 2005). As another example,
hundreds of Turkish imams can now be found in Germany, the vast majority of
whom are funded by the Turkish government and typically serve four year terms
before returning to their own country (Gibbon 2006). In the United Kingdom,
estimates suggest that 90 percent of the country's 2,000 imams have been trained
abroad, many at schools funded by Saudi Arabia (Klausen 2004).
Modern mission mobilization among Christian organizations involved
transnational cooperation from the start, especially between agencies in the
United States and England. These partnerships continued and broadened
through such endeavors as the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization
and other international mission conferences in the twentieth century (Winter
and Hawthome 1999). Among U.S. agencies, mission programs have long been
centrally coordinated by denominational and interdenominational boards. This
pattem continues. For instance, the Intemational Mission Board of the Southem
Baptist Convention had a budget of $283 million in 2005 and supported more
than 5,000 full-time foreign missionaries-a five-fold increase since 1955. The
support staff in Richmond, Virginia, consists of 500 full-time employees. The
board is also responsible for training and deploying approximately 30,000 short
term volunteers. Through its missionaries and volunteers, the board claims
approximately 600,000 baptisms annually worldwide and assists in the work of
nearly 100,000 overseas churches.
Transnational missionary efforts are also widely supported by local congrega
tions. In the Global Issues Survey, 74 percent of U.S. church members said their
congregation supported a missionary working in another country during the past
year. On average, four in ten said their congregation has a committee that focus
es on overseas missions or other international programs, and one in five reported
that his or her congregation had a full-time staff member with special responsi
bility for overseas missions and other global ministries.

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Short-Term Volunteers
Increasingly, people go from one country to another as amateur volunteers for
what have come to be called short-term mission trips. Although hard numbers
are difficult to find, an estimate from the Global Issues Survey is that 1.6 million
U.S. church goers participate in short-term mission trips to other countries each
year. The median length of time abroad, not counting travel is eight days, mean
ing that short-term volunteers contribute approximately 30,000 person-years to
U.S. mission efforts abroad-about one-fourth the amount provided by profes
sional missionaries. The dollar value of this effort, using rates established by
Independent Sector, is approximately $1.1 billion. At an average cost of at least
$1,000 per trip, transportation conservatively totals at least another $1.6 billion.
Forty-four percent of those surveyed said their congregation sent a group
abroad in the past year to do short-term missions or relief work. An indication
that the numbers of people involved in short-term missions has probably
increased is that only two percent of those who had been teenagers during the
1950s, 1960s, or 1970s said they had gone to another country on a short-term
mission trip while in high school, whereas this proportion increased to five per
cent among those who had been teenagers in the 1990s and 12 percent among
those who had been teenagers since the 1990s. Although short term mission trips
are primarily a U.S. phenomenon, Offutt's research uncovered teams originating
in El Salvador that had visited Kosovo, Equatorial Guinea, Honduras, Niger,
Nicaragua, and Vietnam. Teams originating in South Africa had gone to Greece,
France, India, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Poland, and Thailand. These
short-term trips are generally facilitated by preexisting transnational ties. For
instance, in one case, a middle class Salvadoran immigrated to New Mexico and
joined a church, which subsequently sent a team to the immigrant's previous
church in San Salvador. In other cases, denominations provide a transnational
link, often through congregation-to-congregation partnerships. Nongovern
mental humanitarian organizations and campus-to-campus ties are also impor
tant facilitators.
When teams arrive at their destination, they engage in a wide variety of
activities. Several of the churches we studied near the U.S.-Mexico border enlist
ed volunteer teams to collect building materials in the United States and assem
ble them in Mexico with local help. A congregation in Atlanta was fairly typical
in sending a team to Africa for a week to investigate organizations with which
the congregation would partner over a period of years to provide financial assis
tance. Teams of medical professionals volunteer at health clinics; groups of teach
ers volunteer at schools. Still other groups put on puppet shows for children,
engage in evangelistic ministries, and distribute food and clothing to communi
ties in need.
Long term transnational connections may or may not result from short term
mission trips. Some medical professionals, for instance, serve in as many parts of
the world as possible, and so view a trip to a specific location as a one time event.

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In other cases, return visits flow out of relationships that form across cultures. For
example, a Seattle-based group first visited El Salvador to help build a house and
to upgrade a local NGO's computer systems. A year later, one of the team mem
bers moved to El Salvador to assist the NGO in different ways. The other team
members communicate regularly and visit El Salvador about once a year.

