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This May, the Public Religion and Research Institute (PRRI) released a new report examining the religious behaviors of Americans in our current “uncertain cultural and political landscape” defined by a global pandemic, Trump presidency and subsequent capitol insurrection, and legislative battles over the rights of women and the LGBTQ community. More specifically, the report seeks to address how religious belief and community have helped Christians navigate their faith practice in recent years.

While the report was useful, well-researched, and accessible, what I found notable in the report is their omission of Asian Americans as a distinct community in almost every study presented in the report. For example, in a section detailing the importance of religion in the lives of adherents to different traditions and sub-traditions, PRRI includes statics for white, Black, and Hispanic communities across Protestant and Catholic faith, even including Jewish people and members of the Latter-day Saint Church as an extra measure, and yet regulate Asian Americans to the categories like “Other Christian” and “Other non-Christian religions.” The pattern continues across the report, as white, Black, and Hispanic communities each receive explicit attention while Asian American communities are presumably placed in the category of “other racial groups” or broad categories like “Protestants of color.” 

The places where Asian Americans are explicitly named are few and far between. At the beginning of the report, they are included in the 25% of “Christians of color” who make up the United States. In a section on racial and ethnic composition in the church, they are included in a statistic that 5% or fewer Christians “say their churches have mostly Hispanic, Black, or Asian or Pacific Islander (AAPI) members.” The last place Asian Americans are mentioned is in a footnote informing the reader that the category “other racial groups” includes “Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and multiracial Americans.”

PRRI’s decision to regulate Asian Americans to these generalized categories speaks to a larger struggle to understand Asian American communities, who challenge presumed boxes of a Black-white binary or linguistic and social assumptions of Western culture. Asian Americans complicate categories like “evangelical” and “mainline,” “conservative” and “liberal,” “religious” and “secular,” “Christian” and “heathen.” I have experienced this often in my own life as an Indian adoptee raised in the world of white evangelicalism. My name, beliefs, and experience all defy these binaristic categories. 

This struggle to categorize and study Asian Americans extends beyond PRRI. For example, in 2021, the Barna Group conducted a study titled “Beyond Diversity,” which sought to help readers understand the “opportunities and challenges impacting racial justice in the Church.” Using case studies and survey data, the study rightly argues that proximity to ethnically diverse spaces does not eliminate racial bias or automatically leads to constructive dialogue and outcomes. However, while the study names Asian Americans as a key demographic — even including an essay from Raymond Chang titled “Racial Justice in Asian American Experience” — its portrayal of Asian Christians is essentially equal or approximate to their white counterparts. 

Coding Asian Americans as white follows a long and dangerous imagination in the U.S. known as the “model minority” myth. According to this mythology, Asian Americans function as the ideal immigrant: seamlessly assimilated, fiscally high-earning, quiet members of our American society. Historically, elevating Asian Americans as a token minority has been used to pit Asians against other minorities, like Black communities, who were vocally advocating, organizing, and protesting for their rights, voice, and dignity to be acknowledged by our nation. 

We have seen this again in the recent debates around affirmative action, a government program that permits race to be considered in college admissions and aims to ensure multicultural and multi-ethnic representation across higher education. Proponents of the removal, like Edward Blum, founder of the right-wing organization “Students for Fair Admissions,”  have leaned into this mythology by pitting Asian applicants against other minorities, claiming that affirmative action discriminates against Asians by favoring Black applicants. This, of course, is unequivocally false

Further, where Asian Americans resemble their white counterparts, the material and political histories governing such decisions are far more complex than we often assume. In other words, while social, religious, and political consequences may look similar across white and Asian communities, the paths to such conclusions are vastly different.

[Disclaimer: reports have resurfaced surrounding Beef actor David Choe. The following example neither condones his actions nor intends to comment on them in any way] 

Take, for example, the depiction of a Korean evangelical church service in Netflix’s limited series Beef. Soon after its release, viewers across the country were captivated by Steven Yeun’s powerful and raw depiction of losing oneself in a religious experience. Most American evangelicals likely recognized the song played by the worship band and could identify with the conversion-like emotion being portrayed. Yet, beneath this relatable depiction was something very distinct to Asian American communities. Centering a Korean American experience without essentialization or tokenization, Beef understood and depicted the nuances of masculine rage, shame, racism, class divides, self-perception and acceptance, Orientalism, family dynamics, honor-shame culture, and more that are often present in Asian American communities. In a Christianity Today interview with LA Pastor Jason Min, who played a role in forming these memorable scenes, he emphasizes this point: “…what I loved about Beef was that it revealed all those suppressed parts of the Asian American experience, both inside and outside the church.” 

We can also find the same pattern in American politics. While some conclude that “Asian Americans are turning Right,” we cannot understand why Asian Americans are voting for conservative candidates without understanding the unique racialized and transpacific experience of these communities. Most often, Asians are not voting for conservative candidates for the same reasons as their white neighbors. Instead, they have in mind the impact of socialism and communism in their home countries, a long history of U.S. warmongering and militarism that impacted Asian countries like Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the ongoing racial tensions between Black and Asian communities, such as the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and anti-Asian violence spread during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The complexity and nuance that Asian Americans bring to American life are crucial to understand because, as sociologist Jerry Z. Park argues, “the future of American religion can be gauged by looking at the way religion matters to Asian Americans today.” Truly, Asian Americans have taken a central role in leading how we understand American evangelicalism, the formation of youth, theological education, interfaith leadership, holistic healthcare, community organizing, and institution building. More broadly, Asian Americans are shaping how America thinks about government, politics, technology, education, and more.

Given this, we can no longer settle for broad generalizations of Asian Americans (an already ambiguous label) or categorizing Asians as functionally white. Asian Americans are not an insignificant or assimilated-and-erased minority in our nation. They are a complex, multifaceted demographic that is redefining and reshaping the future of the American landscape. Further, we can no longer lump Asian communities into categories like “other” or “non-religious.” Instead, we must create new categories to describe world religions and religious affiliations that are not Western-centric or merely derivative of “Eastern” religion. In short, we must change the very definition of religious-racial identity itself. This is a daunting task, but a necessary one that we all must take up. 

Amar Peterman

Amar D. Peterman is an Indian American author, speaker, and public theologian working at the intersection of faith and public life. He writes regularly in his weekly newsletter, This Common Life.

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