Asian American Religions
- Tony CarnesTony CarnesIndependent Scholar
Asian American religions have dramatically increased their presence in the United States. Partly, this is a function of the increasing population of Asian Americans since 1965.
Asian American is a name given to the United States residents who trace their ancestry back to the area of Asia from Pakistan in the west to the Pacific islands east of the Asian landmass. There are over 18 million Asian Americans in the United States (about 6 percent of the national population), and Asians are immigrating to the country at rates that far exceed those for any other group.
Other names have been taken, given, or forced upon Asian Americans. Such terms as “Chinese or Japanese imperial subjects” heightened a unity of political and religious obedience to a divine emperor. “Oriental” started as a French idealization of the Confucian state before descending to the level of being an epithet for backwardness.
Immigrants come with nationalities like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and so forth that often intervene into religious discourses (see an example of this process in the Chinese American experience as described by Fenggang Yang (Chinese Christians in America. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). In the 1970s the name Asian American was popularized by West Coast intellectuals in order to gather forces at the barricades of political and racial movements. Some scholars like Michael Omi and Howard Winant (Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994) claimed “Asian American” as a racialized reality, which was the result of racial conflicts innate to American society. Others saw the identity as an ethnic claim to assimilation into American cultural reality.
Asian immigrants and their progeny find ways to balance out the religious, national, ethnic, racial, and other identities from their homeland, new nation, and religion. “Asian American” has also become a common-sense meaning that was institutionalized by the U.S. census. But one should remember that many layers of names sit upon Asian American houses of worship as so many barnacles telling tales of ancestral honors, woes, and self-reflections.
Over three-quarters of Asian Americans profess a religious faith. About a quarter say that they are “religious nones,” that is, either having no particular religious faith or identifying as agnostic or atheist. About half of the “nones” actually have religious beliefs and ethics and practice them as an intrinsic part of Asian American culture, not as something that is “religious.”
Two-thirds of religious Asian Americans are Christians. This is not surprising when we take into account the rapid growth of Christianity in the non-European world. Asian Americans are contributing to the “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity and signal the increasingly religious direction of the 21st century.
Other Asian American religions include Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroasterism, new Japanese religions, and many more.
The history of Asian American religions involves a dynamic interplay of the United States and Asia, global politics, democratic revolutions, persecution in Asia, racism in the United States, Supreme Court cases, and religious innovation.
The largest Asian American groups, those with 1–4 million people each, trace their ancestry back to Japan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Korea. Seven smaller groups have over 100,000 people each: Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Pakistanis, and Thais. And there are many more smaller groups.
The diverse ethnic and national origins of Asian Americans means that their religions have a kaleidoscope of religious styles and cultures.
Origins and History of Asian American Religions
The first “Asian Americans” may have been in North and East Asians who settled in the American landmass before there was an America or Asia.1 These people, who may have been of diverse races, likely are the ancestors of the Amerindians of the Americas.
The Legend of Fusang recounts how the Buddhist missionary Hui Shen with a party of monks reached lands beyond the known ocean. Some earlier scholars speculated that this story records the first appearance of Buddhism in North America. Although this identification is now discounted, the story well illustrates the ebb and flow of religious interests between Asia and America.
Christianity from the Philippines is one of the earliest occurrences in the historical record of Asian American religion. In the 16th Century, Filipino sailors aboard the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza (Our Lady of Hope) with the Catholic priest Martin Ignacio de Loyola landed on the California coast, probably at Morro Bay near modern San Luis Obispo. A young Japanese, who may have been training to take vows to a Catholic religious order, was also the first known Japanese in America. On the East Coast, an “East Indian” is listed as one of the settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, around 1635.
The flow of peoples and religions between Asia and America has always been affected by international politics. In the early 18th century, the Qing imperial government took a defensive measure against outside political powers, making emigration from China punishable by the death penalty. After the United States was established, its government limited citizenship to “free white persons” in the 1790 Naturalization Act. However, at that time, the interpretation of the law in regard to Asians was not established.
Despite the two governments’ restrictions, Chinese ventured abroad as merchants, sailors, and servants. Occasionally, they came as religious specialists. In the 1820s, Chinese began to immigrate to the United States, and the interest in China increased among Christian church-going people.
In the 1830s, San Francisco churches supported missionaries and aid to China. Soon, the Chinese reciprocated by sending Christian Chinese to San Francisco. Chinese Christians were also active in New York City in this early period.
