Keeping (and Losing) Faith, the Asian American Way (Repost)

Originally posted on AAPI Voices May 22, 2014

Keeping (and Losing) Faith, the Asian American Way

Asian Americans and Interfaith Marriages

It’s a festive time of year for Asian Americans. As many readers know, the Lunar New Year celebration kicked off last week, and I hear that in China, the celebration lasts a good deal more than 1 day due to the mass migrations that occur for work-related reasons. For example, last year a PBS documentary called “Last Train Home” focused on the journeys of Chinese workers who often leave their rural villages to travel hundreds of miles for work and return on holidays with their earnings.

And of course this past Thursday was Valentine’s Day. On my Facebook newsfeed, the Pew research Center re-published a news piece from 2009, where they reported on religiously mixed marriages using their massive Religious Landscape Survey (RLS) conducted in 2007. Here’s the main graph:

The most intriguing for me, with my interest in Asian Americans was the rate of interreligious marriage by race. Interreligious marriages have been the topic of some debate among sociologist of religion. Given our nation’s emphasis on religious tolerance, interfaith marriages seem to be one indication of this freedom in our culture. But sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s observations from over a hundred interviews of interfaith marriages suggested that these interfaith marriages are a mixed blessing. In America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity

he notes that the most often stated strategy for dealing with religious difference between spouses was not to talk things out and compromise. Rather it was to not talk about it at all. Couples who have the most direct access to the worldview and practices of another faith often fail to connect on the spiritual. Indeed author Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book discusses this in greater detail in her interviews with married and divorced interfaith men and women.

As I noted before, advanced survey techniques allowed Pew to conduct a national survey of Asian Americans in 2012 in several major Asian languages plus English. This was a significant improvement over the RLS since that one was only conducted in English and Spanish. So among the 2,536 respondents who reported some Asian heritage in the RLS, one commonality is that the sample consists primarily of English-preferred speakers. This excludes those Asian American households described as “limited English proficient” (LEP). The Asian Pacific American Legal Center used Census data to show that 32% of Asian Americans 5 and older are LEP. The range is quite dramatic by ethnic group:

So how does this affect something like interreligious marriage rates? I took the Asian American sample of the RLS and computed the interreligious marriage rate among these respondents using the same approach that Pew did for the Asian American survey. The results are here:

The differences are noticeable. In the Figure to the left, about 25% of English-proficient (EP) Asian American Protestants in 2007 were married to someone of a different faith, whereas in the figure just below, 19% of Asian Americans (accounting for possible LEP individuals) were interreligiously married or in partnership. While 30% of English-speaking Asian American Catholics were in an interfaith relationship 19% of Asian Americans (accounting for LEP) were so. This represents the biggest gap between the two surveys for respondents of Asian American background. The one consistent pattern is Hindu interfaith marriages. A modest 2% difference appears between EP Asian American Hindus and a broader LEP-accessible sample of Hindu Asian Americans. Notably regardless of survey, Asian American Buddhists had the highest rate of interfaith marriage compared to Catholics, Hindus, and Protestants.

This pattern of greater interfaith marriage among EP Asian Americans makes sense when we apply sociological theories of assimilation to explain the difference between the two surveys. For Asian Americans, perhaps with the exception of Asian Indians, English ability is a function of length of residence (if one is an immigrant, like 59% of Asian Americans ) or simply growing up in the US. If one is more acculturated, religious fidelity likely weakens in the aggregate. So we would expect that a survey of English-proficient Asian Americans will usually show a higher rate of interfaith marriage compared to a sample that includes LEP respondents.

Intriguing also is the notable difference between the general population results and the Asian American sample (just compare the top graph with the ones below). EP Protestant Asian Americans are less intermarried compared to American Protestants in general (30% compared to 32-46%). Most dramatically, 65% of unaffiliated Americans are in a mixed marriage, but only 47% of EP Asian American nonaffiliates are.

Further, while 55% of American Buddhists are in an interfaith relationship, only 39% of EP Asian American Buddhists are in mixed marriages. This is now a second illustration of the sociological difference between Asian and non-Asian Buddhists in the US which we learn through improved survey methods. Previously I noted that the white Buddhist population is more like 25-30% of all Buddhists in the US, and not 53% as the RLS shows.

The one remaining curiosity left unexplained is Catholic EP Asian Americans. While 22% of American Catholics are in an interfaith relationship, 30% of Catholic EP Asian Americans are. Using the assimilation framework we would expect the rate to be a good deal higher for non-Asian Catholics. Latinos do make up a substantial minority but I don’t think they are big enough to sway the figures we see. So I ask: why are assimilated Asian American Catholics in interfaith relationships more so than their American peers overall? Send your speculations!

In short, this season has ushered in some time to reflect on relationships, mixed-religious marriage being one form of it. In the American context, these marriages theoretically hold much promise, but often fall short of realizing those ideals of mutual understanding and growth. Asian Americans play a big part in the interfaith marriage world given the large presence of non-Christian religions among them (which we can verify with better survey tools). Figuring out how to make interfaith marriages work is perhaps a more noticeable issue among Asian Americans than other groups; perhaps the stories of thriving relationships will emerge from them in the years to come.

Happy (belated) Year of the Snake!

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