The Changing Face of Evangelicalism (ASCH 2017 Roundtable)

One of the privileges of being in academia that I miss is the opportunity to share my research and, hopefully, encourage a better future for society and the Christian movement. As a contributor to The Future of Evangelicalism in America (edited by Candy Brown and Mark Silk), I was invited to share a short summary and reflection at a roundtable devoted to the book on January 7, 2017 at the American Society of Church History 2017 Annual Meeting in Denver, CO. Mark Silk wrote a press release about the roundtable. Here is an overview of the roundtable program:

asch-panel-2017

My remarks about my chapter “The Changing Face of Evangelicalism” (updated Jan. 11, 2016) follow:

When I first joined this research effort, oh so many years ago, writing a chapter on the recent racial-ethnic transformation and influence on evangelicalism seemed an impossible task. But in recent years, more studies about Evangelical People of Color (I’ll call them EPOCs – hopefully never to be confused with Ewoks of Star Wars fame) have been published. So my chapter, hopefully, contributes to this growing awareness of evangelical diversity.

Of course, media attention is still drawn to white Evangelicals – especially during the recent Presidential campaign where 81% of white evangelicals were said to have voted for Donald Trump. Media attention to EPOCs remains spotty. In a Faith and Freedom Coalition post-election survey of 800 people, however, 59% of non-white evangelicals voted for Clinton and 35% for Trump.[1] A LifeWay survey conducted shortly before the elections indicated that only 15% of nonwhite evangelicals said they would vote for Donald Trump; 62% would vote for Hillary Clinton.[2]

pre-election-evangelical-survey

More recent media attention had been given to Latino evangelicals, particularly on the issue of immigration reform. The Evangelical Immigration Table and G92, for example, are recent collaborative efforts to garner evangelical voice around immigration reform and paths to citizenship. When it comes to immigration reform and the election campaign of Mr. Trump, EPOC appear to vary from white evangelicals. On issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, EPOCs are generally aligned with white evangelicals and swimming against the views of most people of color in general, but there are signs of a generational divide among EPOCs, too. For example, Deborah Jian Lee’s book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism claims that “believers of color have changed church demographics and church politics. Women are rising in the ranks. LGBT Christians are coming out and issues like global AIDS and the environment have become priorities in many Evangelical congregations. Young people are returning to evangelicalism.”

Well, maybe not – in light of recent decisions by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to request staff who support same-sex marriage to voluntarily resign. In any event, I think my thesis remains salient – namely, that “American evangelicalism, when viewed as a religious ethos rather than as an organized movement, has always been [multiracial] multicultural and multiethnic, and…will become increasingly so in the future.” (174) However, EPOCs and their concerns will continue to be marginal to mainstream white evangelicals unless adjustments in theology and practices that account for racial and cultural differences are made at both high and the grass-roots levels.[3]

Before I address these proposed adjustments that conclude my chapter in the book, I wanted to highlight the changing demography of evangelicalism based on the recent ARIS and Pew surveys. And then I reviewed the history of race and ethnicity in American Christianity.

Briefly, the surveys show that Latino and Asian American Christian affiliation with the evangelical label has increased in the last twenty years.[4]

increasting-racial-diversity-christians-pewFor Latinos this represents a shift away from Roman Catholicism, though I’m not certain if this movement is increasing. The percentage of Asian American Christian affiliation has declined overall, but that is due to the rise of immigrants from South Asia and Islamic countries. But Asian American Christian identification with mainline Protestantism has diminished as most now identify with recognizably evangelical organizations. African Americans have a more established history and remain less inclined to adopt the evangelical label despite sharing its theological and spiritual ethos.

As I alluded to earlier, the impact of the growth of EPOCs upon mainstream evangelicals will most likely be felt how well mainstream evangelicals embrace EPOC’s concerns about racial justice, economic policy, and immigration reform. I also wonder, however, that as mainstream evangelical organizations like the NAE, World Relief, and many Christian colleges begin to engage the concerns of EPOCs, might they alienate rank and file white evangelicals and repeat the white flight from mainline Protestantism in the 1970s.

