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.

NOTE:

I’m spiritual, not religious (Inheritance Magazine Article)

This article appears in Inheritance Magazine (No. 17, August 2012): 7-10. Visit: inheritancemag.com

I’m Spiritual, not religious

Young adults in America are shaping and being shaped by an emerging culture that is viewed with alarm and hope. In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons calls this culture Pluralistic, Post-modern, and Post-Christian. Christianity, however, is still the dominant North American religion. In two 2008 surveys, just over three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians. But this is a drop of about 10 percent since 1990. One might assume that the recent growth of immigration from non-Christian countries caused this decline. But the percentage of non-Christian religions in America has only increased between .5 and 1.5 percent.

Despite the numeric dominance of Christianity in America, there is sense that the Church is no longer respected or viewed as positively as it was a generation ago. This is especially true among young adults. Indeed, young adults make up the largest group that identifies itself as “not religious.” In fact, this group has grown the most of all groups in the survey (from 8.2 to 15 -16 percent).[i]

Studies also show that many who consider themselves “not religious” want to be considered “spiritual,” too. Though nebulous (and perhaps because it is nebulous), being “spiritual” is perceived to be a good thing. A person who is in touch with God, a higher power, one’s true self and feelings, or with nature is viewed more favorably than a person who is committed to a faith community or its convictions. Young adults appear to be demonstrating this with their feet. In the 2012 Millennial Values Survey of college-age adults, 25 percent reported that they were “religiously unaffiliated.” Only 11 percent indicated that they were “religiously unaffiliated” in childhood. Catholics and white mainline Protestants saw the largest net losses due to this movement away from their childhood religious affiliation. College-age young adults are also less likely than the general population to identity as white evangelical Protestant or white mainline Protestant.

Furthermore, in the same survey, only 23% believe that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally. 26% believe the Bible is the word of God, but that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. 37% say that the Bible is a book written by humans and is not the word of God.[ii]

Finally, the Millennial values survey indicated a negative reaction to Christianity. Christians are perceived by 84 percent of the “religiously unaffiliated” as “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” 79 percent believe that Christians are “anti-gay.” 73 percent believe Christians are “too involved with politics.” Even though 56 percent believe Christianity “has good values and principles,” 41 percent believe that Christianity “consistently shows love for other people” and only 18 percent feel that it is “relevant to your life.”

What is happening? Why is there an increasingly negative approach towards words like “religion” or “faith.” Where is this anti-religion sentiment coming from? Why does ‘being spiritual’ feel more safe, more PC? What’s the appeal, particularly for young adults and second generation Asian Americans?

Perhaps all this is a reaction to the political activities of the so-called Religious Right. After all, most young adults favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry and keeping abortions legal. More likely, this “spiritual, not religious” attitude is the culmination of a growing individualism and anti-institutionalism since the 1960s. In his classic study, Habits of the Heart (1985), sociologist Robert Bellah observed that a personal worldview that he called “Sheilaism” was on the rise. “Sheila” was raised in the Christian church. But rather than embracing those beliefs in adulthood, she created her own spirituality out of different religions and pursued a satisfying life without institutional religion. For more than a generation, the fastest growing population has been the tribe of “Sheilaism” – the church of “spiritual, but not religious.”[iii]

An unconnected and individualistic spirituality is nothing new. The belief that faith is an individual and private affair has been deeply embedded in American culture through its history. Many would rightly argue that this type of spirituality has led to greater tolerance for diversity and individual freedom. Nevertheless, the recent rise of “Sheilaism,” especially among young adults, has not been greeted with universal acclaim. And it’s not just advocates of organized religion who have raised much of the alarm.

Spiritual, but not responsible

Social scientists such as Robert D. Putnam, warn that the increased individualism and privatization is causing “the collapse of social capital” in American society.[iv] Television and the Internet are blamed for keeping people home rather than participating in community life. Fewer Americans participate in traditional community activities such as bowling leagues, local political clubs, or neighborhood churches. Without vibrant participation in community and public life, Putnam (and Bellah) fear a weakening of democracy that could undermine the health of American institutions.

In Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (2011), a team of sociologists led by Christian Smith argue that many young people today face five major problems: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life. “The idea that today’s emerging adults are as a generation leading a new wave of renewed civic-mindedness and political involvement is sheer fiction,” says Smith.[v]

Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, concurred in her two studies, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic (coauthored with W. Keith Campbell). In a recent article in The Atlantic, Twenge says that “Millennials were less likely than Boomers and even GenXers to say they thought about social problems, to be interested in politics and government, to contact public officials, or to work for a political campaign. They were less likely to say they trusted the government to do what’s right, and less likely to say they were interested in government and current events.”[vi]

These troubles cannot be blamed on the poor individual decisions of young adults alone. They are deeply rooted in the mainstream American culture that young adults have “largely inherited rather than created.” According to Smith, failures in education, consumer capitalism, hyper-individualism, postmodern moral relativism, and other aspects of American culture all contribute to the difficult situation facing young adults.

In sum, these scholars argue that the “spiritual, but not religious” attitude may actually harm American society. By rejecting institutions such as religion and government, this attitude encourages withdrawal from social engagement and responsibility, and, possibility the loss of compassion for others.

Getting Religion: the Key to Responsible Spirituality?

If not for Christianity as an organized religion, the idea that spirituality applies only to personal well-being and not family life, community, social issues, and politics might have been the norm in American culture. For good and ill, the Christian church’s historic proclivity to engage (some would say interfere with or impose its values and beliefs on) politics and culture has contributed to a vibrant democracy.  Its moral values have empowered people to reform and transform society.

Given the current Pluralist, Postmodern, Post-Christian situation, Gabe Lyons invites Christians to engage this landscape in a more positive, creative, and hopeful manner. Instead of getting offended, withdrawing, or protesting the changes, Christians ought to see our contemporary situation as an opportunity to renew our mission to North America.

“From the standpoint of the public good,” according to James Reichley, “the most important service churches offer to secular life in a free society is to nurture moral values that help humanize capitalism and give direction to democracy.”[vii]

Given the decline in mainstream American churches, the time may be ripe for Asian American Christian Young Adults to renew our mission to North America. God may be calling us to counter the hyper-individualistic spirituality so prevalent among our peers. And the way to do that may be to build up our churches rather than be consumers of spirituality. It may be time to finally get religion!


[i] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008) (Hartford, CT: Trinity College ISSSC, 2009); The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008,” http://www.religions.pewforum.org; Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985) . See also http://www.robertbellah.com.

[ii]  2012 Millennial Values Survey. A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values, and Politics among College-Age Millennials (Public Religion Research Institute, April 19, 2012). http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/04/millennial-values-survey-2012/

[iii] Bellah, Habits of the Heart. See also http://www.robertbellah.com.

[iv] Robert B. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

[v] Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 224.

[vi] Jean Twenge, “Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissistic?” The Atlantic (May 2, 2012). Accessed at

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/millennials-the-greatest-generation-or-the-most-narcissistic/256638/

[vii] A. James Reichley, Religion in American Public Life (Washington, D.D.: The Brookings Institute, 1985), page 359.

The Young Adult Black Hole

Published in Inheritance Magazine #13 (Sept/Oct 2011)

Young Adults and the American Church

It is becoming a well-established fact: young adults are vanishing from the American Church. Recent surveys indicate that emergent Americans who identify themselves as Christians today have declined sharply over the past twenty years (see figures 1 and 2 below). [1] Even White evangelicals, who have usually retained a higher percentage of young adults than mainline Protestants or Catholic, are experiencing a decline of this treasured cohort. But even though many more young adults say that they are not affiliated with any religion it doesn’t mean that they are rejecting spirituality. In fact, we are witnessing the spectacular growth of emergents who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.”