Religious Transnationalism irn Other Fields

People travel internationally and live temporarily in other countries for
leisure and work-related activities that may have nothing to do with religion, and
yet insofar as they are religious people, their religious beliefs and practices are
sometimes involved. By narrow definitions of transnationalism that restrict its
meaning to long-term, identity-changing social relationships, these ephemeral
contacts may not matter. And yet an understanding of flows of people across bor
ders must include such contacts and must also include the possibility that they do
broaden horizons and facilitate other kinds of exchange. In the Global Issues
Survey nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of active church members said they had
traveled or lived in another country-a figure that of course includes short-dis
tance visits to Canada or Mexico.4 One in seven (14 percent) had lived in anoth
er country for at least a year. More than four in ten (43 percent) had friends or
relatives who lived outside the United States. Among church members current
ly working, 37 percent said they routinely interact with people from other coun
tries at work. Transnational contacts of these kinds generally do not result in dis
cussions about religion. And yet, 10 to 15 percent of Americans do talk about
religion with people from other religious traditions who have grown up in other
countries, and, not surprisingly, Americans who have traveled abroad are more
likely to have participated in diverse worship services (Wuthnow 2005).
Congregations are one of the places in which transnational contacts occur.
In the Global Issues Survey, 48 percent said their congregation had hosted a guest
speaker from another country in the past year. Colleges and universities are
another. In 2004, the number of foreign students enrolled at American universi
ties totaled more than 572,000, up from only 179,000 in 1975. Denominations,
seminaries, and parachurch organizations are yet another source, hosting inter
national conferences and study-abroad opportunities. One example is the trien
nial Urbana Missions Conference, which attracted 23,000 college-age partici

^This figure may be skewed by the fact that active church members tend to be better edu
cated than the general public; nevertheless, among respondents who had not been to college,
41 percent reported having traveled or lived outside the United States. In a previous nation
al survey (Wuthnow 2005), 57 and 58 percent of regular church attenders and non-attenders,
respectively, said they have traveled or lived outside the United States; among those who had,
11 percent of both groups had been to the Middle East and 17 and 20 percent, respectively,
had been to India, China, Japan, or another part of Asia.

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pants in 2006. Another is Passion, a multi-day Christian music and worship fest
that drew a similar number of young people to Atlanta in 2007.
Pilgrimages represent another critical component of transnational religious
activity. Among Muslims, the annual hajj is a prominent example, drawing
approximately 2.5 million visitors to Mecca each year, including an estimated
10,000 from the United States (Kahn 2005). American Hindus are among the
more than 100,000 pilgrims who travel annually to Kashmir to see a symbol of
Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism's three most revered gods, and are said to be increas
ingly represented among pilgrims to large "Hindu theme parks" in India (Rohde
2002; Kurien 2007:104). Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Bonpo believers all con
sider Mount Kailas in Tibet to be a place for pilgrimage at least once in their life
times, and come from all over the globe to circle its base (Henriksen 2003). For
American Christians and Jews, visits to Israel frequently have meaning as reli
gious pilgrimages. Overall, tourism to Israel (from all countries) grew from just
over one million in 1990 to 2.4 million in 2000, declined to 862,000 in 2002 after
the 9/11 attacks, and thereafter rose to 1.8 million in 2006.5 Organizations such
as Taglit-Birthright Israel, Hillel, the Catholic Pilgrimage Center, the World
Religious Travel Association, local congregations, and commercial travel agen
cies are examples of organizations that facilitate pilgrimages.
Business and professional personnel increasingly travel internationally as the
global economy expands, and in some instances also use these contacts to forge
religious ties (Yamamori and Eldred 2003). Offutt's research in Central America
and Africa finds numerous examples. For instance, a Salvadoran visiting a plant
in Honduras announces that he is an evangelical Christian and that he is inter
ested in a potential project because he thinks it could honor and glorify God. The
plant manager responds that he shares the Salvadoran's faith, and is excited
about the partnership for the same reason. A South African commodities trader
believes that "there are a lot of people in darkness," and he consequently tries to
share his faith through his business interactions, which often cross national bor
ders. Other examples include the international business leaders known as "boss
Christians" in China (Cunfu and Tianhai 2004), and so-called "great commission
companies," such as Pura Vida Coffee and Gateway Telecommunications
(Rundle and Steffen 2003). Religious actors also create ties in diplomatic venues.
For example, a South African Christian lawyer told Offutt she believes that God
has called her to fight for social justice, and she does this by representing South
Africa in committees at the United Nations and on women's issues in the
Democratic Republic of Congo. She uses transnational connections, including
contacts at American universities and in Washington, as resources.

