(These are the oral remarks by Professor Carolyn Chen at a book symposium on Professor David Hollinger’s Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became more Conservative and Society more Secular hosted by the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion on October 10, 2022. Other than removing prefatory comments and minor edits, the text is unchanged from its oral presentation.)
Welcome to the first event of the year in our Public Forum on Race, Religion, Democracy and American Dream….
I can think of no better event to kick off our year than a discussion of our own Dr. David Hollinger’s highly anticipated new book, Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became more Conservative and Society more Secular. It is a timely piece of scholarship that explains how we got to now – an America where Christianity has become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism….
I would like to begin by commending Dr. Hollinger on yet again, another brilliant piece of scholarship that is timely and illuminating. At a time when it feels like every other scholar of American religion is writing about the rise of Donald Trump and white Christianity nationalism, Dr. Hollinger offers us more than a story about conservative evangelicalism. He instead tells a compelling and capacious/dialectical story of how ecumenical Protestantism planted the seeds of cosmopolitanism and tolerance that led to its own decline and mass exodus of Americans from Christianity, thereby creating an opening for conservative evangelicals to control American Protestantism. Dr. Hollinger reminds us that we cannot understand two of the most significant and opposing trends in American religion of the last half century – American becoming more secular and American becoming more conservative unless we understand what happened to ecumenical Protestantism.
In my remarks, I will muse on the present and future of American Protestantism by bringing Christianity’s American Fate into conversation with a) recent trends in American religious demography and b) the scholarship on race and immigration, focusing specifically on Asian American Protestantism.
In his book, Dr. Hollinger describes the ascendance of conservative evangelicalism in the late twentieth century and into today. Recent surveys suggest that white evangelicalism has peaked and is now in decline. Twenty years ago, white evangelicals were a quarter of the American population. Today, they are only 14% of the American population. What is more, white evangelicals are the oldest religious group in America. They are aging out, and they are not being replaced by white Gen Zers, who are leaving Christianity in droves.
To be sure, the political influence of white evangelicals is not going anywhere soon. They are a staunch voting bloc among Republicans comprising 30% of its voters. But demographically, the writing is on the wall. America is becoming more secular, and the white evangelicalism that has dominated American Protestantism for the last 50 years is declining.
The question I would like to ask Dr. Hollinger is this: what will become of American Protestantism? Will evangelicalism fade out with the aging white population? Or will another group take up the helm of evangelicalism and perhaps change it? Might we see a progressive Protestant comeback? Or will we see more of the same? I do not think we can answer these questions unless we consider the factor of race.
America has indeed grown more secular and its white Christians more conservative. But there is another important late 20th century shift that is equally as momentous – American Protestantism has become less white. And Protestants of color are not wholeheartedly embracing the conservatism of white evangelicals.
Today, over one third of American Christians are racial and ethnic minorities and that number is only growing. Half of Gen Z Protestants are non-white, and racial minorities disaffiliate at lower rates than white Protestants.
The number of non-white Protestants has grown as a result of Asian, African, Caribbean and Latin American immigration following the National Immigration Act of 1965. These immigrants are an important part of the story of America’s changing Protestant landscape of the last 50 years. As Hollinger describes, churches that once housed white mainline congregations have now become home to evangelical congregations. Many of these evangelical congregations, however, are not white. They are Asian, African, and Latin American evangelical congregations. They are a part of what R. Stephen Warner calls the “de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”
Asian American Protestantism is an example of this trend, one that has been unfolding on our own Sproul Plaza for the last 30 years – most of the people handing out evangelical student group fliers are not white but Asian American. Asian Americans comprise 80 to 90% of the evangelical student groups at other competitive universities like Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, according to Rebecca Kim’s book God’s Whiz Kids. And they are the majority race among employee Christian groups at corporations like Google and Apple.
Asian American and other non-white Protestants tend to identify as evangelical, but they do not look like or act like white evangelicals, according to political scientist Janelle Wong. In fact, the political behavior of Asian Americans looks more like blacks Protestants than they do white protestants.
They vote Democratic and are more liberal on political issues than white evangelicals. They support movements like BLM although they tend to be more conservative on issues of abortion and sexuality.
Asian Americans may only represent a small number among evangelicals, but they have an outsized presence in major white evangelical institutions compared to Black Protestants. This is partly because Black Protestants have a robust set of historically-black Protestant institutions to participate in. Native-born Asian Americans, on the other hand, do not and therefore participate in “mainstream” white evangelical institutions. For instance, Asian Americans are over 13% of the student body at the leading evangelical seminary Fuller Seminary even though they are less than 5% of American Christians.
