All in the American Reincarnated Family

In this post I highlight a couple of books I have been reading (which I highly recommend) to discuss with readers of this blog how to interpret a possible connection between the findings I point out. My review here centers on a chapter from a recently published book called “Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions” by Drs. Jason Shelton (UT-Arlington) and Michael Emerson (Rice), and a chapter from a recently published edited volume “Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation” edited by Drs. Carolyn Chen (Northwestern) and Russell Jeung, (San Francisco State University). In the former, we’re going to focus on the chapter titled: “Far-Reaching Faith: Evidence of an Inclusive Religious Doctrine” and in the latter we’ll focus particularly on Jeung’s study in the chapter titled: “Second Generation Chinese Americans: The Familism of the Nonreligious.”

As is often the case for me, when I read newer material it sometimes triggers my memories of a previous work I had also recently encountered and reading Shelton and Emerson’s chapter did just that. The book overall is an exploration into the similarities and differences in beliefs and practices between African American and white American Protestant Christians. In many fundamental or creedal beliefs, there’s a lot of similarity among these American Christians. But there are curious divisions that the authors unearthed which I had never considered before. Analyzing data from the Portraits in American Lives Survey, they found that “African American Protestants are almost three and a half times more likely than white Protestants to believe in reincarnation” – this claim is not merely based on a simple comparison of the average responses to the question of reincarnation. Instead, it is based on a rigorous statistical test or model that tries to account for as many possible explanations for the difference in beliefs. As some might say in statistical-talk, this is a robust finding.

This of course brought me back to the recent Pew study of Asian American religions where 34% of Asian Americans reported belief in reincarnation. That doesn’t seem surprising since 64% of Buddhist and 59% of Hindu Asian Americans believe this. However since Protestants and Catholics take up a larger share of Asian America, the overall figure must include some ascent to this belief among Asian American Christians. Indeed, 14% of evangelicals, 18% of the mainline and 32% of Catholic Asian Americans also ascribe to belief in reincarnation. Notably 26% of those who identify as “no religion” among those surveyed also believe in reincarnation. This last figure is important later in this post.

But more than knowing the comparative similarities and differences between various religious Americans be they white, black or Asian, is the interpretation of what this belief means. For those adherents whose belief system generally includes teachings on reincarnation, no further explanation is needed. Instead some interpretation is needed for the way Christians understand this belief. To understand the African American Christian belief in reincarnation, Shelton and Emerson interviewed a number of prominent African American Protestant clergy about what they thought these figures meant. In their review of the interviews, the explanation that the pastors gave was that this belief indicated

“the possibility of interacting with one’s ancestors long after they have passed away” (149). They continue: “blacks’ understanding of reincarnation is an indelible moment of spiritual clarity whereby a person ‘sees an image’ or ‘receives a message’ from a deceased loved one in a way that is so timely and powerful that it only subjectively feels as if that person has ‘come back.’” (149).

So in a way, the term “reincarnation” when asked on a telephone survey possibly brings to mind these spiritual experiences of interacting with ancestors or deceased proximal family.

So how do we explain the Asian American Christian and nonaffiliated findings? The Christian beliefs in reincarnation puzzles me but I wonder if part of the answer is that some Asian American Christians convert from Buddhism or Hinduism to Christianity. For some of them, prior beliefs merge together with contemporary beliefs. Another explanation might deal with having diverse religious family structures. Close ties with aunts, uncles and cousins from non-Christian backgrounds may be a source of religious knowledge which may merge with some Asian American Christians’ beliefs.

The other Asian American group, the nonaffiliated, brought me to Jeung’s study. As I pondered Shelton and Emerson’s chapter, I noted to myself that the way reincarnation is possibly interpreted by African American Christians sounds reminiscent of ancestor veneration among some Asian Americans. Jeung’s study included interviews with young second-generation Chinese Americans and their understanding of the kinds of customs they remember while they were growing up. For those unfamiliar with the term “second-generation,” this is shorthand for “children of immigrants.” Jeung’s interviewees grew up not professing any religion in the way that Americans conventionally understand the term “religion.” This is due to a variety of factors, one of which is that their parents grew up in an environment where religious beliefs were condemned or discouraged by the state. As with many state attempts to regulate religion, individuals and groups continue to practice whatever they did before only less publicly. Thus for second-generation Chinese Americans who grow up with immigrant parents, their understanding of religion is not based on experiences of attending a temple or church in their neighborhood. Rather it consists of practices that are not always articulated or taught to them like a catechism. They see their parents venerate ancestors, and sometimes they participate in the practice of bowing before a small shrine in their home or in visits to family gravesites in their parents’ country of origin. But its original meaning is largely lost on them. Jeung notes however that these practices are recast through the lens of American individualism. For these second-generation Chinese Americans ancestor veneration is an example of a unique self-expression of what Jeung terms as Chinese American familism. As he states,

