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.
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. Also, of the 15,800 who attended Urbana 2009, 3,849 (24.4%) delegates were of Asian or South Asian descent. 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. A generation of Asian American theologians flourished within mainline Protestant seminaries. 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.
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.
 Jonathan Y. Tan, Introducing Asian American Theologies (Orbis Books, 2008)