That Chinese American Christians are Mostly Conservative Evangelicals
There is perhaps no more iconic Chinese American than Jeremy Lin. He’s the embodiment of all our hoop dreams. He got himself a Harvard education. He’s even a committed Christian! In 2010, Lin tweeted that two books by conservative evangelicals (of the New Calvinist variety) were his favorites: Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper and Humility by CJ Mahaney.
Apparently Lin is not alone. Chinese American sociologists, historians, and theologians, and even the Pew Research Center all confirm the fact that Asian American Christians are predominantly conservative evangelicals, as opposed to liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox.
The question I want to explore is: “Why is Jeremy Lin a conservative evangelical?” Or more broadly: “Why are most Chinese American Christians, today, conservative evangelicals?” In other words, why have Chinese American Christians overwhelmingly embraced the authority of Scripture and such doctrines as inerrancy? Why have they insisted so strongly that Jesus is the only way of salvation? And why have they prioritized evangelism over social justice in their missions?
Some might say that it’s just because Chinese American Christians simply believe what the Bible says and share its “eternal perspective.” I think the answer is more nuanced.
1. The Political Climate in China in 1949 & Contextual Theologies
The origin of Chinese American Christianity goes at least as far back as 1853 to the oldest Asian American church in North America. Today it’s known as the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, a PCUSA congregation where my wife and father-in-law both grew up.
Before the 1949 Communist victory in China, Chinese nationalism was strong even amongst the Chinese outside of China. The Chinese abroad still largely viewed the Chinese state as the center of Chinese identity. Sharing the fervor of the Chinese Republican Revolution in 1911, even the Chinese Christians in America placed their hopes in a new and modern China.
Liberal Protestant theology was the best contextual fit for these hopes. Liberal theology approached Scripture with modern scientific assumptions, embraced skepticism concerning the supernatural elements of Christianity, focused on Jesus’ moral and social teachings, and fostered a more ecumenical spirit.
However, when the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the hopes of many Chinese nationalists were shattered. In fact, the center of Chinese identity and culture shifted from the central state of China, to the periphery. Instead of looking back to China as their home, many of the Chinese abroad felt like homeless pilgrims.
Conservative Protestant theology became a more suitable contextual theology for these pilgrims. Conservative theology emphasized an other-worldly home and an eternal perspective. It upheld the miraculous, and proclaimed a strong message of hope and certainty in the future based on a more literal reading of Scripture.
2. The Religious Climate in America since the mid-20th century
In America, the mainline churches, in which most of the Chinese American churches started, were beginning to lose interest in this home mission field. The conversion rates were minimal amongst the Chinese in America. The idea of sending converted Chinese Americans back to China for missions was closed because of Communist China. Also, along with the rest of the nation, the mainline churches embraced an assimilationist racial ideology. The assumption was that less attention and resources needed to be allocated to ethnic mission churches, since these people groups would eventually assimilate anyway.
Simultaneously, the mainline churches were in the twilight of their cultural dominance and shifting further left on the theological spectrum. On the other hand, neo-evangelicalism was birthed in the 1940s, and would soon become the predominant expression of American Protestantism.
Hence, not only were Chinese Americans leaving the mainline denominations that were losing interest in ethnic home missions and becoming more liberal, but evangelicalism was becoming a popular and inviting alternative in America.
3. The U.S. Nationality and Immigration Act of 1965 & Chinese Christianity Abroad
This act lifted the severe restrictions that were placed on Asian immigration. The result was that the Chinese population between 1960 (237k) and 1980 (806k) more than tripled. Today there are over four million Chinese people in America.
As the Chinese immigrated from Asia, many of them brought their Christian convictions. The shape of Chinese Christianity in China and amongst the Chinese in other parts of Asia was largely conservative and evangelical for a variety of reasons. J. Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission was the largest mission agency in China. Also, the mostly conservative Independent Church Movement thrived after the Communist takeover. These ministries along with such conservative denominations as the Christian & Missionary Alliance and the Southern Baptists also continued to be fruitful amongst the Chinese populations in Southeast Asia after 1949.
As the Chinese Christians immigrated into America after 1965, many of them started their own churches. There were too many differences between the pre-1965 Chinese Christians in America and the post-1965 ones. The established Chinese churches in America were filled with Cantonese speakers instead of Mandarin speakers. The new immigrants were generally of a higher socio-economic status than the older immigrants because the Nationality & Immigration Act of 1965 gave preference to highly-skilled and educated immigrants. Additionally, many of the Chinese Christian immigrants viewed the mainline denominations as bastions of impure theology. Hence, between 1952 and 1979, the number of Chinese churches in America grew from 66 to 366. Today there are likely over 1,000, mostly evangelical.
4. The Nature of Evangelicalism
While many Chinese Christians came to the U.S. after 1965, by 1990 and into 2010 one could fairly say that most Chinese Christians in America became Christians after coming to the States.