Figure 1: Distance from organized religion today

Distance from Organized religion Emerging Adults Other Adults
Attend church weekly or more 15% (20 plus)30% (30 plus) 40% (older adults)
Not members of a church 35% 19% (all adults)
Belong to no religious tradition 20% 14% (all adults)
“Secular” or “somewhat secular” 23% 15% (ages 25-64)10% (over 64)

* * * * *

Figure 2: Comparing Church attendance (1970s and today)

Church attendance of Americans under 45 1970s Today
Attend weekly or more 31% 25%
Never attend 14% 20%

 

Some speculate that the conservative politics of many Christians may be turning off and tuning out the emergents, who are generally more liberal. Others think that the increase in privatization and consumerism in recent years has made the culture of young adults less interested in participating in organized communities. Rather, communities are formed to cater to the needs and desires of the young adult. Whatever the cause, the Church in America is facing one its greatest challenges.

Asian American emergents and the “renewal” of American Christianity

Though racial-ethnic Christian communities also face similar challenges, young adult engagement in church life is still relatively high when compared to the wider American Church. In fact, the significant presence of younger Asian Americans in thriving non-African American urban churches and in many campus ministries can be interpreted as a sign that God is using Asian Americans to revitalize (White) American Christianity. Asian American presence in previously White ministries legitimizes a multi-ethnic vision as do Asian American ministries that reject being identified as Asian American.

But these developments can also be a sign that Asian American churches have no future. The “Silent Exodus” will continue as generations of young adults who remain Christians leave their immigrant churches for White or multi-ethnic churches. From the perspective of immigrant Asian churches (who should also be considered Americans), the wider American church can be viewed as a Black Hole, a parasite, or a vampire that sucks the young life out their congregation’s families.

I have very little sympathy for immigrant churches that drive their young adults out because of insensitive leadership, authoritarian parenting, or uncaring coworkers. These churches don’t deserve their children.

But for the churches that have made a concerted effort to build intergenerational and multicultural faith communities (by the way, immigrant churches may be more multicultural than most multiethnic churches because they have to navigate language diversity), the revitalization of American Christianity seems to come at a great cost to them. The way American Christians treat the immigrant (and refugee) church is a test of our capacity to love the foreigner among us. Thus, the struggles and concerns of immigrant churches should matter to all Christians.

Furthermore, the fate of those who embark on the “Silent Exodus” should also matter. Do Asian American Christians in non-Asian ministries have any role other than increasing multi-ethnicity? Are their unique needs cared for? Are their contributions and gifts valued?

The bottom line: Can the American church truly be renewed if immigrant churches are dismissed and “exodused” Asian Americans are only valued as window dressing?

Raising these questions begs a deeper question: Why do Asian American Christian young adults leave immigrant or pan-Asian churches? I’d like to suggest a few reasons. Since I believe that immigrant and pan-Asian churches are to be valued as important members of the American Church, their desire to retain young adults must be taken seriously. So I’ll close with a few recommendations for these ministries.

The “Silent Exodus” or the “Babylonian Captivity”?

The usual reasons given for young adult flight from racial-ethnic churches center on four narratives. First, the culture of immigrant churches is incompatible with the Americanized young adult. It is too “Asian,” too foreign. Second, assimilation and integration into American culture is desirable, more compatible, and inevitable. Third, many Christians believe that multiethnic congregations are more biblical, therefore, morally superior to racialized churches. Hence, there is, among many evangelicals today, a race to become multi-ethnic – often at the expense of immigrant and pan-Asian churches. Fourth, underlying most evangelical conviction is that our earthly identities ultimately do not matter. Our Christian identity is the most important. Even in many multi-ethnic evangelical churches, the goal is to shed, not affirm, our earthly identities.

Together, these narratives create what I call the “evangelical deconstruction of Asian America.” I’m not saying that evangelicalism intentionally seeks to destroy Asian Americans. But Asians and Asian Americans who have their faith shaped by evangelicalism usually think that being Asian American is irrelevant. So this is how the evangelical sub-culture “deconstructs” Asian America (and other earthly identities).

Now perhaps Asian America should be deconstructed. Perhaps there should be no “ethnic” churches. Perhaps all Asian Americans should join the “silent exodus.” But these narratives sound suspiciously like “cultural captivity” to the “American dream” rather than entry into the Promised Land. Indeed, the American dream is the secular version of these four narratives. Immigrants are too foreign to matter. Their children can integrate and succeed. Together they create a multi-ethnic America where ethnic identities are less important than American identity.

