Asian and Asian American Catholicism

It’s no surprise that part of my interest in sociology is autobiographical, and this week’s selection of a new pope brought me back to some of my own history with the Catholic Church. One of my most recent cultural encounters with Catholicism was at my father’s funeral. While he was not a religious person for most of his life (according to his friend) the last decade or so included weekly attendance at St. Basil’s with one of his siblings and his family.   

St. Basil’s is one of the main Catholic churches for Los Angelenos and is well-positioned for walking from Koreatown. During my two days there, I witnessed specific Korean prayers and even modes of prayer that I had not seen in my years growing up in mixed-ethnic Catholic churches in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Three years later, I’m reminded of how significant Catholicism is for many Korean immigrants and many Koreans.

The Korean Catholic population as with many Asian Catholics is quite large but not nearly as large as that of Latin America and Europe. According to this infographic from the New York Times, 483 million of the world’s Catholics are Latin American (from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean) constituting a 41% share of the world’s Catholic population. There are more Catholics in Latin America than there are people in the United States. Europe has a 24% share and no other continent is larger than 15% share from there. It’s sensible then that the first non-European pope would come from Latin America. And it’s perhaps shrewd decision-making that the Argentinian pope is the child of Italian immigrants. Interestingly, if you take the figures from the NYT for the specific nations with Catholic populations exceeding 10 million, Brazil is the giant. At 150 million Catholics, they take up 31% of all Catholics in Latin America and 13% of all Catholics in the world. No other nation has a 6% share of the world population (the US and the Philippines hold this distinction).

Given my interest in Asian America, I immediately wanted to know more about the Asian scene of Catholicism and its possible relevance to US Asian Catholics. I didn’t have time to find every Catholic figure for the same year in every Asian country, so I focused only on the top 6 countries that have been sending immigrants to the US since 1965: China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. This is a graph I made of the Catholic distribution across these nations, with an additional placeholder for all other Asian Catholics that are not from the aforementioned nations:

 

The main 6 countries add up to more than 2.8 billion people in 2010 including the two most populous countries, China and India. Given their size even the small percentage that claim to be Catholic is quite large with 15 million in China (1.2% of the population) and 19 million (1.6%) in India. To put this in perspective, there are about as many Catholics in China compared to Canada, and more than in Angola, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Tanzania, and Uganda. From a US perspective there are only 3 states with populations that are larger than the Catholic populations of China and India: California, New York, Texas. Of the remaining Asian nations, the Catholic giant in Asia is the Philippines at 72 million and this constitutes about 78% of that nation’s population, and 53% of all Asian Catholics. Vietnam and Korea have a 6 and 3 percent share of Catholics in their nations respectively and slightly more than 500,000 Catholics reside in Japan (a 0.4% share of all Asian Catholics). Here are two images, one is a photo I took while traveling in Seoul of a Korean Mary and Jesus, and the other is a Vietnamese Mary and Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we turn to the American scene, Pew’s recent survey of Asian Americans provides some new estimates on the population of Catholics. These estimates are conservative as they reflect the largest six groups in the US who together form about 85% of all Asian Americans. Of  the 15 million Asian Americans in these groups, about 3.4 million identify as Catholic, or about 22% of all Asian Americans. This is slightly higher than the Pew number since we’re only looking at the largest six groups. Unlike their counterparts in Asia, the size of different Asian American Catholics varies considerably. Filipino American Catholics clearly dominate Asian American Catholicism at 65%. But Vietnamese American Catholics take up a 15% share of Asian American Catholics making them the second largest in the US (while their counterparts overseas are ranked #4). Chinese American Catholics mirror their peers in People’s Republic at rank 3 while Koreans climb up to 4th place, or 5% of Catholic Asian America. Indian Catholics retreat to 5th place compared to their counterparts in India at 2nd place. Japanese American Catholics numbering at less than 53,000 is similar to their counterparts in the last position among the top six groups.