Historically, the most emphasized convictions of evangelicalism are its commitments to Scripture’s authority (biblicism) and to preaching a Christ-centered (crucicentricism) for the sake of “winning souls” (conversion). These convictions are very attractive to Chinese Americans.
As the Chinese in America (both immigrants and ABCs) wrestle with their multiple identities in America, the evangelical conviction regarding Scripture’s authority comes in handy. While Chinese Americans want to be both Chinese and American, the Bible gives them an authoritative standard by which to negotiate their dual identities. For example, to be more American, Chinese Americans can reject ancestor worship as unbiblical and idolatrous. However, wishing to preserve their Chinese/Confucian values, it is common for Chinese Americans to interpret the 5th commandment more rigidly and with a greater emphasis than other American Christians. Furthermore, in the cross-centered ethos of evangelicalism, many Chinese immigrants find a radically loving God, unlike any other authority figure they ever knew. And for immigrants, the evangelical “born again” rhetoric offers language and categories for a new way of being in America.
In addition to evangelicalism’s emphasized convictions are its practices. Simply put, Chinese American Christians are predominantly evangelical because evangelicals evangelize far more than non-evangelicals.
5. Asian American College Scene
Not all Asian Americans are the same. The “model minority” narrative is problematic in several ways. Still, it’s fair to ascribe the conservative evangelical orientation of the Chinese American church to Asian American evangelical ministries on campuses across the U.S.
Since the 1970s the campus fellowship/ministry phenomenon took off in response to the cultural upheaval of the 60s. Simultaneously, Asian college attendance tripled in America. In fact, on top of the campus ministries, such as Asian American Christian Fellowship (AACF) that were always meant to serve Asians specifically, the two largest and most prominent evangelical campus ministries, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), have both launched Asian American chapters on their campuses. Such ministries not only attract a sprinkling of immigrants. But more importantly, they bolster both the evangelical identity and the Asian American identities of Chinese Americans. On college campuses, Chinese Americans are religious and ethnic minorities. For many, an Asian American and evangelical identity fusion occurs during college. Reading scientific textbooks in college fuses with InterVarsity’s insistence upon inductive Bible study. Finding like-minded Chinese American friends who like boba fuses with Asian American Christian fellowship activities.
After spending such formative years within these rather homogenous Asian evangelical groups, the commonly shared life-narrative continues. Handfuls of Chinese American students secure stable jobs and middle class lifestyles in American suburbs with their top-notch science and engineering degrees. Such relative success often results in embracing the “model minority” status. “If we can succeed, anyone else can.” Furthermore, the suburban lifestyles they lead can shield them from confronting the realities of poverty and social injustice. Such a lifestyle easily lends itself to a kind of Christianity that bifurcates the spiritual from the material. The Christian life becomes all about personal spiritual piety and winning souls.
Another common phenomenon amongst Chinese American evangelicals on college campuses is an interest in New Calvinism. Chinese Americans are becoming close friends with conservative, Reformed, and pietistic Koreans, and devouring Tim Keller, John Piper, D.A. Carson, Wayne Grudem and TGC blogs. In fact, at UCLA, one of the largest campus ministries is Grace on Campus, a ministry of John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church. This campus ministry is almost 75% Chinese and almost 90% Asian, and many of its aspiring pastors go on to attend The Master’s Seminary. In fact, just search the theological education of those who pastor the largest Chinese churches in the U.S. The most common places of theological education are Talbot School of Theology and Dallas Theological Seminary, both conservative and evangelical. And it is not uncommon for ministers from these schools to point their submissive Asian American successors to these schools as well.
Like I said earlier, it’s time we reckoned with the contextual factors that have shaped our beliefs and identities. Insisting that our theological convictions merely stem from our plain and objective reading of the Bible is simplistic. Such an attitude disregards our possible blindspots. Context matters.
For Further Reading
I am incredibly dependent upon the work of many scholars for this, but most significantly upon Dr. Timothy Tseng‘s research.
Tseng, Timothy. “Religious Liberalism, International Politics, and Diasporic Realities: The Chinese Students Christian Association of North America, 1909-1951.” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 5, no. 3/4 (Fall-Winter 1996): 305–30.
———. “Protestantism in Twentieth Century Chinese America: The Impact of Transnationalism in the Chinese Diaspora.” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 13 (2004): 121–48.
———. “Trans-Pacific Transpositions: Continuities and Discontinuities in Chinese North American Protestantism.” In Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America, edited by Jane Naomi Iwamura and Paul Spickard, 241–71. New York, New York: Routledge, 2003.
Yang, Fenggang. Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.
Chen, Carolyn. Getting Saved in America Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II. 1. paperback printing. Studies in Church and State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Bays, Daniel H. A New History of Christianity in China. Blackwell Guides to Global Christianity. Chichester, West Sussex ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
———. “Christian Revival in China, 1900-1937.” In Modern Christian Revivals, 161–79. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
———. “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900-1937.” In Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, 307. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Jeung, Russell. “Evangelical and Mainline Teachings on Asian American Identity.” Semeia 90–91 (n.d.): 211–36.