Given these narratives, is it any wonder that Asian Americans prefer to leave their ethnic ghettos behind? Leaving the ethnic immigrant or pan-Asian church is equivalent to moving up in the world.

I won’t suggest very loudly that Jesus’ incarnation moves in the opposite direction. Nor do I blame Asian American young adults for wanting to pursue the American-Evangelical dream. But I do believe that these narratives powerfully shape all Americans. They create social scripts that ensure that the American norm is colored White despite the reality that there will no longer be a racial majority in the United States by 2040. It’s easier to conform to these social scripts than to change them or write new ones. That is why the “silent Exodus” will continue in the foreseeable future.

Of course, negative experiences in immigrant or pan-Asian churches will exacerbate the “silent Exodus,” but even healthy churches won’t stem the flow. Insofar as evangelicalism is captive to the American Dream, insofar as Asian Americans are captive to the evangelical deconstruction of Asian America, there is no future for Asian American Christianity. Immigrant and pan-Asian churches will never be able to develop sustainable young adult ministries. Indeed, unless we prayerfully rely on the creative work of the Holy Spirit, these social scripts are much too pervasive and powerful for us to change.

Here is an example of its power. Imagine what it will be like to dine at Christ’s great banquet when his kingdom finally reigns. Who will be seated at that banquet? Will it not be a great cloud of witnesses from every nation and every race? Who would you want to sit next to (someone else will be seated at Jesus’ side, so you probably can’t sit next to him right away)? Augustine? Luther? Calvin? Wesley? Billy Graham? All the male heroes of Western Christianity? Would you want to meet the Asian and Asian American heroes? Would you know who they are? If not, why? Isn’t this because of the Christian social script that we’ve inherited? We’re conditioned to think that only certain people are representative of Christianity – and that doesn’t usually include Asian Americans.

Creating counter narratives

But I believe that God is alive. Surprising things can and will happen. We can counter these narratives by creating alternative or counter narratives. These new narratives can capture the attention of Asian American young adults and, possibly, move their hearts towards embracing immigrant and pan-Asian Christian faith communities. I suggest three ways create counter narratives:

1. Re-envision the Asian American Christian role in the new global reality: church leaders need to capture a biblical vision of God’s redemption of all nations and peoples that includes ethnic and racial minorities. Asian Americans should not be fully identified with the dominant American culture or with Asia. They are stewards of a unique set of gifts from God (Asian American cultures, ethnicities, histories, etc.) and will be asked to demonstrate how they have multiplied their “talents.”

2. Retrieve and retell Asian American Christian stories: churches and wealthier Christians could fund research in the study of Asian American Christianity. Insist that seminaries and universities hire specialists in the area. Create scholarships that encourage such research. By retrieving stories from the past and present, a treasure trove of resources will be available to help churches tell Asian American stories. Don’t let Asian American Christian young adults grow up with no knowledge of their unique story and gifts for the wider church and the world.

3. Redeem representation: Embrace the reality that immigrant and pan-Asian churches need to encourage greater Asian American representation in the mainstream American church. Don’t simply consume what is offered by the mainstream – rather insist that Asian American voices be heard in major conferences and events. This also means promoting and advocating for Asian American speakers and leaders who understand and embrace immigrant and pan-Asian ministries. The other meaning of representation is the creation of new ways of being Asian American and Christian in our worship, literature, and arts. Churches and wealthier Christians can fund artists to articulate traditional and contemporary expressions and forms. It is not enough to protest the way mainstream culture defines and stereotypes Asian Americans. Asian Americans must create their own representations.

Multi-ethnic churches can also participate in this creative activity, but immigrant and pan-Asian churches are more deeply rooted in the Asian American experience so have a greater advantage.

In the end, the only way to stem the deconstruction of Asian America is to re-construct Asian American Christianity again and again – in new forms and expressions. Like other emergents, Asian American Christian young adults are attracted to opportunities to create. So, let us assume that immigrant and pan-Asian churches have created healthy intergenerational cultures and are responsive to the “Five Cries of Asian American Christian Young Adults.” These churches can then become “culture making” laboratories and carve out space for creating counter narratives. There may yet be hope for Asian American Young Adults!