 

Encountering Asian American Catholics is somewhat of a rarity given these figures, and their practices vary based on the heritage they retain from the countries that many of the immigrants bring with them. Whether it is transmitted effectively to the next generation remains to be seen. One of the practices that interests sociologists is that of civic engagement. To what extent are Asian American Catholics participating in American civil society and within ethnic or Catholic communities? A few studies have emerged on the remittances sent by Filipino Catholics, as well as the larger scope of Asian American Catholic voluntarism relative to other religious groups (a couple of these were studies conducted by me and sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund). These studies suggest that Asian American Catholics are similarly active in civic activities whether religious or secular, and in some instances financial support across the Pacific flows through religious networks. Ties between Catholic and non-Catholic local communities as well as transnational ties between US and non-US Catholic communities continue a pattern we have seen historically in the American Catholic experience. While travel and communication technology have allowed many of these ties to be stronger or more efficient, the ethos remains the same. The difference appears to be the source of Catholic migration which is much more Latin American and steadily Asian as well.

Edit 3/18/13: figures taken largely from New York Times and Pew Research Center surveys

Edit 3/20/13: Readers should note that these figures do not indicate the proportion of Catholics per Asian nation or Asian American ethnic group; they reflect fractions of the total population of Catholics in Asia or Asian America. For example, 53% of all Catholics in Asia are from the Philippines.

In editing the pie graphs I discovered some important discrepancies in the numbers reported by the New York Times and the Pew Research Centers. Stay tuned for a post that reveals differences in the portrait of Catholic diversity based on different sets of data.

Asian American Evangelicalism and Middle Class Individualism

About every 3 years or so, a collegiate parachurch ministry called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship holds a national week-long conference named after its original meeting place, Urbana. I was reminded that the next meeting would take place this winter break. It also helped remind me of some news pieces I had been meaning to read on how young Asian American evangelicals (like the ones who will attend Urbana 2012) think about race. In referring to young Asian American evangelicals it’s important to point out that this is a highly selective group. When we think about young white evangelicals for example, we normally don’t consider nativity, immigration, or physical appearance as salient characteristics of this group. Young Asian American evangelicals on the other hand are typically the first in their families to be born or raised in the US; according to the Pew Asian American Survey, while 68% of Asian Americans are Protestant Protestants are foriegn-born, 32% are native-born (and of the 32%, most (22%) are second-generation, and the remainder (10%) is multigenerational (p.172 of full report). Put in big numbers, if there are about 17 million Asian Americans, about 3.7 million are Protestant, and of these 822,800 approximately are second-generation Protestants. What’s more, since the most recent major immigration wave started around 1965, most second-generation Asian American evangelicals (as well as most second-generation Asian Americans in general) are children of baby boomer-era and pre-baby-boomer-era Asian immigrants. This means while post-baby-boomer white evangelicals were growing up and going to college in the 80s and 90s, the typical Asian American evangelical they might encounter would be second-generation.

As I posted recently, about 6% of undergraduates in the US are Asian American; if groups like Intervarsity were proportionally present on US college campuses, then about 1.3% of their target audience might be Asian American Protestant undergrads. From this perspective, we would not expect there to be a large Asian American presence in this organization. But that’s not the case since Intervarsity and other parachurch groups are more present in higher-profile schools than in smaller or lower-profile schools. It’s at these higher-profile schools where Asian Americans are generally over-represented in the aggregate racial figures. Even though only 22% of Asian Americans are Protestant, the greater presence of Asian Americans in high-profile schools increases the potential pool of participants in groups like Intervarsity. This explains to some extent why the proportion of Asian American evangelicals is so high in this organization. A glance at their website of Intervarsity’s Asian American ministries statistics we see the following:

  • 20% of the students who participate regularly with Intervarsity are Asian American (5,758) a 32% increase in the past 5 years
  • 29 Asian American monoethnic groups or chapters, and
  • 230 staff workers of Asian American descent

Judging by the comparative figures for Intervarsity’s African American and Latino student ministries, Asian Americans form the largest minority group in this religious organization.

(Nerds will notice that the figures don’t quite work out the way they should – The main organization’s statistics say there are 180 Asian American staff for example, and the number of Asian American students divided by the number of undergraduates who participate in this organization is more like 16%). While it’s hard to gauge the validity of numbers reported by these organizations, numerous news pieces and books have noted the remarkably high percentage of Asian American evangelicals in these organizations (see this previous post with links to some of these works).

