When I tell people that I research the relationship between religion, immigration, and health I sometimes get a reaction such as “Wow, three hot topics always in the news, there must be a lot to say about this!” Surprisingly, however, little has been written about the intersection of these three topics, despite the prominence of each individually and despite potentially important implications. For example, the Handbook of Religion and Health is a tome with more than one thousand pages where the topic of immigrants/migration doesn’t even warrant an index entry.
In my recently published study, I shine a brighter light on this topic. I used data from the New Immigrant Survey, analyzing a randomly selected sample of over 1,200 legal Latino immigrants in the United States, to examine the relationship between religious involvement, as measured by current church attendance, and indicators of a healthy lifestyle. I found that those immigrants who attended church at least weekly smoked less, drank alcohol less, and engaged in more physical activity compared to those who did not attend church.
I found that those immigrants who attended church at least weekly smoked less, drank alcohol less, and engaged in more physical activity compared to those who did not attend church.
How to explain these results? The survey did not collect information on all potential causal factors, but findings are consistent with the hypothesis that health is related to having social, psychological, and religious resources. According to the literature, each of these can be a kind of capital associated with better health and found in larger quantities among those who frequently attend religious congregations.
Why should those of us concerned about public health care about these findings? Some might assume the lesson is that people should start to join religious congregations and attend church regularly to improve their health. I think that would be a mistake for a number of reasons, not least of which is that attending church services for non-religious reasons would likely lead to different results.
Some might argue that my findings show there is little need to target the religiously involved because they already are in better health. However, not all immigrants who attend church have a healthy lifestyle. Findings from this study suggest there is an opportunity for churches, or houses of worship of other religions, to promote health among congregants. Congregations serving the poor and vulnerable, where immigrants are disproportionately represented, are least likely to offer health promotion programs.
Findings from this study suggest there is an opportunity for churches, or houses of worship of other religions, to promote health among congregants.
Attending a religious congregation is not necessarily a magic bullet to improve health, even for those religiously committed. I also looked or associations between attending religious services in country of origin and a healthy lifestyle. I found little evidence of a relationship between home country church attendance and current health behaviors. There was a positive association between church attendance and physical activity, but even that association was weak.
Why the difference in results? There are a number of possibilities, including differences between countries, but a plausible explanation, consistent with the literature, is that religion helps those who migrate integrate into their new country and communities.
Although some speak of individual responsibility as central to a healthy lifestyle, the context in which people live can make choosing healthy behaviors much easier. We need to pay more attention to factors such as religion and migration and the intertwining of identities when trying to improve the public’s health.