REFERENCES

  • 60 Minutes. (2008, May). “The millennials are coming!” www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3486473n
  • Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Brooks, David. (2001). “The Organization Kid.” Atlantic Monthly. www.theatlantic.com/doc/200104/brooks
  • Changing Sea: The changing spirituality of emerging adult project. http://www.changingsea.org/
  • Cooper, Marianne. (2008). The inequality of security: Winners and losers in the risk society. Human Relations, 61 (9): 1229–1258.
  • Crouch, Andy (2008). Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
  • Edgell, Penny (2005). Religion and family in a changing society: The transformation of linked institutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Park, Lisa Sun-Hee (2005). Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs Stanford University Press.
  • PewResearchCenter (Feb. 2010). “Religion among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional in Other Ways.”  http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=510
  • Smith, Christian, with Patricia Snell (2009). Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson. (2011) Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Timothy Tseng (2011). “Five Cries of Asian American Young Adults” contact author or view at https://timtseng.net/2011/03/07/five-cries-of-asian-american-christian-young-adults-resource/.
  • Robert Wuthnow (2007). After the baby boomers: How Twenty- and Thirtysomethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[1] Penny Edgell, Religion and Family in a Changing Society: The Transformation of Linked Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Book Review. Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations

Posted on the ISAAC blog on June 21, 2008 [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2008/06/21/review-against-all-odds-the-struggle-for-racial-integration-in-religious-organizations/]

Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005) 185 pp. ISBN: 0814722245

Since I started to get my DVD movie rentals by mail, I’ve rarely watched movies in theatres. There are times when I’ve regretted not watching a good action movie in the theatre. Likewise, I’ve regretted missing the “buzz” around the publication of important books when they are first introduced. Against All Odds is such a publication.

I wish I had read this book when it was published three years ago because it provides such valuable insights into how people from different racial backgrounds interact in religious organizations in the United States. The authors conducted sociological studies of six multi-racial evangelical organizations in the Midwest and California (four congregations, a campus ministry, and a Christian college). They make a couple of important assumptions in their research. The first first is that America continues to be divided racially through a historical socio-political process called racialization (which should not be confused with ethnicity or ethnogenesis). Drawing from Howard Winant and Michael Omi’s Racial Formation theory that was first proposed in their now classic Racial Formation in the United States, the authors of Against All Odds believe our public and private realities continue to be structured along racial lines. Racial integration cannot happen by simply changing individual attitudes or trying to be color-blind. The second assumption is that religious organizations are mediating institutions between the private and public spheres. As such, these organizations have the potential to draw people out of their private, racially segrated lives, into a social space where human interactions are more intimate than the public arena. The new interracial relationships that are created in these organizations may become a model for American society in the future. By working with these assumptions, the authors challenge the belief that race and religion are of diminishing significance in 21st Century America.

Against All Odds is not a handbook of “best practices.” Becoming interracial is a struggle for each of the organizations examined since “interracial organizations are inherently unstable” (152) and participating in them is “risky” (157). A visibly diverse organization will not naturally attract new people. Intentionality and favorable external factors and internal dynamics are required to overcome the American racial order. According to the authors, “numerical minority group members bear the highest relational costs of being involved in interracial organizations. The costs are reduced as representation increases.” In other words, most people in these organizations do not have strong friendships with people who are not like themselves. A critical mass of a numerical minority group in an organization and its leadership is necessary for sustaining that group’s presence and growth. Healthy interracial organizations are in reality coalitions of racial groups each of whose needs are being addressed and whose presence is adequately represented. The authors conclude that

“Representation can be in any or all of the following areas: raw numbers, worship styles, leadership, or organizational practices. For instance, incorporating music from the out group’s culture, increasing diversity in the staff, accommodating different attitudes and understandings of time, and instituting children’s programs are all examples of increasing representation, depending on which groups are marginalized. Increasing representation and providing some time for separate space for groups are the means organizations are most able to control.” (158 )

