Those (Ir)Religious Asian Americans?

Those (Ir)Religious Asian Americans? December 2, 2011

So I still haven’t answered the question about whether there was a more prevalent Asian American Christian community in college. My focus on this topic isn’t just a nostalgic obsession; it had apparently been a major observation just around the time I graduated and had a strange resurgence about a decade later. The first major attention that appeared in academic circles came from Asian American Studies scholar Rudy Busto way back in the 1990s where he reported that the Asian American evangelical presence was “anecdotal”.

His bigger point was whether there was something important racially about the presence of so many Asian Americans in groups like Campus Crusade for Christ and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and home-grown groups with names like Grace Christian Fellowship and Asian American Christian Fellowship. I’d like to revisit this question in a later post. For now, I want to point out that there was a lot of buzz over the remarkable presence of religious Christian Asian Americans on a lot of college campuses in the 1990s. At the same time (the same year even), there was another news report that made huge waves in the Christian Asian American scene. It was called the “silent exodus.”
This news piece made a controversial observation: the children of Asian immigrants were not returning back to the churches that raised them once they graduated from college (and for many it was understood that one went away to college). For all the fervency observed in these largely evangelical Asian American campus groups, the silent exodus hypothesis suggests that they dropped out big time – what gives?

The answer appears to be congregational diversification. In the past decade, a new generation of scholars provided a number of studies of what Asian Americans were doing with their faith. This makes sense given the aforementioned observations. So what did these studies tell us? Some of the second generation started ethnic-specific congregations that shared the same space with their immigrant forebears or branched out to create their own; some started what are called “pan-ethnic Asian American churches”; some joined predominantly white churches; some joined or created multiracial churches, and some, it’s true, dropped out altogether.

Over the next decade this same story reappeared over and over again. Admittedly, these news pieces showed up in academic, and several local news outlets in California and Washington DC. But even Christianity Today, the leading evangelical periodical made note of it. So Asian Americans were still making huge waves in campus evangelical groups. With this much attention, one gets the impression that Asian Americans are largely evangelical. But as these news pieces were published, a major research study of spirituality in higher education noted that the highest rate of non-religion was among (ta-da) the Asian Americans. Sociologist CN Le cited the Christian Science Monitor article but went further by showing us some important Asian American distinctives among the college-attending Asian Americans. They pray less, attend religious services less, and fewer believe in God compared to white, African American, and Latino students.

So it seems like Asian American evangelicals get a lot of airplay, but it also seems that Asian American irreligiosity seems to make them stand out too. Are they schizophrenic? Or is it that we pay attention to the perceived (ir)religious extremes to remind ourselves how different they are. What do you make of these two extremes?

To me, it seems like this is a religious reflection of the dynamic between the model minority stereotype and the yellow peril stereotype that sociologists talk about. The former “praises” a minority group that exhibits some ideal trait or value of the dominant group. The yellow peril is an anti-Asian stereotype that portrays them as dangerous threats to American life. Whenever an Asian American “behaves badly” this image gets rolled out. So my question is this: is our media playing into these stereotypes or are Asian Americans (ir)religious extremists, both super-pious and super not?

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  • Christina

    In regards to the “increase” of Asians in campus groups. I wonder how much of that can be attributed to the increase in the percentage of Asians on campus. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the 90s the the percentage of Asians on campuses increased from 5-10% an then again from 10-20% in the 2000s. These increases would be reflected in campus groups, and that many new Asian faces would be noticed (and be cause for concern) and be the topic of conversation.

    I’m doubtful whether the media portrayal of college Christian groups becoming more Asian plays into the idea of model minority myth: ooh, look these Asians are becoming Christian and therefore better Americans. I think the media portrayal has more of the tone of “ooh, the Asians are taking over these Christian groups.” Especially as the reaction of many parachurch organizations was to establish Asian (and sometimes multiethnic) chapters so as not to scare away all the white Christians.

    On the other hand, I can see how Asians who become Christian in college may subconsciously be playing into the model minority myth by thinking becoming Christian makes them a better American. In addition to working hard on their studies, they also work hard on being Christians–attending as many bible studies as possible, playing on the worship team, etc. I wonder if it’s easier for Asians to be leaders in Christian campus groups than in other campus groups.

    • Jerry Park

      These are great points Christina! You may be right, the increase in stories about Asian American Christians on campus may be due to their increased presence. Yes a number of these articles had more of a “yellow peril” tone, that Asian American Christians were “taking over” evangelical groups. Your final comment actually taps into what Rudy Busto argued and I hope to return to that in a future post. Perhaps being a good Christian subconsciously equates to being a good American.

  • Laura B

    What are the demographics for the denominations for the first and second generations?

    • Jerry Park

      Hi Laura, I don’t have that information on hand because it’s a time-intensive one haha. Only the Pew Survey has a well-crafted religious denomination set of questions, but it’s translated only into Spanish. So the first generation, and perhaps some second-generation wind up being excluded. I hope to review these findings in the future however at least with respect to the English-speaking Asian Americans.