There is no doubt that religion and race constitute potent forces in US politics. It is nearly impossible to imagine an election cycle absent attention to white evangelical voters. Wrenching our attention from the white Christian nationalism that fueled the rise of Donald Trump, the subsequent appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices and conservative assaults on reproductive and racial justice across the nation can be difficult. But expanding our lens beyond the white evangelicals that dominate headlines reveals more complex ways in which race and religion interact to shape political attitudes and voting behavior.
A focus on Asian Americans opens new avenues of study when it comes to race, religion, and politics. I focus on two distinct populations to illustrate this point: Asian American evangelicals and Asian Americans who are religiously unaffiliated.
First, by closely examining the voting behavior of Asian American evangelicals (and other evangelicals of color), we see more clearly how race and religion matter to political outcomes. This was the topic of my 2018 book, Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change. That book centered on the 2016 US presidential election. In that election, 80 percent of white evangelicals supported Republican Donald Trump. While they were only about 16 percent of the overall US population, white evangelicals made up more than a quarter of all 2016 voters. White evangelicals were more likely to vote for Trump than white people who did not identify as evangelical. But my analysis of the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-election Survey (CMPS), which included more than 10,000 respondents, showed support for Trump was higher among nonevangelical whites than among evangelical Black, Latino, or Asian Americans. That is, the most religiously conservative nonwhites were less likely to vote for Trump than whites who rejected the evangelical label.
In fact, my analysis of CMPS showed that although Asian American evangelicals tend to exhibit more religiosity in terms of church attendance and fundamentalist ideas about Christianity than white evangelicals, they are much less conservative than white evangelicals on issues ranging from climate change to health care reform. White evangelicals were three times more likely to oppose the government doing more to combat climate change than Asian American evangelicals. White evangelicals opposed the federal government guaranteeing health care at nearly twice the rate of Asian American evangelicals. These patterns obtained across many issues, including taxing the rich, even when demographic factors such as education and income were taken into account. At the same time, Asian American evangelicals converged with the more conservative positions of white evangelicals in their views about same-sex marriage.
Fast forward to the most recent election. After the midterm election in 2022, some headlines speculated that Asian Americans were “turning Right.” Although there is little evidence that Asian Americans are abandoning their strong leanings toward Democratic candidates, Democrats do not have this population locked up. Even before the 2022 midterms, exit polls and other data showed a small but meaningful increase in the proportion of Asian American voters that supported Republican Donald Trump between 2016 and 2020. This was after he called the Coronavirus the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu.” However, in my in-progress analysis of the 2020 CMPS with collaborators Aggie Yellowhorse and Ellen Feng, we find that religion is not a primary driver of conservative political views among Asian Americans. In an effort to examine conservative political attitudes beyond partisanship we restricted our analysis to Asian American Republicans. Within that group, we find that evangelical identity is not the most powerful driver of support for Trump or politically conservative policy attitudes. Rather, stereotypical beliefs about Black people accounted for conservative political attitudes among Asian Americans. Again, this is evidence that when considering religion as an explanation for political views, one must also pay close attention to racial identity and racial attitudes.
Race clearly matters when it comes to conservative Christian populations. And anti-Black attitudes, perhaps more than religious views, matter for understanding conservative views among Asian Americans more broadly. What about the role of race among the nonreligious? My recent research with Jé St Sume does a deep dive into the role of race in political attitudes among the religiously “unaffiliated.” As those who follow trends in US religion know well, the religiously unaffiliated, especially those who respond “none of these” to questions about religious affiliation, constitute a fast-growing segment of the US population and electorate. This group makes up approximately a quarter of all Americans. Further, the proportion of nonwhites in this group is about 30 percent. Among the four largest racial categories (white, Black, Latino, and Asian), Asian Americans include the largest proportion of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated.
The question St Sume and I ask is: To what extent is race associated with distinct political orientations among those who identify as religiously unaffiliated? Although religiously unaffiliated identities vary, for the purposes of that research, we defined the “religiously unaffiliated” as those that identify as “agnostic” or “atheist” or who identify with a religious tradition but never attend religious services. We also included those who respond “none” to the question “When it comes to religion, do you consider yourself to be [list of religious traditions]?” We analyzed the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-election Survey and the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES).
In the same 2022 article, we show that whites who identify as religiously unaffiliated were more than twice as likely as any nonwhite group to have supported Trump in 2016. This racial gap between whites and nonwhites was even more dramatic among those under age 35, owing largely to party identification. Whites who are religiously unaffiliated were much more likely to identify as Republican than nonwhites who are religiously unaffiliated. But party identification is not the only explanation for the differences in political attitudes among religiously unaffiliated whites and nonwhites. For example, in comparing Democrats who are religiously unaffiliated across race, some interesting patterns arose. First, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated respondents adopt a progressive position on a broad range of policy issues. Second, there are some variations across race when it comes to these attitudes. With regard to same-sex marriage, climate change policy, and redistributive tax policy, religiously unaffiliated white Democrats are the most progressive racial group. Yet when queried about whether they would support the federal government apologizing for slavery, religiously unaffiliated whites (50 percent) are less supportive than religiously unaffiliated Blacks (64 percent), Latinx (57 percent), or Asian Americans (57 percent)—all of whom affiliate with the Democratic Party. Our multivariate analysis confirmed a pattern in which attention to racial differences within the broad category of religiously unaffiliated people uncovered the complex ways in which race interacts with a lack of religious affiliation. Whites who are religiously unaffiliated and identify as Democrats were not simply more conservative on every policy issue. Issue area mattered.
In 2020, Asian Americans constituted less than 5 percent of all voters. Their political power is still limited due to their concentration outside of presidential election swing states and small numbers relative to other racialized groups. However, as emphasized throughout this forum, attention to Asian Americans, particularly through a religious lens, can yield new and surprising insights about the nexus between faith, race, and politics. The rise of white Christian nationalism is a critical trend in contemporary politics but so is increasing racial diversity in the population and electorate. Asian Americans constitute an important and growing element of that diversity.