If the book ended on this note, then the solution to creating healthy interracial organizations would be simple. If an organization does not have enough white or Asian people, then create an “affirmation action” policy to recruit whites and Asians. But the authors throw a big “monkey wrench” into this assumption. “The importance of minimizing the costs of being in interracial organizations is greatest for those who are racial minorities in the larger society,” say the authors, “because they pay the costs of both numerical and minority statuses daily in the larger society.” (158 ) In other words, racial minorities in the larger society pay a higher “cultural tax” than racial majorities and therefore have a greater need to avoid paying these taxes in the religious organizations in which they invest their social capital. On the other hand, as the racial majority, white people experience less “cultural taxation” in American society than they do in interracial organizations. This creates a dynamic some have labeled the the problem of “white privilege.” Repeated examples of unconscious white privileging are given in this study. “Whites are accustomed to being in control in social contexts,” claim the authors. “Their norms and values are in most cases accepted without challenge. These characteristics afford whites far greater opportunity, relative to racial minorities, to live in, establish, and reproduce social spaces that accommodate their preferences, culture, and superior status.” (172) Consequently, the authors conclude that:

“Whites are more likely than racial minorities to leave interracial religious organizations if their particular preferences and interests are not being met.” (168 )

“White adults, despite their desire to attend an interracial church and their belief that this membership holds intrinsic benefits for them, are unwilling to sacrifice the potential experiences, privileges and opportunities of their children to do so.” (170)

“Maintaining legitimacy within the dominant group is of greater priority for whites than are the desires and needs of fellow non-white organization members.” (171)

The behavior of whites becomes a major destabilizing factor for interracial churches. They are ‘”not necessarily aware of their privileged status as the dominant racial group, nor are they aware how their own actions perpetuate it.” Quoting George Lipstiz (‘the artificial construction of whiteness almost always comes to possess white people themselves unless they develop antiracist identities’ [1998: vii]), the authors argue that “unless whites are conscious of the status and privileges afforded them through whiteness, and unless they act to dismantle the structure that sustains that privilege, they will by default reproduce the racialized social order.” (172)

If white privilege tends to destabilize an interracial organization, the authors argue that interracial marriages brings stability. But this is further evidence that building friendships and trust across racial lines – even within the same organization – is extraordinarily difficult when racial identities are so clearly shaped in America.

Finally, Against All Odds explores the internal religious dynamics of these organizations. The authors identified “religiously charged ethnocentrism” (i.e., turning cultural practices into theological absolutes) and “color-blind theologies” (i.e., refusal to recognize race as a part of one’s religious identity or practice) as destabilizing forces. On the other hand, regular use of “theological arguments for diversity” and providing “spiritual enrichness” from diverse worship environments are stabilizing forces. This appears to be confirmed by the participants in the study. In the Christian college dominated by the majority white evangelical subculture, the destabilizing dynamics created a dysfunctional organization where racial minority students felt marginalized and shut down. in other organizations, almost everyone interviewed valued being part of an interracial community despite the struggles of the organizations. When interracial organizations emphasize diversity as a positive value, most participants hesitate to return to more homogeneous contexts.

Against All Odds needs to be read carefully by leaders of religious organizations who want to understand the dynamics of multiracial organizations. Many of the observations are applicable to multicultural and multigenerational organizations as well. It is clear that any organization that seeks to sustain healthy diversity must allow sub-groups representation. Unity is not uniformity.

Reading the book with Asian American lens, I was left wondering why Asian American participants in multi-racial religious organizations were so ambivalent about their own identities. I suspect that the power of racialization impacts Asian Americans differently from other racial minorities. In settings that are predominantly white, whenever I bring up Asian American concerns, the conversation usually goes in one of two directions. There is usually a surprised reaction since the prevailing assumption is that Asian Americans are no different from white immigrants. At other times, the conversation shifts to issues and events in Asia. There is virtually no place to stand between invisibility or foreignness for Asian Americans in multiracial settings. If we are to overcome the power of racialization of Asian Americans, if we are to encourage adequate Asian American participation in interracial organizations, we must ensure that engaging Asian American identities and consciousness becomes a priority. Against All Odds provides a helpful frame of reference and starting point.

Timothy Tseng
Castro Valley, CA
June 21, 2008

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