Wow! It’s been so long since I picked up on my promised three-part reflection about the “American Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area” I wasn’t satisfied with this part of my AAAS presentation, but never had a chance to get back to writing. So this blog entry can serve as sort of a part 3A.
This will be a summary of the presentation I gave at the ISAAC Forum Nor Cal on Sept. 27, 2016. The goals of the Forum was to explore the future of Asian American Christianity. What needs to be given up and changed? What will be retained? So here’s my take:
Asian American Christians are backsliding into fundamentalism.
This statement, of course, reveals my affinity for “progressive” evangelicalism. What most people don’t know is that I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian and almost gave up on my faith when I could no longer stand its judgmental and controlling attitudes. Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship rescued me by demonstrating that one could be an evangelical while engaging intellectual questions honestly, respecting (and befriending) those who disagreed, and participating in a grace-filled and grateful community.
Later, I discovered that I had quite a few Asian American evangelical peers who shared a similar journey. Many, like Louis Lee (who we are honoring) felt called to build Asian American evangelical solidarity in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But today, I’m pessimistic about Asian American Christianity’s future. We face a vanishing sense of Asian American Christian solidarity and cooperation.
There are many reasons for the disappearance of Asian American Christian solidarity – among these are
- the rise and dominance of immigrant Asians in our churches who do not identify with the racial struggles of Asian Americans and other racial minorities;
- the power that the “model minority” and “assimilative multicultural” narratives have to draw Asian Americans away from the “niche” or “ghetto” identifications.
But in this presentation I want to focus on a third factor that is especially acute among Asian American evangelicals, namely…
The Backslide into Fundamentalism
In the last ten years, many of my colleagues and I have noticed the rise of fundamentalist attitudes among the younger Asian American evangelical leaders. As a young evangelical historian, I used to think that the Fundamentalist movement had one positive virtue: it saved American Christianity from a closed-system modernism by protecting the authority of Scripture and the supernaturalism of five fundamentalist doctrines. But these days, I’m less convinced of this. Fundamentalism replaced a vibrant 19th century evangelical world view with a Gnostic and Manichean view of the cosmos. It also locked epistemology into an outdated “common sense” philosophy (the “self-evident” argument). See Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994). Also, recent studies are revealing the close ties between fundamentalist (later, evangelical) and corporate leaders to create the current evangelical empire that is closely allied to the Religious Right. See Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America (New York, 2015) and Timothy E. W. Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Evangelicals have attempted to dig themselves out of fundamentalism since the mid-twentieth century. See George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1988) and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2016). Instead, the current scene has become increasingly polarized. A revival of fundamentalist-like evangelicals have been pitted against progressive evangelicals.
The backslide to fundamentalism, I believe, is the greatest cause for pessimism about the future of Asian American Christian solidarity. I’m probably overstating this, but consider the following suppressive practices that appear to be on the rise:
- Suppression of cooperation: The legacy of Louis Lee and his generation was to build pan-Asian cooperation. Today, we witness a resurgence of “separated silos” centered around the teachings of (White) evangelical preaching “giants.” Pan-Asian cooperation across theological or brand differences are rarely seen anymore. So branded (or brain-washed?) are they, that they can no longer worship outside the environment that they’ve been drawn to – usually while in college.
- Suppression of intellectual integrity: We are seeing the rise of ecclesial echo chambers of absolute certitude. Young people can no longer hear anything other than one perspective, right or wrong. In many of the settings, there is no nuance of biblical or theological interpretation. I believe we are returning to what Mark Noll called the “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism.” Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
- Suppression of women leadership: Earlier, egalitarian and some complementarian Christians encouraged women with leadership or teaching gifts to lead and teach. Everyone, male and female, was encouraged to do all they can to proclaim the gospel since reaching the lost was the highest priority. But now we are witnessing the actual practice of suppressing women in leadership in campus ministries and churches. The fundamentalist suppression of women leaders in the early 20th century has renewed itself among many Asian American evangelicals today under the debatable idea that female subordination is a core doctrine of faith. See Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale University Press, 1996).
- Suppression of Asian American identity: In a fundamentalist (and conservative evangelical) ethos, culture, ethnicity, and race are irrelevant – if not idolatrous. Doctrinal truth is emphasized while all things created and material are trivialized. A color-blind Christianity makes it impossible for Asian Americans to reflect on their own social location and cultural contexts (as I have argued earlier).
So where does our help come from? What can Asian American Christians who are trapped in this new fundamentalist echo chamber do?
The Promise of Historical Theology
We need a new cadre of Asian American Christian leaders who learn from history. Recently, there has been interest in doing evangelical theology and ministry in the contemporary Asian American contexts. But, like systematic theology, these efforts tend to isolate the contemporary experience from the past. They also rely too heavily on sociology. Because conversation partners are contemporaries who share so much in common, little can be done to change the echo chamber effect of fundamentalism. In his recent book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (2011), Mark Noll proposes to rebuild the evangelical “mind” with greater attention to the historical sources of Christian thought rather than on a broken fundamentalist foundation. I argue that this approach would also benefit Asian American evangelicals as we look to the future. Allow me to illustrate with three Asian American Christian historical examples…
Jee Gam [Chu Jin] (1849-1910)
In 1895 Jee Gam was the first Chinese American ordained as a Congregationalist minister, though he was still unable to become a U.S. citizen. From the very beginning, Jee Gam used his influence and access to Protestant resources (newspapers, journals, mission boards, church networks) to fight for Chinese American political rights. In speeches, sermons, private letters, and public writings, he championed Chinese American suffrage and combated Chinese exclusion, passed in 1882 by the federal government.