^Figures from annual reports by the United Nations' World Tourism Organization, online

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Besides flows of people, transnational religious connections consist of

exchanges of money, knowledge, information, and other goods and services
between religious communities or between donors in one country and recipients
in another. The cost of training, transporting, and maintaining religious workers
abroad implies a transnational investment of resources. Others include remit
tances, funds for religious personnel and programs, humanitarian efforts, and
flows of religious products and information.

Global statistics for 2002, the most recent year available, shows that migrants
sent nearly $80 billion home to developing countries. In Mexico alone, remit
tances from people working abroad totaled $9.8 billion, approximately twice the
value of the country's annual agricultural exports (A.T. Kearney 2006). In El
Salvador, remittances totaled nearly $2.8 billion in 2005 and an estimated 22
percent of households in El Salvador receive remittances.
Remittances primarily benefit family members, but in turn sometimes expand
the possibilities for religious congregations to hire staff and run programs.
Kurien's (2002) research among Indian workers in the Middle East shows how
remittances affect Christian, Muslim, and Hindu communities in India. Levitt's
(2007) research provides examples of remittances facilitating the activities of
congregations in the Dominican Republic and Ireland. An example from Offutt's
work in El Salvador also shows how churches benefit from remittances. Mario
Gonzalez, the senior pastor of the Christian Community of Faith and Adoration
estimates that all of his 150 members have relatives living in the U.S., and that
80 percent receive remittances. The church worships in a rented space in
Zacamil, a lower middle class sector of San Salvador. Remittances enable the very
simple lifestyle to which the members aspire. Gonzalez encourages members to
tithe remittances just as they would income, and he estimated that 20 percent of
them do. As it seeks to purchase a lot and erect a new church building, the added
tithes from remittances will certainly help.

Religious Funding
Financial support of religious organizations and personnel in other countries
represents another significant flow of resources. Studies of religious congregations
in poor countries appropriately emphasize the role of indigenous leaders and local
participation, and yet may underestimate the role of external funding in arguing
that overseas missionaries are not involved. In 2001, approximately 65,000 non
U.S. citizens and foreign nationals were working in other countries under full
financial sponsorship by a Protestant U.S. agency. Though small compared to the
likely number of clergy supported through local funding, this number was larger
by nearly half than the number of U.S. foreign missionaries. In total, U.S.

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Protestant churches contributed more than $3.7 billion for overseas ministries,
an after-inflation increase of 45 percent over the previous decade (Welliver and
Northcutt 2004).
Whether the labor value of short-term volunteers represents an actual finan
cial contribution can be questioned on grounds that these volunteers also con
sume time and resources from their hosts and may only be replacing local labor
in areas where unemployment is already high. However, short-term volunteers
sometimes provide financial assistance as well. For instance, a study of four U.S.
teams of high school students working with Peruvian churches showed that the
89 volunteers contributed a total of more than $25,000 in cash toward church
construction and repair (Priest 2007).

Humanitarian Aid
Congregations and denominations are significantly involved in internation
al humanitarian aid. A national poll released on January 13, 2005 showed that
36 percent of the U.S. public claimed to have donated money to their churches
for tsunami victims ( The Southern Baptist
Convention collected $16 million, United Methodists took in more than $6 mil
lion, the United Church of Christ contributed more than $3 million, and the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America raised $2.5 million. Catholic Relief
Services alone accounted for $114 million.
In the Global Issues Survey, 76 percent of active church members said they
had personally given money in the past year for international relief or hunger
projects. The same percentage said their congregation had an offering in the past
year to raise money for overseas hunger or relief programs. In more than 80 per
cent of these congregations, there had been more than one such offering in the
past year. The survey also showed that 29 percent belonged to congregations that
had helped support a refugee or refugee family within the past year. Qualitative
interviews with pastors and lay leaders suggested that congregations usually con
tribute in rather small ways to humanitarian efforts. This impression is reinforced
by the survey in which 70 percent of respondents said they gave less than $500
total to religious organizations during the year and, of these, the majority either
did not know or assumed the amount they had given to help people in other
countries was less than $100.
Individual donations, though, comprise only part of what U.S. religious
organizations contribute to international humanitarian aid. Data collected in
1981 showed that many of the largest nonprofit humanitarian organizations were
religious-for example, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Church World
Service, and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency-and that some of
these organizations were receiving substantial revenue from government grants
and contracts (Smith 1990). By 2003, judging from IRS 990 forms, inflation
adjusted budgets of the top 25 faith-based international aid organizations had
grown 134 percent, reaching a total of $2.3 billion. Among the largest, Catholic

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Relief Services received 74 percent of its support from government sources.