Perhaps white evangelicals will not repeat history, but I was pessimistic in my chapter. Indeed, I argued that white evangelicals are even less equipped to handle the challenge of racial-ethnic diversity, in part, because of their history of defining themselves against mainline Protestantism. I have no intention of valorizing mainline Protestantism, but there is ample evidence of cross-racial and multicultural relationships in the history of mainline Protestantism. Hispanics began converting to Protestantism in the wake of the post-Mexican War annexations; Asians, after the Gold Rush; Blacks, as part of post-abolition missions to the freedmen; and Native-Americans through Christianizing missions. Thus, in the 19th century, American Protestantism was already becoming ethnically diverse.

And through the nadir of Jim Crow and scientific racism, racial reform resurfaced among mainline Protestants after the mainline-fundamentalist split. Now influenced by the Social Gospel and Niebuhrian realism, mainline churches turned traditional missions into social work and leaned on the social sciences, which led to an explicit engagement with race and the civil rights movement.

But fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals aligned with segregationist social mores and rejected the social sciences as worldly. Instead they focused on soul-winning which led them to ignore racial realities. Where fundamentalists did experience multiculturalism it was primarily through church planting and overseas missions. Ironically, this racial separation gave Hispanics and Asians the freedom to do missions more effectively leading to their rapid growth.

Given this development, one might say that the history of EPOCs is one of realignment from mainline Protestantism to evangelicalism since in the twentieth century. Certainly there were people of color who were engaged with the mainline Protestant ethos. I’d like to refer you to two recent studies tell the stories of how liberal and progressive Asian American Protestants advocated civil rights during the early and middle 20th century. Stephanie Hinnershitz’s Race, Religion, and Civil Rights: Asian Students on the West Coast, 1900-1968 and Anne M. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. Despite this, the new wave of immigration from Latin America and Asia was disconnected from mainline Protestants and, instead, fueled the EPOC dominance we witness today. As history Juan Martinez quips, “Mainline churches opted for Latino civil rights; but Latinos opted for Pentecostalism.” (p 185)

So it would appear that the color-blind, but Anglo-normative, individualistic, but American nationalist gospel of white evangelicals succeeded in winning over racial-minorities despite their ignorance and antipathy towards people of color. But will mainstream evangelicalism be able to truly listen to EPOC voices in the future?

Thus my conclusions about adjustments that white evangelicals would have to make in order to fully embrace the changing face of evangelicalism:

  1. Biblical Theology in Context
  2. Recognizing Structural Racism
  3. Grappling with White Privilege and Racial Equity for Intentionally Multicultural Organizations

Mainline Protestant success among EPOCs came as they made these adjustments. But just as they started to experience multicultural success within their denominational structures, they started to experience massive decline at the grass roots – white flight to evangelicalism. Would that be repeated among white evangelicals?

On the other hand, perhaps evangelicalism won’t repeat mainline Protestant history. Jim Wallis of Sojourners believed that the 2012 re-election of Barack Obame might have signaled “a new evangelical agenda for a new evangelical demographic.” If this is the case, then “the promise of American evangelicalism will be fulfilled only when white evangelicals are no longer hesitant to seek a multicultural and multiracial future characterized by racial equity. Although much work remains, there are promising signs that American evangelicals are willing to allocate resources to face, embrace, and shape a racially diverse future. Indeed…that future has arrived. So, too, have new opportunities to build a global and multiracial evangelical future.” (196)

Notes

[1] Todd Beamon, “Faith & Freedom Coalition Poll: 81 Percent of White Evangelicals for Trump” NewsMax (Nov 9, 2016) http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/poll-white-evangelicals-voted/2016/11/09/id/758096/

[2] “2016 Elections Exposes Evangelical Divides” http://lifewayresearch.com/2016/10/14/2016-election-exposes-evangelical-divide/

[3] This is confirmed by the results of the 2016 presidential elections, which may be leading to an even greater gap between white evangelicals and EPOCs. Carol Kuruvilla, “After Trump’s Win, White Evangelical Christians Face A Reckoning: There’s a growing divide in evangelical Christianity and it has a lot to do with race.” Huffington Post (Nov 9, 2016) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/evangelicals-election_us_5820d931e4b0e80b02cbc86e

[4] See also Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (May 12, 2015) http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

The Elliot Rodger tragedy and Asian American ministry

Most of the responses to the Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage have drawn necessary attention to mental illness and gun violence. Emil Guillermo, after analyzing Rodger’s “manifesto,” highlights a racial dimension that has implications for ministry in racially diverse contexts. Guillermo argues that Rodger acted largely out of disdain for his mixed-race features (he was hapa, i.e., half-Asian; his mother is Chinese).