“When combined with American utilitarian and expressive individualism, this religious repertoire consists of values, symbols, and rituals cohering around the Chinese American family.” (217)

I see an interesting parallel between the way some African American Protestants and second-generation unaffiliated Chinese Americans utilize beliefs and practices around reincarnation and ancestor veneration. They have in common spiritual practices that link them to filial ties of previous generations that have passed on. These spiritual experiences or practices are also fairly infrequent and are sometimes described by terms that draw from other religious traditions    regardless of whether they are familiar with Buddhism or Hinduism. It makes me wonder whether this is a cross-cultural similarity which we had not considered before. Perhaps this is part of an emerging contemporary American religion. Your reflections are welcome.

Racial-Religious Patterns in the 2012 Elections

I received a news alert from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life where they ran a slide show of religious affiliations and political party, and given that they ran one of the few Asian American surveys ever, I thought surely they would add in the Asian Americans this time. Alas no. So I found the numbers from both the July report and from the recent slideshow to put together a few figures that help us put race and religion in a more comprehensive picture of where a lot of religiously-identified voters stand:

Figure 1: Protestantism and Race

Pardon the color switching, it’s just the default on Excel and I didn’t have time to figure out how to change it. The main takeaway I see here is that white Protestant affiliates and Asian American evangelicals lean Republican more so than lean Democrat. Black Protestants and Asian American Mainline Protestants lean Democrat more than Republican. I couldn’t find recent data for the Latino Protestant party preference which would have really been comprehensive. Unlike white and black Protestants, Asian American Protestants seem to be divided on political party preference.

Figure 2: Catholicism and Race

Here we have data on the Hispanic Catholic case which we can then compare Asian American and white Catholics. In similar fashion to the Protestant analysis, I couldn’t find current data on black Catholic party preference. The main observations here are that Catholics are somewhat more moderate (admittedly based on only 3 groups). Hispanic Catholics follow Black Protestants and Asian American Mainliners as more pro-Democrat Christian, while white Catholics tilt slightly in favor of Republican identification. The Asian American Catholic case is very interesting as it is the only instance in which there is some parity in party preference. This would be a religious swing vote group for sure. But to be clear, Asian American Catholics form 19% of the 6% of the US population that identifies as Asian American.

Figure 3: Minority Religions and Race

Mormons are reintroduced here for comparison since they constitute less than 3% of the population. Again we have no current data on American Muslim and Sikh voter preference. That said, we see that 3 of these 4 minority religious groups lean Democrat whereas Mormons lean Republican. American Jews and Mormons usually identify racially as white so these two groups reflect interesting contrasts in the political orientations of two predominantly white minority religious groups. Among the two predominantly Asian minority religious groups the patterns of political preference are somewhat parallel.

Figure 4: Unaffiliated by Race

We lack data on African American and Latino unaffiliated political party preference so we can examine the largest racial group of the nonaffiliated along with the minority group with the largest proportional presence of nonaffiliated Americans. We see here a very similar pattern in party preference, with a clear Democrat leaning by white non-Hispanic nonaffiliates and Asian American nonaffiliates.

Overall these figures suggest that the religious composition of both parties is quite different from one another. The Republicans might well be considered a very Christian party. Larger proportions of white Protestants (including Mormons), white Catholics and Asian American evangelicals are represented in their ranks. The Democrats would be like a religious salad bowl consisting of larger proportions of many religious constituencies including African American Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, Asian American Mainline, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu Americans. Given that 5 of these 6 religious groups are predominantly racial minority in composition, these religious groups also make Democrats more racially diverse. We also have a sizable presence of religious nones as well and both white and Asian Americans mirror one another. Given the religious diversity of the Democratic party, it makes sense that they will struggle with presenting a religious sensibility that is inclusive of so many perspectives. The Republicans can more easily reference a Christian narrative that is accessible to most in their party.

The other observation I see here is the remarkably higher rates of non-mainstream party preference by Asian Americans regardless of religious group. Asian Americans who said they had some other party preference or could not identify one ranged from 16-19% across religious groups. Non-Asian Americans at most are 11% non-mainstream in their party preference.