One of the first public notices of Asian American religion was of a floating exhibit about China on the ship Keying in New York harbor. The New York Herald reported that a Chinese worship service on the boat may well have been the first such publicized Chinese religious event in the United States. The Herald announced on July 14, 1847, “the city of New York will have an opportunity to day of witnessing Chinese idol worship with all its concomitants of kneeling, sacrificing, and offering of gifts.” According to the paper, the public attended in great numbers.
After a labor dispute on the ship, the Chinese sailors took shelter in a Christian mission called Sailor’s Home on Cherry Street, according to a report by the American Magazine. There, a lay Chinese American preacher Lin-King-Chen counseled the sailors, provided Bible studies, and delivered a “divine” farewell service just before the sailors returned to China.
The early religious interaction between Chinese American Christians and practitioners of popular Buddhism illustrates the dynamic, often competitive, religious market within the Asian American communities. Over time, Christianity became prominent among Asian Americans. However, the size of the crowds who went to see the Chinese syncretistic Buddhist services on the ship also indicate a long lasting fascination with exotic religions of “the Orient” among white Americans.
In 1848, the news of the discovery of gold in California brought 300,000 Chinese from Kwangtung and Fujian over the next thirty years. Chinese also arrived in Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. This burgeoning population also brought religions, religious specialists, and missionaries.2
Statehood for California in 1850 made the United States by definition an Asia-Pacific nation. The country started reorientating is policies toward more engagement with Asia. Consequently, the American public and its churches developed a heightened interest in the religious situation in Asia.
Japan was also becoming enmeshed with the future of Asian American religion by the arrival of Commodore William Perry’s great black sail steamships in Tokyo Harbor in July 1853. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy was aimed at opening Japan up to the outside world. Up to this moment, the Japanese government severely restricted its people from interactions with the outside world. Alarmed by their weakness in the face of Perry’s threats, a portion of the Japanese elite launched a momentous political restructuring that set in motion a new form of government, religious policy, and immigration with Buddhist-Shinto religion to the United States and Hawaii.
In 1853 several Chinese Christians from Macau and the missionary Reverend William Speer established the first Chinese American church. Lai Sam, the son-in-law of famed Chinese preacher Leung A-fah, was the first elder at the San Francisco Chinese Presbyterian Church (also at various times called Chinese Presbyterian Mission Church, the Chinese Chapel, the First Chinese Church, and the San Francisco Chinese Church).3
In the same year, the first Chinese temple, T’ien Hou, was erected in San Francisco by the Sze Yap Company. The temple’s Buddhism included a mix of Taoism, Confucianism, and probably local gods popular in Toisan, Gwangdong. The temple was named after the Queen of Heaven (Tien Hou or T’ien Hou). The next year, the Ning Yeong Company built a second Chinese temple, called Kong Chow. The principal deity was Guang Gong (Kuan Kung).
Speer continued as an activist evangelical Christian, outspoken in his defense of Chinese Americans. From this time on, Americans fought regarding the immigration of Asians into America. When the San Francisco government denied a petition of Chinese Americans to start a hospital, Speer established one in defiance. When the San Francisco Board of Education denied Chinese entry into the public schools, Speer established his own school inside the mission house (the school board relented).
In 1854, Pastor Edward Syle made the first reliable census of Chinese Americans in New York City. He observed “a small shrine with idols … before the ever burning lamp and the smoking incense” in Lower Manhattan. He also noted that a Chinese American Christian named Okkeo was “a trustworthy man at Five Points Mission.” However, he reported that among the seventy Chinese he located, most did not know anything about Christianity.
In 1855 Le Kan and Pastor Speer started one of the first Chinese newspapers, the Oriental; or Tung-Ngai San-Luk. The paper agitated on behalf of Chinese interests. In 1859, the California Supreme Court struck one of its few blows on behalf of Chinese Americans with a ruling in John Eldridge versus See Yup Company that Chinese Americans could perform public religious rituals associated with their “joss house” (a name for Chinese temples derived from the pidgin Portuguese pronunciation of “deos,” god).
In the 19th Century, the Chinese imperial government saw evangelical Christianity and its missionaries as representatives of the threat of hostile Western “barbarians.” The Western powers and the Japanese government were pressuring, sometimes violently, the Chinese imperial government to give trade concessions.