Emil Guillermo 8-100x100See Emil Guillermo’s blog “Elliot Rodger’s manifesto shows self-hate fueled anti-Asian violence that kicked off Isla Vista rampage” (May 25, 2014)

Blaming this for his sexual frustration and relational isolation, Rodger lashed out last Friday. The Isla Vista rampage left 7 dead and 13 wounded. Three of the dead were Chinese Americans from the S.F. Bay Area (one attended a youth ministry of a Chinese church in San Jose).

I don’t want to over-analyze the racial dimensions of this tragic situation. But I believe that they have implications for ministry, especially ministry among Asian Americans. Let me begin by assuming that a racialized world will reproduce racialized subjectivities. That is to say, the way we view and value ourselves is largely determined by the way our society structures and assigns value, power, and beauty to different racial categories. Much of our self-worth depends on what we embrace from our society’s diverse perceptions about race.

Of course we don’t all think the same way about race. Many of us who grew up in an Asian ethnic “bubble” did not feel devalued until we entered the mainstream, despite the media’s tendency to present “whiteness” as the norm. Those who grew up in largely white or multiethnic settings sometimes resort to “colorblindness” to escape self-stigmatization. Others might exaggerate their race/ethnicity/culture in order to garner attention that can be, in some cases, very rewarding. Race may be deeply submerged, laying just beneath the surface, or at the core of our feelings about ourselves. But it is always present within our consciousnesses. It gives us this nagging feeling that being white (and male) is simply better. That nagging feeling is one of the ways racialization in our social structure is reproduced within us. What does this say about ministry to Asian Americans?

God’s acceptance: the Asian American evangelical gospel?

Christians believe that our identity in Christ ought to be our most distinguishing feature. We are encouraged to live each day as a public witness to our faith, as if we were standing before the face of God (corem deo). Usually this means that our Christian identity renders irrelevant all the other aspects of who we are – such as race, gender, and social status. In fact, these identities are the result of sin. Christians should overcome, not dwell on them. Ministry and mission should therefore be blind to culture, gender, and social status.

As appealing as this sounds, it misses an important reality: social inequality, not social difference, is the result of sin. When being seen as “not” white has negative ramifications for how that person is valued or treated, it is not simply racial prejudice (check out this study). This is symptomatic of a social structure that privileges whiteness. Social inequality grows out of sinful social structures. Corporate and structural sin is just as real as individual and personal sin.

But racial, gender, and economic inequality don’t exist in a worldview where structural sin is not seen. In this worldview, racialized subjectivities are not ministry concerns.

However, can one say that the God of the Bible doesn’t care about social inequality?

Many Christians believe that God cares deeply. For them, living corem deo includes bearing witness against structural sins and their consequences. Over the last twenty years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has developed a ministry strategy for overcoming the negative effects of racial inequality that Asian Americans experience. The inequality often finds expressions through self-hatred, feeling unaccepted and devalued, seeking worth through performance, and placing undue faith in meritocracy. This ministry stresses the importance of embracing Asian American culture, ethnicity, and race.

The basic gist of this ministry is this:

God created and placed us in our cultural, ethnic, and racial settings. Sin diminishes Asian social identities and favors others. Rather than rejecting or escaping them, we need to realize that our identities are not marks of worthlessness. Rather, they are gifts from God. God transforms what our world sees as insignificant into something with tremendous significance and purpose. So we don’t have to feel embarrassed or devalued. 

An example of this approach can be found in this video clip (thanks Roy Tinklenburg):

 

As you can see, the spiritual discovery happens when the Asian American believer realizes that God accepts him or her. Instead of the futile efforts of earning societal acceptance and meeting family expectations, we rest in God’s declaration that we are worthy (in view of Christ’s work on the cross). This message transposes into the Asian American context the basic Reformation and evangelical insight of sola gratia.

There is no doubt in my mind that God’s acceptance is a message Asian Americans need to hear. It is a message that rings true for multi-race people and others who are marginalized, too.

But, in my opinion, it is just a first step. There are many questions that still need to be considered by Asian Americans as we minister to them. For example:

  • Now that I can accept who I am, what do I do with this knowledge? [i.e., the sanctification question]
  • What in my Asian culture needs to be redeemed? After all, God’s creation, despite being declared good originally, is still marred by sin.
  • What does social equality look like as an Asian American Christian? Does this mean fighting against any and all forms of discrimination and injustice?
  • Should I openly support Asian American causes? (e.g., APA programs in colleges or seminaries, Asian American politics or community activism, Asian American specific ministries)
  • Should I take pride in being Asian? How? (e.g., promote Asian American studies or cultural immersions)
  • How do I share this new insight to non-Asians? What role do they play in all of this?
  • Should I belong to an immigrant Asian church? Should I go to a multi-ethnic church?
  • Whichever church or ministry I join, how much of my Asian American identity should be part of conversation? How can I contribute this part of who I am?

