Surveying Religion in Asian America

Surveying Religion in Asian America November 4, 2011

While attending college, I occasionally participated in a largely Korean evangelical Protestant campus group that spent their Friday or Saturday evenings gathered together in an auditorium (because the group was remarkably large) doing the evangelical thing: singing, listening to a speaker about Christian living, praying and socializing. But sometimes I would also hop around to other groups of Christians that also had Asian Americans. I figured there was something perhaps shared in common among Asian ethnic groups that grew up in the US. Given their fluency in English, I guesstimated that most of the Asian Americans I met were either born in the US or raised here – these are what sociologists describe as the second generation and the 1.5 generation. Besides growing up in the US, it seemed like a lot of us ended up going to college, as if the alternatives were either unimaginable or not allowed. So did we also share Christianity in common?

The question I asked then and examine here is one of prevalence, and the best known way of getting at prevalence is a survey. What is the prevalence of Christianity among Asian Americans who were raised in the US? For those that are not aware, nearly every major Asian nation today remains largely non-Christian. The only exception is the Philippines which is mostly Catholic. Even a country like South Korea which claims to have the largest church in the world, Yoido, as well as the largest Presbyterian church and some of the largest Methodist churches as well – is still largely not Christian . But funny things happen when people immigrate. Scholars agree that there tends to be a “pro-Christian” migration to the United States, that is, Christians tend to migrate to the United States disproportionally to their actual religious composition in their homeland. Second, scholars of immigration say that immigration is a theologizing experience. Simply put, a lot of immigrants turn to God during this experience of uprooting from one’s homeland and migrating to another. Some might turn to Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam to remind themselves of their homeland, but others wind up converting to Christianity. These two factors combined, pro-Christian migration and conversion to Christianity can explain the consensus that nearly three-quarters of Korean Americans are Christian (overwhelmingly Protestant) whereas only about a third of South Korea claims Christian affiliation. But is Christianity highly prevalent in other Asian groups?

In order to figure out prevalence, the ideal is to do a census, a count of every single person in a population. This is logistically very difficult and very costly when trying to contact 15 million people, the estimated Asian American population according to the latest Census. So the other alternative is to try a survey. A very good survey will boast “stratified random sampling” – a fancy way of saying the most accurate portrait of a population is to collect survey samples based on the local population proportion. If there’s a lot of Asian Americans in one region, more Asian Americans are surveyed. Very very few surveys can do this for the general population- less than a handful of surveys can do this for Asian Americans.

But wait there’s more. Even if you can get a random stratified sample of Asian Americans, most surveys in the US are conducted in English, and not in the preferred languages of many Asian immigrants. Why does this matter? Because two-thirds of the Asian American population is foreign-born-and many of them are not fluent enough to answer a survey over the phone on questions like religion.

So in answer to my question about the prevalence of Christianity among Asian Americans, I can offer three possible figures from three surveys each one of which has important flaws that are worth noting. The Pilot National Asian American Survey (2001) says that 46% of Asian Americans in that survey are Christian (26% Protestant, 20% Catholic). This survey was translated into 6 major languages plus English, but it was only conducted in 5 major cities in the mainland plus Hawaii. The Pew Landscape Survey (2008) says that 46% of Asian Americans are Christian (27% Protestant, 19% Catholic). This was random and stratified but only conducted in English. The most recently released National Asian American Survey (2008) gives us the best estimate and says that 45% percent of Asian Americans are Christian (22% Protestant, 23% Catholic). This one was translated as well and includes both random sampling and some stratification based on regions with at least 500 Asian Americans.

The big point: Christianity is not the dominant religion for Asian Americans.

But my original question was based on my college experience – so do you think Asian Americans who attend college are more Christian than other Asian Americans?

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