Jee Gam based his arguments for political rights on a vision of Christianity that emphasized egalitarianism and universal brotherhood. In an era when many Americans believed that the Chinese were too heathenish to genuinely convert to Christianity, Jee Gam insisted on the religion’s inclusivity. “I am a Chinaman and a Christian,” he wrote in 1892. “I am not any less Chinese for being a follower of Christ…. I am in some sense also an American, for I have lived in America almost twice as long as in China.” He went on to call Chinese exclusion “un-American, barbarous and inhuman. It is unchristian, for it is contrary to the teaching of Christ.” From http://relwest.blogspot.com/2012/06/jee-gam-and-chinese-american-religious.html
I highlight Jee Gam because even though we would recognize him as an evangelical, his commitment to speaking out for racial justice would be unfamiliar to many of us today. He identified with an abolitionist interpretation of Scripture and faith which valued the dignity of all humans created in God’s image – in this life. Most fundamentalists and evangelicals today have unconsciously adopted a slave owner hermeneutic. This approach stresses saving souls for heaven and keeping the status quo in worldly affairs. Learning about the history of biblical interpretation can help us break free from the fundamentalist echo chamber. See Larry R. Morrison, “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830,” The Journal of Religious Thought, Fall 1980/Winter 1981 (Vol. 37 Issue 2) pp 16-29.
Mabel Lee, a newly minted Ph.D. (Metropolitan Baptists, 1923)
Mabel Lee (1896-1966)
Mabel Lee was a pastor’s kid. Her father, Lee To, had been the pastor of the Baptist Chinese Mission in New York’s Chinatown since 1904. Born in Canton in 1896, Mabel accompanied her father to the United States and studied in American public schools. She enrolled in Barnard College and graduated in 1916. She then earned a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in 1921. Her dissertation was published later that year. In addition to her father’s evangelical piety, she also shared his zeal to engage the social problems of the Chinese community in New York and overseas. During her college years, she integrated her devotion to faith, the reconstruction of China, and woman’s suffrage. From https://timtseng.net/2013/12/12/asian-american-legacy-dr-mabel-lee/
I think Mabel Lee could be considered evangelical, though she lived during a time when a liberal theology was dominant in the U.S. She definitely was not a fundamentalist. Her fundamentalist peers were campaigning to remove women from church leadership. But before the rise of fundamentalism, there was a very strong woman’s missionary movement. In many Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal denominations, women were ordained pastors. So historically, however the bible was interpreted, women like Mabel Lee were accepted as leaders in churches until fundamentalism emerged.
Hideo Hashimoto (1911-2003)
Finally, I’d like to share about Hideo Hashimoto, a Methodist pastor and professor. Hashimoto graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and then from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He served several pastorates, including one in a temporary church he helped establish in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. After receiving his doctor of theology degree from Pacific School of Religion, he joined the faculty of Lewis & Clark. He taught in the Department of Religious Studies from 1949 until his retirement in 1976.
Hashimoto’s mom died in Hiroshima when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb. As a pastor and professor, he was known as a “great peace lover and activist… an energetic social activist up to his death.” He advocated for civil rights, pacifism, and nuclear disarmament.
I mention Hideo because he was influenced by the mainline Protestant tradition of social engagement. As a pacifist, Hashimoto didn’t completely agree with Reinhold Neibuhr, but respected theological realism deeply. The neo-orthodoxy of the mid-twentieth century proved helpful after the trauma of the Japanese American internment camps and the loss of his mother from a nuclear bomb. Looking at the life and thought Asian Americans in the mainline Protestant tradition can provide Asian American Christians guidance for public engagement – guidance that I believe is sorely lacking among Asian American evangelicals today.
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
Let me conclude by noting that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last Saturday (9/24/16) in Washington DC. One of the lessons of the Civil Rights movement was that African-Americans have a history that should not be ignored or erased. When President Obama was elected, many pundits, including many white evangelicals, quickly declared that the United States was, at last, a post-racial nation. But, as we have seen in the recent shootings of African-Americans, we are far from being post-racial or multi-cultural.
In any event, what would a post-racial church or multi-cultural society look like? Does it mean forgetting and erasing Blacks from American history? Does it mean erasing the different Asian American ethnicities from our collective memories? Does it mean that Asian American Christians have no history in the history of Christianity? One of the first historians of the African American experience, Carter G. Woodson, said that “If a race has no history, it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Likewise, so long as Asian American Christians remain in the echo chamber of an ahistorical theology, culture, and community so pervasive among fundamentalism, we too stand in danger of being exterminated.
On the other hand, if we put resources into integrating Asian American Christian history into our faith, preaching, ministries, and communities, we may have a future. And we will have something to contribute to Worldwide Christianity and God’s kingdom.
Again, I’m pessimistic and pray that God will help me overcome my lack of faith.
“History is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” — James Baldwin