Church World Service, World Relief, the Adventist Development and Relief
Agency, and World Vision received 64 percent, 50 percent, 46 percent, and 37
percent, respectively. Besides government funding, private philanthropy, such as
that of the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, and the
Mclellan Foundation, also played a significant role.

Religious Products and Information

One of the more important transnational flows of religious information is the
production and distribution of Bibles. In 2006, approximately 24 million Bibles
were distributed worldwide by United Bible Societies, a transnational organiza
tion that began in 1946 and currently includes offices in 120 countries. Bibles are
printed in local languages and support is raised through local congregations.
However, the effort also represents a significant investment of U.S. resources.
The American Bible Society's 2006 IRS 990 form shows assets of $493.8 million
and total expenses of $82.6 million, of which $37.7 million was for "overseas out
Another example is the Jesus Project, a film about the life of Jesus produced
and distributed by U.S.-based Campus Crusade for Christ. From the project's
inception in 1979 through 2005, an estimated 42 million videocassettes (as well
as 13 million audiocassettes) were distributed, according to the project's website
( The material has been translated into 1,000 different lan
guages, and the organization claims it has reached six billion people in 105 coun
A third example is the leadership literature produced by John C. Maxwell
(e.g. Maxwell 1998). Maxwell, an Atlanta-based speaker and author, appears reg
ularly on bestseller lists such as The New York Times and BusinessWeek. He is
aggressively reaching out around the globe, touring 12 countries in Latin
America in 2006. In El Salvador he spoke to over 1,000 business and religious
leaders before meeting with the country's President, Tony Saca. In 2007, Maxwell
spoke to senior executives and ministry leaders in South Africa. His books are
prominently displayed in Christian book stores throughout El Salvador and
South Africa. When an assistant pastor in a Salvadoran megachurch of 15,000
was asked by Offutt which American authors he trusted, his first response was
"John Maxwell."
Other religious products also facilitate a sense of a single faith community
across borders. The second generation Swadhyayees (a Hindu movement) that
Levitt studied watch videotapes (with English subtitles) of lectures by their
leader. The Swadhyaya headquarters now has a unit that spends its days mailing
these out around the world. Likewise in Pakistan, Farat Hashmi, a female reli
gious scholar who is very popular with middle-class Pakistani women, is spread
ing her word through audiotapes, video, and books; she is gaining increasing vis
ibility throughout South Asia and the Middle East (Levitt 2007).

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Besides the flows of people and resources that connect religious communities
transnationally, religion is shaped indirectly by global economic and political
relations. These economic and political relations are part of the globalization
process and typically involve new market relations, rising opportunities for some
and declining opportunities for others, trade agreements, and diplomatic rela
tions. The impact of these changing dynamics of the global political economy on
local religious communities is often profound. A good example of these indirect
influences was the integration of northern Brazil into the global economy
through the construction of the Belem-Brasilia highway and the subsequent
growth of iron, timber, ranching, and hydroelectric power generation. As subsis
tence farmers and agricultural workers were displaced from rural areas, Belem's
migrant population swelled and the shantytown population increased four- to
eightfold. Pentecostal churches grew rapidly in these neighborhoods, attracting
domestic servants, security guards, janitors, day laborers, and the unemployed.
Without healthcare or traditional family networks, people were especially drawn
to the healing services the churches offered (Chesnut 1997). In other areas,
Pentecostal and evangelical churches have grown among different social strata
(Martin 2002). The point is that even religious developments led by indigenous
clergy and in highly specific local settings are often shaped by transnational influ
ences. Although a full treatment of these influences cannot be attempted here,
they can be illustrated by mentioning several of the most pervasive aspects of