I don’t know all the answers, but I’m eager to connect with others who are also interested in these questions.  I cannot say that the message of God’s acceptance would have prevented Elliot Rodger from slipping down the slope of self-destruction, hatred, and violence. I wonder if he and many others would have benefited from a ministry that pays as much attention to the “racial dimensions” of our contemporary life as InterVarsity’s Asian American ministries. But I’m convinced that greater attention to the questions raised by those who are invested in Asian American ministries will contribute to a better self-image,  mental health, and spiritual maturity for the Church and those to whom she is called to minister.

Rick Warren and Conversations with One’s Feet

“Why are all these Asian Americans so upset with Pastor Rick Warren? It’s just a humorous use of an image, after all? It’s just a joke, right?”

– Link to Christianity Today story
– Link to Religion News Service story.

Red_GuardApparently not. The huge outcry over Rick Warren’s posting of a Red Guard led to Pastor Warren’s half-hearted public apology yesterday. (As it turns out the figurine was not dressed in a Red Guard uniform, so it may not be accurate to identify it from the Cultural Revolution.)

I confess that I didn’t give much thought to this incident when my cousin Rev. Dr. Sam Tsang brought it to my attention [see his blog].  I’m rather cynical about the practice of protesting “stereotypical” images. All they do is garner attention to the loudest protesters who often use the incident to enhance their own platforms. In the end, we wind up censoring yet another Asian representation because it is labeled culturally insensitive.

Would it have been better if Pastor Warren used the image of Rosie the Riveter to make his “funny point”?

Rosie-the-Riveter

Maybe. But would we complain about a lack of Asian American representation?

I posted a link to an academic op/ed I wrote a few years ago that makes this same point [see blog]

But then it occurred to me that the image itself or the motives behind using it were not really the issue (well, maybe they would be for the rabidly anti-communist). Ignorance of another people’s cultural and historical sensitivities can be forgiven. After all, many Chinese American immigrants who are unaware of the Japanese American internment experience or of the story of the Black Civil Rights movement harbor deep resentment and prejudice towards Japanese and African Americans. The fortunate ones learn and appreciate. So even if Rick Warren should have known better because he lives and ministers in a region with a very large Asian American population, it doesn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t be aware of Chinese Christian feelings about the Cultural Revolution. We all live in cultural bubbles.

To me, the real issue was the type of responses Pastor Warren and his defenders gave to Dr. Tsang and those who expressed concern. Using a despised image ignorantly is understandable, but disrespecting those who object to its use is not. I refer you to Kathy Khang’s blog.

As leaders grow in prominence in the evangelical world (and this includes Asian American evangelical leaders), they must make choices about who to pay attention to and who to ignore. Pastor Warren’s initial dismissive response and subsequent half-hearted apology (and especially those of his defenders) reproduce a world view where Asian Americans don’t have to be taken seriously. According to this outdated 19th century perspective, the body of Christ may be diverse, but the white person is always the face and the Asian (and other non-white people) are always the feet. Asian Americans are only useful as contract laborers or vehicles for bringing a Westernized gospel to Asia. There is no need to hear their voice, their joys and sorrow. They speak a foreign language anyway.

This brings to mind the bible text that I’ll be preaching from this Sunday. In Genesis 40, Joseph interprets the dreams of a baker and cupbearer, two fellow prisoners. After predicting that the cupbearer would be released and have his position restored, Joseph asks him to “remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison.” (verse 14) Unfortunately, we are told that “the chief cupbearer…did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” (verse 23)

It’s unfortunate that Asian American contributions to the American church and to society in general is largely forgotten. But if Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America) is correct, Asian Americans, along with other immigrants, will continue to impact American Christianity positively in the future.

It becomes even more imperative for prominent evangelical leaders in America today (including Asian American leaders) to view this incident as an opportunity to have a serious, but loving, discussion about the role of Asian Americans in the church (see Justin Tse’s blog )

It is time for the Body of Christ in America to speak to its feet!