It’s important to remember also the general racial composition and religious composition of the US. White non-Hispanics take up 63% of the population, followed by Latinos at 16%, African Americans at 12% and Asian Americans at 6%. Protestantism still dominates at around 60% (or a little lower) followed by Catholicism at 25% and the remaining 15% are a combination of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and other religious groups.

As a sociologist interested in Asian America, the availability of comparable data between Americans of Asian descent and other Americans is a welcome step forward in getting a better idea of the big picture that includes a group that is often sidelined or invisible in public discussion over matters like politics. Hopefully with improved survey tools that can pick up more representations of our major racial groups in the US we’ll have a more clearer picture of the role that religion and race play in the political sphere.

Note: new update here

Being American by Being Korean? K-Pop and Korean American Identity

Growing up Korean American, it was taken for granted that Korean culture and politics would figure in family conversation with my mother and my aunts and uncles. Sadly, my Korean was so limited I could only guess what they were talking about based on how loud their conversation grew. And like many petulant second-generation kids, I would justify my ignorance by saying “but we’re in America now and we’re American!” This reasoning makes sense for some who have never migrated since they have no other contrasting memories to work against-and it makes sense to a kid who’s developing his self-identity to distinguish himself from his parents. Nevertheless, I was glad to have my relatives share with me that my Korean identity was important, our culture has value, beauty, much to be proud of. But back then I had little indication that Korean culture would be all that important or influential (at least not in the ways that matter to a teen). “Influence” in this sense was about consumption, what you wear, what technology you carry, what you listen to, what you read. Sociologist Murray Milner’s Freaks, Geeks and Cool Kids, illustrates the ways in which cultural goods function as a way to distinguish teen group boundaries. Preppie teens dress in Polo and khakis, while jocks wore Russell Athletic clothing or designer jeans. Back then the indication of Korea’s influence was that many of the clothing items and a handful of electronic products were manufactured there. Importantly, these products were typically more affordable than US-made or Japanese-made goods. The source of the goods made a difference to my relatives and my mother who sometimes bought items simply because it might somehow help the economy of their original homeland. Sometimes it was with a sigh that they used these goods only to discover they were shoddily made. All told this didn’t leave a positive impression about my cultural heritage since I mistook cultural goods in a particular economic context (South Korea at the time was still growing toward first-world status) for cultural values. Without ever stating it out loud, I made linkages in my mind that inferior goods = inferior values = inferior culture.

The link between consumer goods and identity is an important and fairly recent kind of dynamic we see in American society on a much larger scale. Much of the sociology of culture has paid attention to the ways that elites defined themselves from the masses. You can’t have popular culture without high culture. Elite culture requires networks of people who also participate in that culture, and it demands a lot of knowledge, much more than what the masses could afford given that they few can afford the leisure hours for formal education. But today, it appears that mass culture has gained more attention. While many of us still have identities tied a nationality, religion, or region, we also have identities built into the kinds of goods we consume. A few years ago, sociologist Lisa Sun-Hee Park provocatively showed how this works among second-generation Chinese and Korean Americans. In over 80 interviews with teens and young adults, she showed that their consumer decisions served a dual purpose: it was a demonstration of filial piety, and a means to prove their sense of belonging as Americans. This means that on the one hand, these young interviewees believed that by gaining more material goods, as well as high-paying jobs, they are showing gratitude to their parents, most of whom were small business entrepreneurs. On the other hand, they show how assimilated they are by buying high-quality products since expensive material goods are seen as “having made it” in America. It’s not unusual that patriotism is linked to consumption; what’s unique perhaps to some second-generation Asian Americans (and perhaps other second-generation Americans) is that this link is driven more from familial relationships.

YouTube Preview Image

So this brings me to PSY-what’s that you say? PSY is a Korean pop artist most known for his wildly popular music video “Gangnam Style.” “Gangnam Style” is entirely in Korean, and has suddenly garnered hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. PSY has been on Ellen DeGeneres (where he taught her and Brittney Spears some of the basics of his cheesy dance), Good Morning America, and most recently flashmobs have emerged showcasing collective dance renditions of the video. The popularity of this still baffles me, but it raises many new questions about culture and identity. PSY’s popularity is a new peak in the unfolding emergence of Korean popular culture or K-pop. K-pop includes the usual spectrum of musicians and performers but the most discussed are performers like Rain (who has been in American films and the Colbert Report), bands like Girls Generation (who appeared on David Letterman), and soap-opera-like dramas like Winter Sonata (aka K-Drama).