Trade and Communication

People in different parts of the world are increasingly connected through
international trade and communication. As a share of Gross Domestic Product,
international trade rose during the 1990s among 67 countries for which records
were kept and declined among only 14, according to the World Bank
( During the same period, the United Nations tracked
1,885 changes in national regulations and found that 94 percent liberalized the
flow of international trade ( International telephone traffic, as
measured by minutes U.S. residents spent talking internationally, increased by
500 percent between 1990 and 2004 (A.T. Kearney 2006). The Internet, email,
and satellite links to newspapers and cable television stations have also encour
aged greater awareness of people and events beyond national borders. In the
Global Issues Survey, 75 percent said they watched news about other parts of the
world on television at least once a week, a quarter read about international news
at least once a week, and four in ten obtained information about foreign events
at least once a week from the Internet.
In our 300 qualitative interviews among U.S. clergy and laity, we found
numerous examples of religious practices being influenced by international trade

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and communication. Liturgical prayers focused on late breaking news in some

instances and included prayer requests received overnight from missionaries in
others. A church in South Carolina started a relief project in Africa after one of
its members returned there from a business trip. A lay leader in Massachusetts
became interested in working with the International Justice Mission after hear
ing about human trafficking on a visit to Thailand. An immigrant church in
Philadelphia keeps in close contact with family members in Nigeria through

Equality and Inequality

Free markets and increasing international trade have affected national
economies nearly everywhere, bringing rising economic opportunities for some
and reinforcing poverty for others. Between 1987 and 1998, the share of the
world's population living in extreme poverty fell from 28 percent to 23 percent,
with most of this decline occurring in China and India, while the number of poor
people living in Africa increased (Dollar 2005). Income inequality within devel
oping countries appears to have declined in some cases and risen in others. Other
measures of development, such as expansion of primary schooling and reductions
in child mortality rates, show only modest gains during the recent period of glob
alization (Ravallion 2003).
Ethnographic studies suggest that religious communities have responded in
complex ways to these shifting economic realities. Chesnut's research in north
ern Brazil illustrates Pentecostalism's appeal to people in declining strata, while
other research in southern Brazil suggests a different kind of Pentecostalism
emerging among the rising middle class. Research among evangelicals in Ghana
shows teachings that give hope and legitimacy to people with increasing eco
nomic aspirations but at the same time warn against the dangers of consumer
gratification (Meyer 1998). In China, studies variously suggest that business lead
ers with expanding profits from international trade are involved in bankrolling
new Christian churches, that the rising urban middle class is both drawn to pros
perity gospel preaching and increasingly secular, that the Korean expatriate
community is growing and deeply religious, that the Chinese government is more
tolerant of religion in some areas and better able to suppress it in others, and that
rural poverty is a source of growing spiritualism and syncretic folk religious prac
tices (Wenger 2004; Ownby 2007). All of these developments are influenced by
changes in the global economy.

The democratic revolution that has affected many parts of the world since
the end of the colonial era has been a transnational movement both in spreading
ideas about democracy from one society to the next and in creating new political
agreements (such as the European Union) that include multiple nations. As a
significant feature of its foreign policy during and after the Cold War, the United

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States has sought to encourage democratic regimes at least in parts of the world
where it was in the nation's interests to do so. One aspect of U.S. policy that dealt
specifically with religion has been its attempts to promote international religious
freedom as part of a broader agenda of extending human rights.
Although the implications of this democratic revolution for religion vary,
three broad implications can be identified. First, democratic regimes have opened
doors for foreign religious workers in many instances. Russia, other parts of
Eastern Europe and central Asia, Uganda, and Indonesia are examples. Second,
reactions against democratization, perceived as a westernizing and secularizing
influence, have emerged in Burma, Algeria, and some parts of the Middle East,
effectively reducing opportunities for foreign religious workers. And third, ques
tions about religious pluralism and the rights of religious minority groups have
risen in importance as repressive regimes have disappeared and as smaller reli
gious communities have acquired the right to speak on their own behalf.

Cultural Influences
Transnational religious connections are also influenced by the spread of com
mon symbols and narratives. They do not displace local traditions, but they do
reflect the power of rich countries to influence global culture. The fact that so
many speak English has made long- and short-term mission work easier. English
is the first language of only 375 million people, but is a second language for
another 375 million people as a result of colonial histories and migration, and it
is estimated to be part of the repertoire of another 750 million people who have
felt the need to learn English as a second language. Consumer culture is another
influence. In 2000, for instance, the global market for films was estimated at one
trillion dollars, of which American content comprised slightly more than half
(Hamano 2004). Of the ten top-grossing films at the international box office, all
originated in the United States. Although it is unclear how widespread these cul
tural influences may be, writers point to numerous anecdotal examples, such as
"Amazonian Indians wearing Nike sneakers, denizens of the Southern Sahara
purchasing Texaco baseball caps, and Palestinian youths proudly displaying their
Chicago Bulls sweatshirts in downtown Ramallah" (Steger 2003:36). Local reli
gious organizations are influenced by these messages, sometimes incorporating
them and often warning followers against them (Meyer 1998).