In short, Intervarsity has placed staff and considerable resources toward developing Asian American evangelical spirituality. This has been part of their larger strategy to engage issues of racial and ethnic identity awareness in their ministry by developing multiethnic and monoethnic subgroups. This strategy reveals the complex reality of conveying a universal faith to the cultural particularities of a diverse audience. But in a provocative essay by Paul Matsushima (and reposted on racialicious – a blog site on race issues), providing resources aimed at cultivating ethnic identity awareness may not be enough, and its current efforts might be falling on deaf ears. He argues that Asian American evangelicals by and large are influenced by three social scripts: colorblindness (the view that differential social treatment of groups based on race has no bearing on life outcomes), individualism (life outcomes are strictly the result of personal effort alone), and middle-class identity (those who achieve middle class status are morally superior to those who remain in the working and lower classes). In each of these scripts, Matsushima provides examples of how evangelicalism justifies them through spiritualizing these beliefs. The poor are poor because of their immorality, not as a result of structural barriers, especially racialized structural barriers. Spiritualizing a script for American middle-class mobility has important consequences then for second-generation Asian American evangelicals. It would be one thing if the evangelical script had a balanced perspective that not only accounts for personal effort but also the contexts that limit opportunity for some but not for others. Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith noted over a decade ago however, that this combination of beliefs creates a firm anti-structural frame of thinking of which African American Christians are perhaps the most immune.

This brings us back to Intervarsity and other parachurch groups. It’s clear that racial difference is on their radar, and they have made efforts to address racial difference through groups aimed at celebrating and understanding difference in multiethnic and monoethnic settings. But to what extent are these settings unintentionally reinforcing the same anti-structuralism that is pervasive in American evangelicalism as Matsushima and others ask? If they offer alternative scripts, is it a viable consideration for second-generation participants in these groups? I wonder whether Asian American evangelicals are aware of the particular advantages that many of them have from being born into highly educated families, or families that sacrificed a great deal to provide even better educational opportunities through entry into predominantly white neighborhoods and schools. How many of them have considered the possibility that they and their families were viewed as an acceptable minority in contradistinction from those other minorities who were denied the same opportunities. If they are aware of these advantages, I wonder if the response is very often an individualized one: give back to one’s parents through a successful high-paying prestigious career. In other words, I wonder whether many second-generation Asian American evangelicals (and other Asian Americans in this same social position) grow aware that their advantages result (in part) from colorblindness and anti-structuralism, and yet resolve it through a colorblind and anti-structural solution (e.g. avoiding social justice, focusing only on career).

Harvard, Hoops, Hope, and Hype: America’s Lin-fatuation

My Facebook newsfeed is suffering from Linsomnia. Discovering a new celebrity like Jeremy Lin for someone in my line of research interests is enough to throw every other project off the desk and spend long nights keeping track of what is happening to America’s favorite new point guard, and what people are saying. Like a lot of writers who have commented on Lin, I too have not been an avid NBA watcher much less the Knicks (although mentioning them has helped break the ice a couple of times: “So uh, how ‘bout those Knicks?” Try it sometime.)

So what are people saying about him? While normally I prefer to make the best of data that has already been collected through a survey, every once in a while I’ll try my hand at collecting and creating data. Believe it or not there is an actual science to this but for the purposes of this blog I confess I didn’t apply the same kind of rigor that would make my findings publishable. One way to create data on Jeremy Lin is to do what’s called content analysis. I have been bookmarking every possible news article, blog and other written work about him that has been shared with me and have systematically coded for themes and key phrases that repeatedly show up on an excel file.  Admittedly, there may be bias in the articles that are shared with me.

You know how some ideas seem really good at the time? [Read more...]

Asian American Religion and Depression, Killing the Hope of Our Youth?

     In the Christmas season when lots of joy and cheer abound, we know that this sentiment is not always shared by those around us. I’m not talking about those who don’t believe in Santa or those who don’t believe in Jesus. I’m talking about those among us who fight the noonday demon called depression. A lot of us who skim this blog already know this: suicide attempts and depression run higher in these winter months and a number of theories have been kicked around to explain what’s going on. For sociologists, suicide and depression are matters of context: people who are disconnected, who feel like they don’t have a community feel especially ill at ease during this time when they feel set apart from those around them that are involved in a group. [Read more...]


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