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(These are oral remarks by Professor Gregory Lee for the 2022 IBR/SBL session on Asian American Biblical Interpretation: Evangelical Voices organized by Milton Eng, Max Lee, and Bo Lim. Other than minor edits, the text is unchanged from its oral presentation.)

I’m glad to share today about a topic that I think about often, namely, what it means to be an Asian American evangelical. My comments will reflect my perspective as a fairly privileged Korean American male. Since this panel was chosen with concern for disciplinary diversity, I’ll also speak from my interests as a theologian. But my hope is to stimulate conversation among our group as a whole.

I’d like to begin with a couple of statistical observations. First, the vast majority of Asian American Protestants are evangelical. As Daniel Aleshire reports in his Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education, among students of Asian descent enrolled at an Association of Theological Schools institution, nearly 70% attend a Protestant evangelical school.[1] This number does not even account for evangelical Asian and Asian American students enrolled at mainline institutions who chose these schools because of reputation, financial resources, or denominational ties but whose theology does not conform to that of their white mainline faculty.

Second, Asian American evangelicals do not align politically with white evangelicals. As has been much discussed, 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The same number for Asian American evangelicals was 37%. This is a twofold political difference that has nothing to do with theological differences. Indeed, as American Studies professor Janelle Wong has found, except for abortion and homosexuality, Asian American evangelicals are considerably more liberal than white evangelicals on virtually every political issue.[2]

These two phenomena generate a tension for Asian American evangelicals. On the one hand, evangelicalism is the context within which many of us find ethnic community and identity. On the other hand, evangelicalism brings political and institutional entailments with which we do not resonate. If we leave evangelicalism, we give up much of our Asian American community. If we stay, we assume burdens that we did not produce yet still have to endure.

Let me personalize this tension with an example. When I was a doctoral student at Duke, there was a trend of students converting to Catholicism. Many were white students from low church backgrounds who had become enamored of the “tradition,” which they compared favorably to the superficiality of Bible Belt Protestantism. For some time, I felt pressured to do the same and wondered whether I was being anti-intellectual or cowardly for not doing so. In retrospect, I am glad I did not choose that path, and I think a major reason was my identity as an Asian American. To be clear, I am not criticizing everyone who converted. I also acknowledge the reality of Asian American Catholics. But converting would have made little sense for me, given my personal background and sense of vocation. I am a Korean Presbyterian. The most formative time of my faith was college, when I was heavily involved with an Asian American campus ministry. I went into academic theology to serve the communities that nurtured my faith. Becoming Catholic might have made sense if my primary considerations were theoretical. It would not have made sense for me as an Asian American formed by Asian American Protestant communities.

I feel the same way right now about evangelicalism. Despite my frustrations with conservative Christian partisanship, I feel bound to evangelicalism and am feeling unexpectedly more settled in this identity. One reason is doctrinal, as I still hold to evangelical beliefs and increasingly see their power to address the challenges of American society. But another reason is ethnic. My identity as a scholar has always been intertwined with my identity as a Christian, and my identity as a Christian has always been intertwined with my identity as an Asian American. Were I to leave evangelicalism, I would lose connection with the communities that make sense of my vocation. My minority identity thus keeps me in the white evangelical spaces that frustrate me precisely because I am a minority.

At the same time, I see Asian Americans as a potential source of renewal for evangelicalism—and for American Christianity as whole. In a time of intense tribalism, characterized by binary polarities, Asian American Christians offer an affinity for building bridges and developing community across academic and ecclesial lines. Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in this country, evangelicals are the dominant population among Asian American Protestants, and we are different from white evangelicals in the areas that have most compromised evangelical credibility in this country. There is an opportunity before us to do something meaningful. I would love to discuss further with this group what particular gifts Asian American evangelicals have to offer church and society.

But first, let me identify two challenges to what I have presented. The first concerns failures on gender (which is perhaps an especially Korean American problem). Asian American contexts can be quite patriarchal, with rigid and stultifying assumptions about what men and women can or cannot do. These tendencies align with and even exceed sexism in other evangelical contexts. Kristen du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne has drawn widespread attention to patriarchy in white evangelicalism.[3] But many Asian American women find white evangelical contexts more egalitarian than their ethnic communities.[4] Asian American men receive many opportunities for affirmation and leadership in Asian American Protestant contexts that Asian American women do not. They also have more opportunities to network with white male power brokers in both ecclesial and academic spaces. I suspect this is a reason why two of the most developed academic contexts for Asian Americans in theological education, ANARCS (the Asian North American Religion, Culture, and Society Unit of the American Academy of Religion) and PANAAWTM (Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry), attend especially to the concerns of women. To the extent that a group like this seeks to carve out space for Asian American evangelicals, it must address the reasons many Asian American women have found Asian American churches to be so inhospitable.

Second, many Asian American evangelicals are civically and institutionally disengaged. Asian American evangelicals did not vote for Trump, but this does not make us radical activists. Many of us enjoy being with other Asian Americans for the community but do not operate from our identity as Asian Americans to engage broader society. After the Atlanta murders, for instance, my experience was that black churches were quicker than Asian American churches to interpret the incident in terms of racial hatred—even though the incident was against Asians. Many of our churches were caught flatfooted because we lacked a developed discourse about race. The anti-Asian racism we experienced during COVID was a wakeup call for many of us toward greater social engagement, for our sake and for the sake of other groups.

I suspect that pursuing this path will require us to abandon our identity as “model minorities.”[5] As many of us are aware, this myth describes us as the “good” minorities who work hard, prioritize our families, and keep our heads low. These qualities, in turn, align with evangelicalism’s emphases on the individual and hard work and its spiritualization of racial identity. They also smother our social engagement on issues of wide import, including race. What makes Asian Americans palatable in white evangelical spaces renders us spiritually ineffective and socially invisible. To the extent that we remain beholden to white social and political interests, we will have little to offer communities outside our own. It remains for Asian American evangelicals to count the cost of priestly and prophetic witness—and to witness the fruit it could bear.

[1] Daniel O. Aleshire, Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education, Theological Education between the Times (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021), 67.

[2] Janelle S. Wong, Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2018), 21.

[3] Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright, 2020).

[4] Charlene Jin Lee, “Response #2: Response to Jonathan Tran,” Society of Asian North American Christian Studies 2 (Summer 2010): 63-67.

[5] Rudy Busto first observed the connection between evangelicalism and the model minority myth in his seminal essay: “The Gospel According to the Model Minority? Hazarding an Interpretation of Asian American Evangelical College Students,” in Spiritual Homes: Religion and Asian Americans, ed. David Yoo, Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i, 1999), 169-87. The topic will receive further analysis in Jane Hong, Model Christians, Model Minorities: Asian Americans, Race, and Politics in the Transformation of U.S. Evangelicalism (under contract with Oxford University Press).

Dr. Gregory Lee is Associate Professor of Theology and Urban Studies at Wheaton College, and Theologian in Residence at Lawndale Christian Community Church. He served for several years as Board Chair of Manna Christian Fellowship, an Asian American campus ministry at Princeton University. He earned his A.B. from Princeton University, his M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and his Ph.D. in Christian Theological Studies at Duke University.

One Comment

  • stephen na says:

    thank you for your thoughts Dr. Lee
    you wrote, “I would love to discuss further with this group what particular gifts Asian American evangelicals have to offer church and society.”
    I’m totally ready for this. I want to know what I can offer to the evangelical church as an AA leader. I have a sense but a common language would help me lead well with conviction.

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