Globalization has been described as a culturally homogenizing force, spread

ing a monoculture of fast food items and western-style entertainment, and as an
equalizing dynamic that reduces poverty. Both claims are disputed by scholars
who argue that globalization actually facilitates diversity and perhaps increases
income disparities. What is not disputed is the fact that some countries are much

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richer and more powerful than others. Global inequality is thus a significant real
ity for understanding transnational religious connections. It means that many of
these connections are asymmetric.
For example, the 155 million Christians living in Brazil and the 192 million
Christians living in the United States give an appearance that the two countries
are nearly equivalent in religious demographics, but there are notable differences.
In the United States the average Christian enjoys an annual income of $26,980,
whereas the annual income of Christians in Brazil is $3,640. Not surprisingly,
Christian organizations are much more numerous and better supported in the
United States than in Brazil. Brazil has more than twice as many Catholics as the
United States, but the United States has more than twice as many Catholic
parishes as Brazil and the ratio of priests to parishioners is six times higher in the
United States than in Brazil (Froehle and Gautier 2003). Overall, Catholic and
Protestant churches take in approximately nine times more money annually than
churches in Brazil. The point is not to diminish the importance of indigenous
churches in Brazil, many of which have experienced explosive growth in recent
decades, but that churches in the United States have enormous capacity to sup
port programs both at home and abroad.
These asymmetries notwithstanding, symmetric links and counter-flows are
also evident. For example, Pentecostal missionaries and telecasts from the United
States to Brazil are now reversed through programming from the Universal
Church of the Kingdom of God in Brazil, which is reproduced for the New York
City Spanish language media market (Mora 2007). Similarly, black gospel music
once imported in Ghana from the United States is more recently joined by holy
hip hop music from Ghana being popular in Atlanta. Symmetry is encouraged by
norms of reciprocity, by rising interest in cultural diversity, and in some instances
by contact with visitors from rich countries conferring prestige on pastors and lay
leaders in poor countries.
Although it is easiest to chart bilateral connections, multilateral ties are evi
dent in both old and new forms. The Catholic Church, the Anglican
Communion, and international meetings of Presbyterians or Baptists illustrate
the older forms in which interaction among representatives from a number of
countries was encouraged through formal assemblies and conferences. Newer
forms appear to be less centrally organized and operate through congregations,
personal ties, and short term visits. For instance, in our qualitative interviews we
found an independent evangelical church in the Midwest that sponsored a mis
sion team from Belfast to work in Africa and one from Africa to work in Latin
America. The aim is to promote cross-cultural learning.
Counter flows and multilateral connections are not ahistorical. Rather, they
exist in the world created by the flows, counter flows, and multilateral connec
tions that went before them. The culture that flowed through these connections
yesterday is often repackaged and sent on again, picking up the local flavors of
each stop in its transnational journey. Cultural echoes often reverberate back

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through the transnational connections to the senders, influencing those commu

nities yet again, while the cultural artifacts go on to new places and take on unan
ticipated forms. In a remote section of Papua New Guinea that had never been
missionized, Robbins (2004) observed apocalyptic rumors of Christ's imminent
return that betrayed a remarkable awareness of the wider world. The European
Union was thought to be a harbinger of a world government, turmoil in the
Middle East signaled the end times, a new world order was in the making, and
Satan was behind the universal product code and the spread of ATM machines.
Further investigation traced the rumors through local networks among the vil
lagers and their pastor to several outside sources, including a New Zealand-based
evangelist who had become popular in Papua New Guinea and who, in turn, had
been heavily influenced by the American writer Hal Lindsey, author of the best
selling Late Great Planet Earth.
Clearly, the existence and probable increase of transnational religious con
nections poses new opportunities and challenges for scholars of religion. Besides
chronicling the existence of these connections, future studies will need to con
sider the organizational mechanisms through which they are refracted, the ways
in which easier travel and communication increase the chances of local congre
gations in different parts of the world supporting one another and working coop
eratively, and how these possibilities affect local congregations and their choice
of partners. As with other relationships involving power differences, those
between religious organizations in rich and poor countries merit special consid


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