The government was also becoming deeply unpopular among Chinese people. There arose many rebellions, bandit groups, and revolutionary secret societies. Then, the Chinese Christians in the United States were electrified by the news that a Chinese Christian, Hong Xiu-chuan, had launched an attempt to overthrow the unpopular imperial government and replace it with a Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Tai Ping Tien Guo). The revolution, which lasted from 1850 to 1864, promised to establish economic equality and a Christian government. The revolution was exceedingly violent, with both sides killing each other as impious. When the Taipings lost, the imperial government perpetrated a mass slaughter of Chinese Christians. Later revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen and Mao Ze-Dong admired Hung and his fight for the peasants’ welfare. Sun, the founder of modern China, became a Christian.
In its search for popular support the government instigated Confucians, Buddhists, and Taoists to violently attack Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians. Confucian traditionalists rejected Christianity without careful consideration of its appeal as a bringer of modernization. Chinese reformists began to see Confucianism as antiquated and Christianity as the future.
The Civil War in the United States emboldened its government to oppose efforts by European and Japanese powers to dominate China. President Abraham Lincoln wanted a cooperative policy with China. He instructed the United States diplomats to develop relationships with the American-leaning reformers in the Chinese government and to come up with a non-imperialist structure for relations with China. The result that was hammered out by Chinese and American diplomats was the 1868 Burlingame Treaty that mandated free trade, free travel and migration, and freedom of religion.
In giving China “most favored nation” status, the treaty provided that “citizens of the United States in China of every religious persuasion and Chinese subjects in the United States shall enjoy entire liberty of conscience and shall be exempt from all disability or prosecution on account of their religious faith or worship in either country.” In 1869, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gave full citizenship to every baby born in the United States, regardless of race.
Lincoln did not live to see these two achievements of American democracy or the sorry spectacle of racism and oppression that developed against Asian and African Americans later in the century. Although important elements within the evangelical Christian movement continued to advocate on behalf of the rights of Asian Americans, labor interests and nativists started to dominate. In 1870 Asian immigrants were made ineligible for citizenship.
In China, as Confucian traditionalism lost ground to the appeal of modernization, Confucian scholars tried “self-strengthening” against the Western push to adapt modern science and technology, without providing a place for them in a Confucian holistic worldview. They tried to identify modern science and technology as simply tools in the hands Confucian values and meaning of life. However, to Chinese modernizers, science, technology, and capitalism appeared more closely intertwined with Christianity or secular Western rationalism. Consequently, the perception grew that Christianity symbolized modernity, freedom for the peasants, and democracy. The intellectual Yan Fu, for example, spoke for many when he wrote, “We have no time to ask whether this knowledge is Chinese or Western … If another course is effective in overcoming ignorance and thus leads to a cure of our poverty and weakness, we must imitate it, even if it proceeds from barbarians.”4
The Chinese in America (including many Christians) generally supported the revolutionary modernizers in China.
In 1868, Presbyterians established the Chinese Mission at 155 Worth Street in New York City. The mission eventually became the First Chinese Presbyterian Church with its activist pastor Huie Kin. He became a strong supporter of political and social modernization in China.
In Japan, the Meiji Revolution was stripping the Shogun of power and restoring it to the emperor. This political revolution soon effected religious changes in the United States.
In 1869, a group of Japanese built the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony in Gold Hill, Northern California. The sponsor of the settlement, Matsudairu Katamori, had ended up on the losing side of the Japanese civil war and allowed some of his supporters to flee possible retaliation by establishing a colony. His group held to the belief in “Eastern ethics and Western science.” Katamori actually survived, but diplomatically retired into the Shinto priesthood.
At first, in order to assert the prerogative of Shintoism as the state religion, the imperial government ordered persecution of Buddhists, Christians, and other religious groups. However, the government quickly reversed course and relaxed its oppression in favor of freedom of religion. Though this freedom was never an established fact, the relaxation led to a religious ferment that resulted in the formation of Shinto sects, including several that promised healing of the illnesses of their adherents. This stream of religious innovation became part of Japanese religious culture that was brought to the United States by Japanese immigrants.
The Japanese government also started to allow contract laborers to go to Hawaii and immigrants to the United States. The young emperor Mutsuhito read avidly about America, the transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, and Abraham Lincoln.
In the 1870s, Chinese Americans initiated the establishment of the Chinese YMCA (at that time it was not institutionally part of the regular YMCA). By the 1900s the Chinese Y would have thirty branches in twelve states. Chinese Americans also collaborated to establish Methodist, Congregational, and Baptist missions within the United States.
By 1875, there were five Buddhist temples in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and missionary Donalinda Cameron was working with Chinese Christians to free women from the clutches of sex traffickers in Chinatown.5
By 1877, Japanese American students established the first Japanese American Christian congregation in the continental United States in the basement of the Chinese Methodist Church of San Francisco. The Chinese American Presbyterians also established a branch of their church in Oakland.