P.S. Chinglican does a far better job of explicating this point: http://achristianthing.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/it-would-not-be-funny-if-i-said-that-rick-warren-was-the-rick-in-rickshaw-rally/

My AAAS Presentation – Part 2/3

As promised, I am posting part 2 of 3 of my presentation at the Asian American Studies Conference:  “Color-blinded by the Light: The American Evangelical Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area”

I almost forgot to post this because I’m having so much fun at the Hispanic and Asian North American consultation at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School [click da link]

But be warned, I mention some people by name who may not agree with my assessment. Let me say right now that my assessment does not diminish my respect for these individuals or their disciples. Okay, so we now move on another way that evangelicalism deconstructs Asian American consciousness and identity….

B. Fundamentalist Gnosticism (intellectual absolutism and moral hierarchy)

Earlier I had mentioned that evangelicalism is far more porous and fragmented than what is usually portrayed in the media. This is especially true for theological reflection. But one particular strand that has blossomed over the last twenty years has attracted many second-generation Asian American evangelicals. Its representative voices are not unified, but are very strident in their confidence in the absolute correctness of their theology and biblical interpretation. Among these I would count superstars teachers/preachers such as John MacArthur and John Piper (locally Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church). To a lesser extent the Gospel Coalition can fit under this canopy of what some have labeled neo-Calvinism or, more pejoratively, neo-fundamentalism. Personally, I would label this theological expression a form of fundamentalist Gnosticism – a kind of teaching that rejects personal, social, cultural, and historical contexts even more aggressively than does the iconoclastic tradition.

The emergence of fundamentalist Gnosticism parallels, and can be seen as a reaction to the increased ethnic and religious diversity and rise of postmodernist thought and sentiments in late Twentieth Century United States. Since the 1980s many “younger evangelicals” have sought to adjust their inherited evangelicalism to the changing culture. This birthed a broad and diverse “emergent Christianity” movement whose most identifiable representative is Brian McLaren. Most emergent Christians express discomfort with the Christian Right’s political aims, are egalitarian with regards to gender, and seek to reform what they perceive to be culturally irrelevant practices in neo-evangelicalism.

A powerful cadre of preacher/teachers mentioned earlier responded to the emergents and other perceived drift from evangelical truth, by organizing teaching platforms to defend orthodoxy against cultural accommodation and theological error. Their teachings offer absolute dogmatic certitude within a perceived airtight logical system. They have attracted a sizable following of largely evangelical young men who came of age in the late 1990s and later. And, I argue, they represent a contemporary form of gnosticism.

Fundamentalist Gnostics are locked into an intellectual system that dismisses history, race, and ethnicity. The sole source of authority is the Bible, usually read through the lens of neo-Calvinism. They usually claim a literal, ahistorical, non-cultural way of interpreting the Bible. Giving historical and cultural contexts any authority in biblical interpretation would be a concession to the “world’s way of thinking.”  If salvation is about conversion to a new creation, it means that the old must pass away – or at very least, be rendered irrelevant to faith. Thus, history and the contemporary world is irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why many evangelicals are so quick to embrace a post-racial vision. After all, in order to think about race, one must allow social science and theory to have authoritative claims to truth.

As J. Kameron Carter suggests in his very important study entitled Race: A Theological Account, modern Christian theology and popular culture assumes a “hierarchy of anthropological essences and the supremacy of those of a pneumatic nature within the hierarchy.” Anything rooted in history and race are considered inferior to the spiritual realm. Carter suggests that this tendency is more akin to Gnostic desire to repudiate the Jewish roots of Christianity in favor of a spiritualized Christ. Indeed, by Orientalizing the Jewish Jesus, the Gnostic strategy was to establish a hierarchy of spiritual elites. Thus began what Carter calls “a discourse of death, the death of material existence.” This is one of the origins of racial ideology in the West. And it lies beneath the Fundamentalist absolutism of these preacher-teachers who are popular among so many young adults today.

Why do these teachers attract Asian American evangelicals? Most of the Asian ethnic churches that younger Asian American evangelicals grew up in are family-oriented communities. They therefore do not invest heavily into intense theological teaching. Younger Asian Americans, after some exposure to these teachers, begin to perceive their ethnic home churches to be inferior or sub-Christian enclaves. When interviewed, they often describe their churches as culture-bound ethnic social clubs with shallow (or non-existent) Christian teaching. Indeed, many young adults become avowedly hostile to any cultural “seepage” into their belief structure and seek to join churches where a purer gospel is preached, a more passionate spiritual worship is experienced, and a tight and fervent community of faith is found. Asian American evangelicals claim that none of these attributes characterizes the Asian immigrant congregations that they grew up in.