Asian Americans, many of whom were educated at elite universities, are now at the helm of many leading white evangelical organizations and bringing a more cosmopolitan flair to the “provincialism” of white American evangelicalism. For instance, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals is Dr. Walter Kim, a second-generation Korean American with a Harvard PhD. The president of InterVarsity, the leading evangelical parachurch organization, is Tom Lin, a Harvard educated second-generation Taiwanese American. And the provost of Wheaton College, one of the premier evangelical colleges in the US, is Dr. Karen Lee, a second-generation Chinese American woman who earned her PhD in English from our own UC Berkeley. I think you get the picture. Today’s evangelical leaders are not just white men with degrees from Oral Roberts University. As evangelicals are becoming less white, some of them are also becoming more cosmopolitan.
Dr. Hollinger writes that we must understand the rise of conservative evangelicalism as a dialectical relationship with ecumenical Christianity. If this is true, then might we make the same argument about evangelical Protestantism’s decline in relation to a progressive Protestantism, that conservative evangelicalism has also sowed the seeds of its own demise?
Asian American Protestantism illustrates the circular transnational life of ecumenical Protestantism. Ecumenical Protestant missionaries went to Asia in the early and mid 20th century, converting Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese. Then in the late 20th century, the descendants of these Asian Protestants immigrated to the United States and joined immigrant congregations that were overwhelmingly evangelical, reflecting the evangelical surge of the day. Other Asian immigrants converted to evangelical Christianity because the immigrant churches offered the ethnic belonging they craved. The children of Asian immigrants, on the other hand, who are upwardly mobile yet still feel the sting of racism in their everyday lives, reject the provincial, conservative white supremacy of the evangelical franchise and build a different kind of Protestantism, one that takes inspiration from the black Protestantism and ecumenical Protestantism. An example of this kind of Asian American progressive evangelicalism is the activism of Dr. Russell Jeung, a Berkeley sociology PhD, who founded Stop AAPI Hate, arguably the most popular Asian American social justice movement in American history.
What do we make of “progressive evangelicalism?” Is it merely the afterlife of ecumenical Protestantism, a new kind of evangelicalism, or a new kind of Protestantism all together?
Unfortunately, Asian American and Latinx Protestants are not changing the political balance of power because they tend to live in blue states, as political scientist Janelle Wong points out in her book Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change. And because they live in blue states and vote alongside other co-ethnics, their political behavior tends to be attributed to their racial status and not their religion. Christians of color represent one third of the Democratic party. Yes, a whopping one third! But that story about race, Christianity, and American politics has been dwarfed by the media’s horror and fascination with the rise of conservative white evangelicalism.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that we have not seen the end of ecumenical Protestantism. Now do not get me wrong, I do not think we will ever return to a time when we can point to a group called the Protestant establishment. And I doubt that a significant number of religious nones will convert to Christianity. But survey data shows that since 2016 (the year Trump got elected), we have seen a steady uptick in the number of white Americans who identify as mainline Protestants (who I am treating synonymously with ecumenical), so that they are now about 17% of the white Christian population. This is really astonishing. For the first time in about fifty years, we are seeing the number of mainline Protestants actually grow! I wonder whether we are witnessing a shift in the balance of power between evangelical and ecumenical Protestantism.
What is more, between 2016 and 2020, the proportion of religious nones actually declined ever so slightly among Gen Z and Millennials, the two groups that have been leaving Christianity most rapidly. While I do not see a reversal in the secularization trend, we could be witnessing a plateau in Americans leaving Christianity.
Whatever the case, I think that race will play a critical role in the fate of American Protestantism. Instead of ecumenical vs evangelical Protestantism, perhaps the fault lines will fall on race, creating two new Protestantisms: a shrinking white evangelical Protestantism and a non-white Protestantism that maps onto America’s existing regional, political, and class polarized landscape. White coastal elites will continue to stay secular. And some non-whites will leave their religion but at a slower pace than whites. Religion for racial minorities, after all, is still linked to vital ethnic and cultural networks and resources that are not readily available through secular institutions. And this is true no matter what education or income level they fall in. When accounting for the demographic growth of non-white Christians, I would venture to predict that America will become more secular, and Christianity less conservative.
Some final thoughts:
Sometimes I wonder if the real question is not, what happened to ecumenical Protestantism but rather, why doesn’t the media tell us about ecumenical Protestantism or progressive Protestantism. Why don’t we see the presence of progressive Protestantism? In my ethnic studies classes, many of my students do not even know that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian minister and that his faith undergirded his activism. They have grown up associating Protestantism with the white religious right so much so that a black minister leading a social justice movement cannot fit into their view. To be sure, ecumenical Protestantism is not the establishment it once was, but it certainly does have a presence in most of today’s most relevant social justice movements – for instance, movements for a living wage, workers’ rights, immigrant rights, the sanctuary movement, reproductive rights and BLM.
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