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Sociology of Religion, Volume 78, Issue 3, 1 September 2017, Pages 340–362,https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srx023
08 July 2017


The religious demographics of the United States are changing, shaped by immigration and conversion of Americans to non-Western religious traditions. Research on nonwhite immigrant religious traditions has not addressed how communities of white converts challenge the link between religion and ethnicity. I address this gap, drawing on participant observation and 31 in-depth interviews with both Indian Sikhs and members of Sikh Dharma, a predominantly white Sikh community. I find that although respondents in each community draw on the same elements to construct Sikh identity (symbols, values, and practices); they diverge in regards to the specific practices they emphasize. Members of Sikh Dharma redefine both Sikh practice and the boundaries around Sikhism, incorporating new practices and beliefs while also critiquing the interconnection of Punjabi culture with Sikhism. Indian Sikhs express concern about the presentation of these new practices as Sikh practices. Results have implications for the ever-changing relationship of religion and ethnicity.

Key words: race and ethnicity; immigration; identity; practice.

Although scholars document a link between religion and ethnicity and debate the continued salience of this link in the modern world (Herberg 1955; Hammond and Warner 1993; Min 2010), they have done little to establish when and how the relationship of ethnicity to religion is challenged. The conversion of whites to what are predominantly nonwhite religious traditions provides the ideal opportunity to study this phenomenon. White converts, however, have received limited scholarly attention (see Cadge 2004 for an exception). Studying white converts in comparison to traditional practitioners sheds light on the relationship of religion and ethnicity, how this relationship is challenged, and the implications of such challenges for traditional religious practitioners. Sikh identity is closely bound to a Punjabi identity (Leonard 1992) and until Sikh Dharma, there was no sizable community of non-Punjabi Sikhs (Dusenbery 2013). Thus, Sikh Dharma challenges the link between religion and ethnicity and can reveal how the ethnic identity of converts is tied to both the content of religious traditions and the boundaries drawn around them. This study examines the relationship between religion and ethnicity and the implication of whites converting to religious traditions that are generally practiced by nonwhites. Specifically, I ask how members of two Sikh communities, Sikh Dharma and an Indian Sikh community, construct their Sikh identity and boundaries around this identity.

Sikhism is a young, monotheistic religion that emphasizes equality and service. It originated in Punjab, a northeastern state in India, in the 1400s. Sikhs had 10 Gurus (spiritual teachers) who were leaders of the faith and following the 10th Guru, the Adi Granth (Sikh holy book) was proclaimed to be the 11th and final Guru. The primary goal of Sikhism is to achieve union with God by constantly remembering God’s name. Practice is oriented around three “golden rules”: to work hard, serve others, and speak the truth. Also important are a set of religious practices, including wearing a turban, waking up early in the morning to pray, and reciting five prayers daily. And in the 1940s the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC, a body of elected officials who manage Gurdwarasand Sikh affairs in three states of India) published a code of conduct called the Rehat Maryada. This code outlined the beliefs and practices of Sikhs and most “mainstream” Sikhs subscribe to this code. Defining Sikh identity, however, has been an ongoing project (Oberoi 1994). In recent decades in India and in Western countries such as the United States, there has been a growing emphasis on a single, collective Sikh identity among Sikhs, minimizing diversity within Sikhism and presenting Sikhism as wholly separate from Hinduism (Mahmood and Brady 2000). In fact, scholars who describe the construction of Sikh identity over the centuries, and its early ties to Hinduism, are often heavily criticized within the Sikh community (Oberoi 1994; Mahmood and Brady 2000).



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