The practical effects of Asian American evangelical attraction to fundamentalist gnosis is to be completely severed from any discussion that legitimizes Asian American identity. To “transform” culture means erasing it in favor of a more truthful Christian belief system. In the Bay Area, there are numerous incidents of Asian American disciples of John MacArthur who have caused division in Asian American congregations because of their insistence of promoting their particular brand of gospel truth. Rather than attempting to understand or listen to Asian American contexts, they seek to eradicate its presence. So in these cases, fundamentalist gnosticism does more than deconstruct Asian American identity and culture, it replaces it with a worldview that believes itself to be superior to human culture.

Fundamentalist gnosticism has many different forms, so I am not making a blanket assessment. But it has the potential to lead to abusive practices as any dogmatic ideology can do. For the purposes of this paper, I argue that this evangelical intellectual style renders it almost impossible to think about Asian American identity and culture. Later in this paper, I will discuss some ways that Asian American evangelicals have been able to or can respond to the excesses of this way of thinking.

C. Evangelical consumerism:

The iconoclastic impulse and fundamentalist gnosticism are two important factors that lead to the deconstruction of Asian American identity and consciousness. But I believe that the most powerful factor is evangelical consumerism.

In the Bay Area, Roman Catholicism represents the largest and most dominant expression of Christianity. Mainline Protestantism has declined precipitously. Among Protestants in general, evangelicals now dominate numerically – but not politically (e.g., the largest Presbyterian congregations are seceding from the S.F. Presbytery in large part, because of the Presbytery’s willingness to allow ministers to conduct same sex marriages). But evangelicals are also relatively marginalized from mainstream Bay Area culture, for they offer no unified public voice. Some participate in conservative family values activism, but most prefer to avoid this form of public engagement. The most common form of public engagement is in the religious marketplace where evangelicals tirelessly place their “spiritual products.” Such products include packaged DVDs and curriculum of “platformed” authors such as John Ortberg, Chip Ingram, and others. Churches (especially mega-churches) are branded carefully and marketed heavily. Indeed, superstar speakers and brand name congregations attract spiritual consumers. This has been the main focus of Bay Area evangelicals for now.

Asian American evangelicals, raised in upper middle-class and well-educated families, are drawn to what they perceive to be quality brands. Drawing her data from the 2008 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (CMPS), Janelle Wong notes that “Asian Americans who identify as born again Christians are more than twice as likely to report graduating from college than any other group. There is a substantial income gap between Asian Americans who identify as born again and other groups as well. Approximately 25 percent evangelical Asian Americans claims that their annual household income consists of $100,000 or more, compared to about 10 to 15 percent of other groups. White evangelicals are the group most likely to own their homes (88%), followed by Asian American (73%), Latino (69%) and black (64%) evangelicals.”[5]

This certainly characterizes many younger Asian American evangelicals in the Bay Area. To extend the data further, Lisa Sun-Hee Park, in her book, Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs (Stanford University Press, 2005) examined the consumerist behavior of second generation Asian Americans. She suggested that these Asian Americans exert social citizenship through material consumption. They felt compelled to remind others of their legitimate existence in the United States by demonstrating a form of conspicuous consumption.

This may indeed translate into religious consumption. More than one respondent I spoke to shared this sentiment (to paraphrase): “City Church in San Francisco [a protégé of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with a very large percentage of Asian Americans] is like Stanford, the Chinese immigrant church like is a community college.”

****

So what do you think? Look for part three where I will assess the evangelical empire and discuss Asian American evangelical reconstructive efforts.

NOTE:

[5] Janelle S. Wong, “Evangelical Asian Americans and Latinos: Reshaping the Right?” (Paper presented at the Cornell University Institute for the Social Sciences Immigration Seminar, April 30, 2012), p. 12.

My presentation at AAAS: Color-blinded by the Light (or why Evangelicals don’t get race). Part 1

I finally have found some time to blog! I hope I can do so regularly.

I’d like to begin by sharing my presentation at the 2013 Association of Asian American Studies Meeting in Seattle on April 20. This was for the “Empire and Asian American Religions: approaching religion in ethnic studies” panel organized by Justin Tse.