With the remarkable impact of K-pop, I wonder now how younger cohorts of the Korean American second-generation view their cultural background, and whether it affects the way they prove their American-ness. If one’s non-Korean peers know “Gangnam Style” or the latest gossip around the actors of this or that drama, does one now need to prove their Korean-ness in a way that previous cohorts had to leave behind? Does it perhaps reinforce a sense of foreignness, where one is now expected to know all about K-pop since one’s heritage is drawn in part from the country that produces these goods? Does one ironically prove one’s American-ness by proving one’s pop-culture Korean-ness?

Go to Church, Skip Your Bible? Religious Incongruity in the News

As a Christian trained in sociology it’s sometimes difficult to “leave the statistics alone” when it appears in popular publications or sermons or adult Sunday school. Recently, several Christian news outlets noted a new survey finding, with bold titles like: “80% of Churchgoers Don’t Read Bible Daily.” Such a phrase is meant to provoke reading but the provocation is the interesting part. This claim assumes that Bible reading and churchgoing ought to go hand in hand, whereas survey findings suggest that this is not the case. This is an anecdotal example of what sociologist Mark Chaves argued regarding religious incongruity. His point was directed mainly at scholars and their work that makes this same assumption that religious people are supposed to be consistent in belief and behavior. In an earlier post, I showed that religious incongruity goes both ways: sometimes Asian American Christians appear less religious than expected, while Asian Americans with no religious affiliation can be surprisingly more religious than expected. Sometimes these expectations are built into surveys where questions are skipped based on a previous answer. This happened in the National Asian American Survey 2008 where those who reported “no religious affiliation” were not asked a question about church attendance.

The recent news reports about the incongruity of Bible reading and church attendance are based on a survey by LifeWay a publication arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Since I read academic articles and books that use very rigorous methods, I used to wonder “where did that speaker or publication get those numbers?” when the figures reported didn’t comport with what I knew in the academic research world. Groups like LifeWay who have a much broader audience get the ear of practitioners where the academics often don’t get noticed.

There are several ways one could figure out the accuracy of a reported relationship. One is built on reputation: what survey firm conducted the survey? Some survey firms like the Gallup Organization have built a solid record of reliable studies, and that name-brand recognition comes at a premium. LifeWay doesn’t report who conducted the survey in their methodology page. All we do know is that they defined a “churchgoing Protestant” as a Protestant who attends church once a month or more. Another tactic then would be replication. I first turned to the General Social Surveys, the longest running, most rigorous, and most comprehensive omnibus survey on American attitudes and behaviors. Sadly I discovered that there were only a couple of times in the past 20+ years of this survey that the question of Bible reading appeared, and none of these were in the 2000s. So I turned instead to the Baylor Religion Survey 2010, a solid survey conducted by the Gallup Organization every few years. As one of the contributors to the design of the survey, I feel confident in the findings since we work carefully to ask the right questions, and we work closely with a well-established survey group that provides us with the survey data of a large random sample of Americans.

So here is a screenshot of the graph that LifeWay posted to illustrate the reported Bible reading rates of Protestants who attend church once a month or more:

Screenshot taken from website:


As they state, about 19% of Protestants who attend church at least once a month read their Bible every day. About the same percent do not read much if at all. How does the Baylor Religion Survey compare?

As you can see, we can’t make exact comparisons since LifeWay didn’t design their survey using the standard approach in academic social science research on the question of Bible reading. Indeed their aims are different. But we can make some approximate equivalence to draw some comparability. In LifeWay’s sample, 45% of Protestant monthly+ attenders read the Bible at least a few times a week. The BRS figure is lower: 34%. At the other extreme, the LifeWay survey found that 18% of Protestant monthly+ attenders read the Bible “rarely or never.” The BRS figure is nearly twice as high, 34%. The middle categories run roughly similarly in both surveys between 36% and 32%.

What this suggests is that while LifeWay’s main concern was to show that active church-attending Protestants are not engaging in sacred Scripture reading enough, the BRS finding suggests that they should be even more alarmed. A much lower fraction of active Protestants are reading a lot, and much higher fraction don’t read at all. Yet both of these findings show more support for Chaves’ argument. We’re surprised at the low congruity between different behaviors that we assume go together in the life of the Protestant Christian. But perhaps the incongruity is the norm, and that the exception is when individuals or groups are remarkably consistent.

So this raises the question for both scholars and practitioners: if incongruity is normal, how should we restructure the way we model religious behavior, and how would religious groups alter their teaching and ministry with this foundational shift in their thinking?

Much gratitude to research assistant, Shelly Isaacs, for finding the LifeWay links and graphing work.