Centering the study of American religion with a focus on Asian Americans would complicate a number of well-worn framings with which many scholars are familiar. In this brief essay I explicate how Asian Americans and their religions complicate three of these: the Black-white binary narrative in the study of American Christianity, the Christian-secular binary narrative of American religion, and the “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” narrative of American religion. Recent insights from the sociology of religion and the sociology of race allow us to reconsider earlier theories of “the religious factor” and its role in a diversifying postmodern United States.
Racialized religion in the American Christian narrative
Histories of American Methodists, Presbyterians, and evangelicals typically fail to note the assumed whiteness of these religious populations. This taken-for-granted positioning in the story of American Christianity becomes apparent when African American Christian histories are considered. What is true for White Christian Americans is not necessarily true for Black Christian Americans. But Asian Americans are also racialized, and many have been and continue to identify as Christian. The histories of Asian American Christian communities continues to be excavated by contemporary scholars and typically consider how race is the pretext for exclusion and xenophobia. Their stories reveal ways in which discrimination might be enacted through other racial lenses that distinguish them from Blacks and distinguish them from European immigrants. When scholars disrupt mainstream narratives of American religion, attention to racial difference signals that these narratives are in fact more complex.
But do these historical differences matter today? In our examination of the General Social Surveys (using pooled samples from 2006-2016), James Davidson and I found that Asian American Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) exhibited higher church attendance rates than White Christians and were more similar to African American Christians at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Apart from religiosity, however, racial differences are also consequential when assessing the relationship between religion and socio-political attitudes and affiliation. We found, for example, that Asian American evangelical Christians identified more so with the Republican party, similar to that of white evangelical Christians. In another study, Davidson, Joyce Chang, and I found that Asian American Christians of different generational statuses support or reject racialized equal opportunity, using data from National Asian American Survey in 2016. These examples suggest that even within the study of American Christianity, inclusion of Asian Americans complicates the relationships of religiosity and social outcomes that were previously only viewed as a binary distinction between Black and white. We find instead that Asian American Christians resemble both Black and white Christians in different ways and across different indicators of social attitudes and behavior.
As the rate of individual assaults on Asian Americans increased since 2020, another consideration related to disrupting the Black-white binary is the relative complicity and resistance of American Christians in racial discrimination, both institutional and individual. While the civil rights movement was led by Black Protestants, white Christian nationalism has been promulgated by white Protestants. Indeed, the imagined threat perceived by some white Christians resembles a kind of racial-religious privilege noted by Khyati Joshi. But we also know that some white Christians stood alongside Black Protestant civil rights leaders, and we have yet to ascertain whether nonwhite Christians silently (or explicitly) endorse today’s emboldened racial-religious nationalism. This begs the question: Where do Asian and Latinx Protestants (and Catholics) situate themselves in this polarized environment? In sum, while more studies should examine further the complexities within Asian American Christian attitudes and behaviors, these findings of difference invite scholars to also reframe the narrative of race and American religion beyond Black and white Christianity.
Rethinking “No Religion”
Apart from disrupting the Black-white binary in scholarship on American Christianity, centering Asian Americans (the racial group with the largest proportion of religiously unaffiliated individuals) and their religions also requires reconsidering the religion-secular binary. What is meant by the word “secular”? For some scholars and practitioners, the term refers to all that is not religious. But Asian Americans, particularly Chinese Americans who claim no religious affiliation, challenge this view. Russell Jeung, Seanan Fong, and Helen Jin Kim suggest that when some Asian Americans claim no religion, this does not necessarily refer to an a-religious secularism. For those interviewed, the word “religion” rather connotes (white) Christianity and its particular expressions in the United States. Once this difference in interpretation of the word “religion” is identified, an entirely new world of spiritual expression emerges in ways that bear little analogue to the ways that white American Christians (whether laypersons, clergy, or academics) understand the term.
Part of this reframing centered on Asian American experiences includes redefining “secular” to include spiritual practice, meaning, and community that were previously invisible, discounted, or aggregated into the ambiguous “other” category in most analyses. Accounting for these possibilities is particularly important because Asian Americans are the racialized population with the highest fraction claiming “no religion” on most surveys that include questions about religious identity. The Pew Research Center’s 2012 survey of Asian Americans bears this out: 26 percent claimed no religion (typically classified as “unaffiliated,” a term often made synonymous with “no religion” and by extension “secular”). If some forms of “no religion” are instead a still-undefined spirituality, studying Asian Americans with no religion provides an analytic path forward to reconsider the religion-secular binary. In short, “religion” and “secular” as analytic concepts require reconsideration when we listen to the ways Asian Americans think of these terms.
Finally, while the majority of the United States remains primarily Protestant (and Christian more broadly), Asian Americans, as a result of large-scale immigration since 1965, have introduced a variety of faith traditions with roots in many countries in Asia. To be sure, Christianity is the dominant religion in the world’s migrant populations. Up to 74 percent of immigrants to the United States, for example, identify as Christian. But centering Asian Americans in our scholarship changes this statistic radically. Among Asian immigrants, only 33 percent identify as Christian (including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions). To be clear, analyses of the 2003 New Immigrant Survey by Pyong Gap Min and Sou Hyun Jang linked just above show that Christians are actually the largest fraction of Asian immigrants since the 1960s, but they are not the dominant faith. Indeed, no religious group takes up the majority of Asian immigrants. Hindu immigrants take up the next largest fraction at 22 percent followed closely by no religious affiliation (about 20 percent). Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh Asian immigrants add up to another 23 percent.
Considering that Asian Americans are the only majority foreign-born population in the United States, Asian Americans on the whole are more proportionally diverse in religious composition relative to any other racialized population in the United States. This diversity, called a “new religious America,” signals a potential shift from the earlier Protestant-Catholic-Jewish dominance (a result of anti-Asian immigration laws from the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries). As the Asian American population continues to grow faster than any other population in the United States, we can say that the changing image of the American religion is propelled in large part due to Asian Americans. Indeed, one could argue that the future of American religion can be gauged by looking at the way religion matters to Asian Americans today.
The changing religious composition of the United States might seem simply a matter of redescription. Yet even when the religious landscape was more prominently Judeo-Christian, there were profound implications for civil society during the decades after World War II. In the late 1950s scholars asked: to what extent would America remain culturally cohesive and integrated if Catholicism and Judaism were more accepted? Concerns over integration still resonate today, but when the topic is Asian Americans, the answer to this question has unique implications. We need only recall the Islamophobia that continues well beyond the rate of discrimination seen prior to 9/11: at least a third of Muslim Americans are Asian, and the attacks on Hindu and Sikh communities as well signal limits to the integration of Asian Americans who are disproportionately targeted in these acts of violence. Furthermore, attacks on Asian dominant religious communities (including Christians ones) have increased since the COVID-19 outbreak. That these incidents of discrimination are both racial and religious directs questions as to whether the motivations of such attacks are rooted in racial-religious nationalist ideologies, white Christian nationalism being the frontrunner. Centering the study of American religion on Asian American experiences requires us to think more broadly about the religious groups that make up American religion. It also invites a reconsideration as to what inclusion can and should mean in an era rife with hostilities against them. A research agenda centered on Asian Americans calls into question a number of well-worn framings that address the how and why of American religion. This agenda is all the more relevant as this population grows in the twenty-first century.