I’m not a card-carrying member of the AAAS, just a critical consumer of the scholarship. As a university-based professional society, it has always been difficult for theological educators and pastors like myself to gain a foothold. Nevertheless, there is some good to commend to the Christian community.

So, here is the first part of the presentation, “Color-blinded by the light: The American Evangelical Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area.” I’ve revised it for greater clarity, so it’s not exactly what I verbally presented.

Introduction

Recent informal surveys of Asian American evangelical young adults reveal greater antipathy towards their racial and ethnic identities than other Asian Americans. I need to qualify this point. First, I am talking about English-speaking, 1.5 or more generation who are more acculturated to the United States than immigrant Asian Americans. Second, this statement does not necessarily suggest that evangelical millennials are less interested in their racial and ethnic identities than non-religious Asian American millennials. After all, in a time when there is great confusion over racial identity and racism, it should be no surprise that race is perceived as having declining significance. So Asian American evangelical antipathy towards race and ethnicity may be more symptomatic than exceptional of a prevalent post-racial ethos.

Nevertheless Asian Americans are gaining notoriety within evangelical circles because of their increased presence within White dominant evangelical organizations. Asian Americans have a higher participation rate in predominantly White evangelicals organizations than Latino/Hispanics or African Americans. Their representation in college campus ministries has increased markedly.

For example, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship reports that 20% of the students who participate regularly with Intervarsity are Asian American (5,758) a 32% increase in the past 5 years. Sociologist Jerry Park notes that when compared with Intervarsity’s African American and Latino student ministries, Asian Americans form the largest minority group.[1] Also, of the 15,800 who attended Urbana 2009, 3,849 (24.4%) delegates were of Asian or South Asian descent.[2] I’ve heard that it was close to 40% at the most recent convention, Urbana 2012.

Another example: In the San Francisco Bay Area, anecdotal evidence suggests that more second-or-later generation Asian Americans participate in White or multi-ethnic mega-churches than in ethnic-specific or pan-ethnic Asian congregations. Perhaps up to 40 percent worship at City Church in San Francisco, about 1,000 at Abundant Life, and sizable percentages of several large congregations.

Where Asian American evangelicals worship is another small indicator of their antipathy towards their Asian American racial-ethnic identity. Few express concern or interests in issues that Asian American communities face.

A generational change?

This contrasts sharply with an earlier generation of Bay Area Asian American Protestants. Raised in historically mainline Protestant Chinatown and Japanese churches, these Asian Americans were inspired by the Civil Rights movement to bring about social justice in both church and society. They more clearly articulated racial identification and solidarity as vehicles for bringing about racial justice. And they were rooted in a theological tradition that encouraged faith in public life.

Within their denominations, these church leaders formed Asian American caucuses in the 1970s. They pressed for greater representation and resources within the historic denominations. The first Asian American theological center, the now defunct Pacific and Asian Center for Theology and Strategy (PACTS) was organized at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 1972.[3] A generation of Asian American theologians flourished within mainline Protestant seminaries.[4] Leaders such as Roy Sano, Paul Nagano, Lloyd Wake, Jitsui Morikawa, and others brought Asian American consciousness to the forefront of Protestantism.

Many Asian American activists also grew up in these churches, including political leaders such as Representative Mike Honda and Former Washington State Governor and U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke. The Redress movement enlisted among its leaders several Japanese American clergymen from these churches. Indeed, many of the founders of Asian American Studies and the Asian American movement were themselves connected to an Asian American mainline Protestant church at some point (e.g., Ling Chi Wang, Russell Leong).

But today’s Asian American evangelicals have a very different worldview, especially with regards to racial identity. As Russell Jeung suggests in Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches (Rutgers University Press, 2004), pastors of evangelical Asian American churches tend to focus on a common lifestyle rather than racially identity in their ministry. Racial identity is not necessarily something to be embraced – especially if they do not want to alienate the Asian American members or potential non-Asian American members. On the other hand, pastors of mainline Protestant Asian American churches are more open to celebrating ethnic and racial identities by more consciously incorporating customs into the community life.

In this paper, I will argue that the dominance of an evangelical intellectual-cultural ethos (ideology would be too strong) within American Protestantism is the leading factor for the current Deconstruction of Asian American identity. I will then suggest that a small, but emergent strand of younger Asian American evangelical leaders are offering a possible reconstructive effort.

