Asian American Evangelicalism and Middle Class Individualism

Asian American Evangelicalism and Middle Class Individualism December 31, 2012

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).

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  • George

    I went to a huge Christian event a few years ago that focused on young Christian academics. It was in Chicago and I forgot the name of it off the top of my head. But if the whites outnumbered the Asians at that conference it was only because most of the professors attending it were white. Asians outnumbered whites among undergradaute and graduate students. At that time I realized that the future of academic Christianity is Asian and not white. It follows that the future of Christian leadership is more likely to be Asian than white. Do not know what all of that means but as a sociologist who has studied both race and religion it is facinating.

  • This article is provocative and starts a great conversation; but I believe it shows a lack of understanding of InterVarsity’s mission and consequent work towards biblical justice and more specifically the work to reflect a body of believers who know their ethnic identity, the uniqueness of it and not the inherent superiority. I am a black american from the de facto segregated south who came to Columbia University and found my healthy ethnic pride in scripture due in large part to InterVarsity’s Urbana conference in 2006. For the last 5 years I have directed InterVarsity’s justice work in NY and NJ predominantly among Asian Americans. Additionally, I attend a Chinese church having married a Korean/Chinese american woman. What this article brings up is the problem and does not point out the progress as deep hard steps are being made by Asian Americans to break that mold. Mako Nagasawa, Paul Tokanaga, Greg Jao, Tom Lin and Bethany Hoang would be great places to start reading.

    • Jerry Park

      Thank you for this comment Jonathan and I mean no disrespect to the efforts that Intervarsity has made over the years; I tried to mention that (albeit briefly) in the text by acknowledging what IVCF is doing. The blog was built partially on Matsushima’s critique of his recent experiences, and I recommend that piece (link is in the post) to follow my train of thought. Will certainly keep an eye out for more of the writings of the authors you mentioned.

      • Jerry – I enjoyed your post. I thought it was provoking and you bring up good points. I think you are right to continue questioning how Asian American evangelicals perceive their call in the world, and esp. in the US. I think Asian Americans, and American evangelicals in general (esp. younger ones) still have lots of work to do in challenging the norms of financial security and career prospects.

        And to Jonathan – I think you’re right in highlighting the work of orgs and conferences like IV and URbana and how younger evangelicals are more open to social justice issues like poverty and environmental care than ever before. And you are right in highlighting folks like Tokunaga and others who have written and led many in healthy self-images in their ethnic identieis and cultures. I think especially Asian Americans have not had positive images in the media, education, or really anywhere, frankly, until recently, with youtube stars and JLin and others. But I still have to agree with Jerry, that Asian Americans – while growing in our understanding of our ethnic particularities and how that ties in to our faith – still need a lot of “development” in their understanding of their identities as minorities. I know there are tons of cases of AsAms who grew up in all white spaces who know they were minorities since their first day at elementary school, but I think many Asian American evangelicals inhabit spaces where they are not isolated: pan-Asian churches, colleges and universities, campus orgs, etc. It’s easy, because they’re always surrounded by other Asians of a similar mold and lifestyle, to forget the history of Asians in this country and the (continuing) struggle that entails. And to adopt worldviews of individiaulism and meritocracy and think hard work is the only thing that gets you ahead in the US (exactly what I attempted to point out in my essay), and forget the older structural/sytemic barriers that interfere with other folks of color (Asians included).

        • Jerry Park

          Thank you for your original post Paul, very thought-provoking and helped articulate some ideas I had been thinking about as well. Please send along any other writing you’re doing in this vein, I am always interested in hearing/reading more from others.

  • Matthew Kim

    Really appreciate this article Jerry. I don’t want to make it seem like an InterVarsity defense, as I am a IV staffworker at UC Berkeley and I definitely see many of the things you have pointed out here. I really resonate with the 3 things that Matsushima mentioned and am looking forward to reading his article, but wanted to comment here first. I’m also a 2nd gen Korean-American and thats a whole different story that I could talk about.

    I wanted to point you to an article that my staff partner here at Berkeley wrote for the secular APA issues newspaper at Berkeley:

    Basically, I agree with a lot of things you bring up here and am looking forward to the day that the APA community begins to have a leadership and impact in this country that reflects our true voice rather than an adopted one.

    • Jerry Park

      Matthew, thanks for this link, I appreciate readers like you sending me this kind of stuff. Perhaps there”s a critical mass of 2nd generation Asian American evangelicals to have a conversation on this.