Cultural and social disparities exist within religious immigrant assimilation processes. Growing up in a tricultural home, I learned how to disentangle and integrate differing cultural norms and expectations. My biological parents are first-generation Romanian-Americans who identified with the Pentecostal faith. I was raised by my father and stepmother; my stepmother was raised in the U.S. by Italian-American parents. In my household, we spoke English as the main entrée with Romanian and Italian for dessert. Discovering my cultural identity in categorical terms proved difficult, but when paired with religious identification, it became easier and less important.
Given that my father wanted my brother and me to assimilate into the American culture as comfortably as possible, we regularly attended an American Pentecostal church. The Romanian Pentecostal churches we infrequently visited appeared vastly different; the social and cultural expectations seemed astonishingly dissident to that of the American church.
The study Preserving Patriarchy: Assimilation, Gender Norms, and Second-Generation Korean American Evangelicals, “found that individuals maintained a substantial commitment to patriarchal gender norms and articulated these norms in language consistent with American evangelical theology rather than in ethnic/cultural terms.”
This was precisely my story.
It was expected of women in the Romanian Pentecostal church to wear head scarves which represented subservience and reverence to God and man. Typically, the seating is gender segregated, where men and women sat in pews opposite one another. I never once saw or heard of a person of color enter the Romanian Pentecostal church. Being the social scientist I am, I invited my African-American friend to attend a service, only to have him indirectly accused of being a degenerate of society by the pastoral leader. Of course I addressed this indirect prejudice shortly after his unintelligible ramble. He seemed surprised that I would defend my friend and casually berated me for being such an assertive woman. Racism in Romania has been prevalent since the demise of Communism in 1989, so it is no surprise the racist attitudes continue to exist amongst Romanian-American immigrants, even in religious settings.
In the U.S. Pentecostal church, diversity was embraced and prejudices were cast aside – or so it seemed. The acculturation process within the church seemed much more fluid for me, specifically in relation to my sex. It was understood that women could not be appointed as head of household or religiously lead men exclusively. Female pastoral leadership, leading both men and women, was widely contested but it still remained a socially gray area so as to preserve numbers in the church. The U.S. pastor would often charismatically proclaim we were all equal in God’s eyes.
This particular aspect of American evangelical theology paralleled the American culture I had grown to identify with in that egalitarian values were openly expressed, and in certain spaces, advocated for. This wasn’t as common in the Romanian-American culture – that is not to say it didn’t exist, but it was absolutely difficult to find within the traditionalism of the Romanian church.
I found hope and confidence in the words of the American pastor: We are all equal in God’s eyes. I knew I would never experience this ideological practice in the Romanian church. The Romanian Pentecostal community discouraged spaces for debate, especially when it regarded gender, sexuality, and/or racial issues. It honored and defended the heteronormative model as the natural ordering of God – where men were naturally leaders and women subservient – and said that we should not fight it but adhere to it as God intended. Members and leaders of the Romanian church would declare that there was a freedom in accepting my role as a woman in God’s kingdom.
The American Assembly of God church didn’t definitively proclaim such blatant views regarding woman’s place in the church; however, it was understood what woman’s role was. As I came of age, I began to realize the fundamental beliefs and values were quite similar to that of the Romanian church.
During high school, I excitedly went on a sexual purity women’s retreat held by the U.S. Assembly of God church. There were nearly 100 women there and we all experienced the touch of God; basking in our pneumatological experiences. When the pastor’s wife and other female leaders (exclusively leaders of women and/or children) began to teach, I instantly drew parallels to the doctrine of my cultural and religious heritage. The pastor’s wife told us we should remain chaste in our sexuality so that the man God had chosen for us would respect us and be capable of fully loving us (implying it impossible for a man to genuinely love a woman with a sexual sexual past). We were instructed to visually appear modest because our brothers in Christ cannot control their sexual urges–cannot or will not?
We were told: The Lord blesses the woman who learns to follow her husband, and as God appointed man to be head, there simply cannot be two leaders.
The Romanian Pentecostal church shared very similar views on gender roles and constructs. The main difference I found was in presentation and communication. The American church took on a more liberal communicative approach in addressing these social constructs in the church but the final opinions were analogous.
Once I asked the female youth leader at my regular church why my husband needed to be the head of household.
She answered: “So that he can take care of you and your children, don’t you want to be taken care of?”
I thought, well sure, who doesn’t?
None of it really made any logical sense and I soon realized most of the church members had a difficult time executing these constricting gender roles. Although I decided to assimilate myself in the American Pentecostal church rather than the Romanian church, it only sustained me in my faith a little longer. I realized I never actually agreed with its core belief system, especially in relation to gender and sexuality.
Patriarchal values and beliefs permeate nearly every culture and theological practice. However, the expressive and communicative approaches differ. Some groups use communication models that mask or soften patriarchal beliefs in order to proselytize and to retain targeted participants in their faith system, and these techniques may be linked to cultural identification processes in target groups.
Andreea Nica is a freelance writer, scholar, egalitarian, and yogi. She holds a M.S. from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Gender, Media, and Culture Studies. Andreea also holds a B.A. in Psychology from Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is writing her memoir on transitioning from Pentecostalism, focusing on institutional power, subjectivities, and socialization. She is the Founder of OrganiCommunications, empowering startups and social enterprises in strategic and digital communication ventures. Andreea plans on pursuing doctoral study within Sociology, focusing on Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of 2 blogs: OrganiCommunications and Progressive Thinking. You can find her in Seattle, WA. with her partner and kitty, probably doing yoga.@convergingearth @integratedcom
6 thoughts on “Assimilation into American Evangelical Theology: They Had Me at We’re Equal! by Andreea Nica”
This is a very interesting post, and echoes so many of the posts here. Organised, hierarchical religion does not serve women, or our gifts. Great that you made the break, Andreea. Life is so short, we must revel in it, and use our gifts to grow and help others: even if the patriarchs see us as “too assertive.” (They’re terrified, really!) Blessings.
Can’t we all see that the problem here is not one version of Christianity or another (or, come to that, one version of Judaism or Islam or Bhudism) nor is it about Jesus, or Mohammed, or Moses or any other charismatic leader: its about how society has organised faith over the past couple of thousand years and how these old, patriarchal systems are crumbling before our eyes because THEY ARE NO LONGER FIT FOR PURPOSE in the 21st C.
If the word of Christ, or Mohamed is to survive, it will be because their followers create wholly new ways of worship, new ways to articulate their spirituality, and new ways to integrate that spiritually into the wider society.
For myself, I think women need a woman realised spirituality, and that begins with Goddess.
But whatever the name of your deity, they need a new language, a new home, and a new way of being.
Women continue to damage themselves and their daughters because they have so internalised patriarchy that they are incapable of taking down the walls which imprison them.
The walls are crumbling, sisters, push and they will collapse.
Great article. There is open patriarchy, and then there is stealth patriarchy, with the underpinnings still in place. One of which is all-masculine projections of deity.
Max, that all masculine concept of Deity and how it developed is what I address in my eBook, “A Gender Neutral God/ess.” You may find some informative material there. I think that if one wants to change organized religion one must start with the things my research has uncovered. I continue to be amazed that so many people believe in the particular religious teachings to which they are subjected – sadly that seems to be what much of religion seems to be – blind belief.