The American Evangelical Empire

Janelle Wong and Jane Iwamura noted that among conservative Asian American Christians, “social factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and class are sublimated to a dominating theological ideology that holds sway over the agency of their members.” [Source: Wong, Janelle S., and Jane Naomi Iwamura. 2007. “The Moral Minority: Race, Religion, and Conservative Politics in Asian America.” In Religion and Social Justice for Immigrants, edited by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press]

In general, this is a true statement. It reflects the power of the Evangelical “Empire” among Asian Americans. But I’d like to unpack that a bit by suggesting that this dominant theological ideology (or intellectual-cultural ethos) is much more diverse and fragmented than may be suggested. Furthermore, another factor – namely evangelical consumerism – may play a larger role in deconstructing Asian American identity among Asian American evangelicalism than theology alone. Finally, evangelicalism is undergoing a rapid racial transformation as evident by their participation in the Evangelical Roundtable on Immigration Reform.

A. Iconoclasm

First, let me begin with “iconoclasm,” a key concept that helps explain evangelical antipathy towards race and ethnicity. Iconoclasm is an impulse to topple cultural images (idols) for the sake of pure religious devotion. In order to worship God alone, all human activities, including culture, intellectual endeavors, and politics are relativized or devalued. Iconoclasm is particularly useful for opposing perceived oppressive power, but the flip side is its desire to destroy human cultural endeavor and breed anti-intellectualism and dogmatism. The origins of political revolution can be traced to Protestant iconoclasm, as can the so-called “prophetic” tradition of speaking “truth to power.” Thus it is important to note that both evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism have inherited an iconoclastic vision.

In this sense, mainline Protestant Asian American activism of the 1970s draws its inspiration more from this “prophetic/iconoclastic” tradition than Marx. The Christian Right does the same thing by calling America away from its idols. Though this tradition is not always front and center within Protestant and evangelical churches, it has a strong appeal and is mobilized for public engagement.

Evangelicals appeal to iconoclasm (anti-idolatry) in its critique of culture. When Asian American evangelicals assert that “I’m a Christian first, and an Asian American second” or “my ethnic identity has nothing to do with the gospel,” they are surfacing iconoclasm. And even though many Asian American evangelicals are highly educated, they tend to reject any critical reading of the bible and their inherited theology because such readings are considered idolatrous or worldly.

Even among evangelicals who are pushing for multi-ethnic ministries, iconoclasm tends to devalue ethnicity and, ironically, reproduce White dominance. In the Bay Area, where the population of White evangelicalism is experiencing some decline, conscious efforts are being made to recruit Asians (and to a lesser extent, Latinos) into predominantly White evangelical congregations. Yet the top leaders in these churches remain White male pastors, for most part. Theological institutions like Western and Fuller Seminary’s Northern California regional campuses have a significant Asian student population, but their faculty and administrative leaders are predominantly White men. (The only possible exception may be in evangelical campus ministries at local colleges like U.C. Berkeley where the leadership is much more balanced racially or have become Asian dominant.)

Let’s call this phenomenon a “color-blind multi-ethnicity.” For the most part, multi-ethnicity does not include clear affirmation of Asian American ethnic or racial identity. In other words, the American evangelical empire insists or assumes “racial non-recognition” or, at its best, promotes a “colorless” multi-ethnicity, i.e., an ahistorical and “gnostic” reading of multi-ethnicity.

But the question may then be asked: “Why did mainline Protestants embrace multiculturalism and anti-racism if they also shared an iconoclastic heritage?” The answer, in part, lies in the fact that while mainline Protestants may have devalued culture, they still sought to transform it. They therefore leapt into debates in the public square armed with intellectual weapons such as sociology, anthropology and economic analysis. Indeed, a fundamental assumption in the Social Gospel tradition is that social structures needed to be evangelized as well as individuals. Thus, mainline Protestants both supported and used social sciences to advance reform. In the mid-twentieth century, they embraced racial integration and, later (albeit less enthusiastically), multiculturalism.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, inherited a fundamentalist approach to the social sciences, the Social Gospel, and structural sin – namely, they rejected it completely. Therefore, the intellectual and cultural ethos of evangelicalism was highly resistant to “human-centered” sciences and could not engage any discussion about ethnic or racial identity. I will say more about this in my next post. But it is suffice to say, that by exorcising the demons of social science, fundamentalists have allowed an even more dangerous demon to enter its household – namely, a gnosticism characterized by intellectual absolutism and moral hierarchy.

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