In Hawaii Japanese immigrants were establishing small communities in which all the inhabitants would meet periodically in a home for Buddhist services followed by a discussion of community affairs. The Buddhist tradition practiced was Jodo-Shinshu, a Pure Land Buddhism that included elements of Shintoism.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Chinese Americans built sixty-two temples and 141 shrines in twelve states. However, these “joss houses” tended to be short-lived. The Buddhist-orientated temples most often featured an icon of Kuan-yin, the goddess of mercy. Perhaps the most theologically important icon was the very popular A-mi-t’o (Amitabha). This deity was associated with the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism.
Other popular icons (which also had associations with various Buddhist deities) in Chinese American temples at this time were Shih Chia (Shakyamuni), Yao Shih (Bhaishajyaguru), Mi Lo (Vairocana), Wen Shu (Manjusri), and Mi Lo (Maitreya). In 1882 reporters in the English-language press noticed two “joss houses” in New York City as well as various ancestral shrines.
Of course, much of the religious culture of Chinese Americans was not practiced in temples but at home (particularly, ancestor worship) and work. There were also many folk-religious beliefs and practices like ghosts, spirits, deities not found in the temples, patterns of luck and bad luck, fortune telling, and so forth.
In 1885 the Evangelical Association recruited Shinichi Aoki to establish Christian churches in Hawaii. Konichi Miyama and Takie Okuma became effective evangelists in winning over a large number of Japanese Americans to Christianity. The following year the Presbyterians also started a mission among Japanese Americans in California.
Chinese American Christians were also very active in the 1880s in establishing unprecedented benchmarks, publications, and churches. Huie Kin, the first pastor of the Chinese Presbyterian Church, challenged racial conventions by marrying a white woman, Miss Louise Van Arnam. Yan Phou Lee wrote and published the first English-language book by a Chinese American. He speculated that the Chinese classic Journey to the West was the story of the hero Hsuan Tsang’s attempt to find the “marvelous Nazarene,” but he had been diverted to India by Buddha. This critical perspective on Buddha’s interference with the spread of the Christian message was augmented by his criticism of Chinese folk religion of the time, a worship of “idols” and Taoist priests making “a living out of [people’s] superstitious fears.” He also criticized the Confucian requirements of complete submission to a rigid hierarchy of women to men and people to rulers.
In 1888 Japanese in Hawaii gathered together in a Methodist group that eventually became Harris Memorial Methodist Church, which was for a time the largest Japanese American church.
In response, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhists sent Soryu Kagahi to study these Christian inroads among Japanese Americans. He reported back that the Christian churches are “everywhere.” He also noted there existed in Hawaii Buddhist temples dedicated to Kuan-yu and Amitibha. He then helped to organize the first Hawaii Buddhist temple, called Hilo Honpa Hongwanji.
The association of Christianity and modernization moved some Chinese Americans toward Christianity as they themselves entered scientific fields. One noteworthy example was when Baptist lay leader Joseph Chak Thoms (Tom Ah Jo) became the first Chinese graduate from a U.S. medical school. In 1891, he founded the Chinese Hospital of Brooklyn, the first medical center for the treatment of Chinese patients using Western methods.6
At this time in Brooklyn, there were also Chinese Americans gathering in a Buddhist temple to worship before Kuan-yu (Guan Yu) “holding a Buddhist sutra in her hand, in an attitude of giving instruction to a child seated on her knees,” according to a local newspaper report.
The World Parliament of Religion held at Chicago in 1893 became the stage for the first internationally significant Buddhist and Hindu leaders to deliver their religious messages to the American general public. Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist layman from Ceylon, introduced Theravada Buddhism. At his lecture, an announcement was made that Charles T. Strauss, a Jewish New Yorker, would be “the first person to be admitted to the Buddhist fold on American soil.” Of course, there were certainly Chinese and Japanese American Buddhists already on American soil. What the announcement demonstrated was a split world between whites who were following various Asian religions and those who followed those religions in the Asian American community. Only late in the 20th century did these streams start to come together more.
In the 1890s, Asian American religionists poised great challenges to the values of the Asian and white American communities. The Chinese American Buddhists were countering Christian conversion by using family pressure. The Presbyterian Foreign Board’s Annual Report of 1895 wrote that a Chinese father in California threatened his son that he would “cut him to pieces” if he was baptized as a Christian. Reportedly, the father, who practiced folk Buddhism with ancestor worship, was angry that his son would not worship the deities or the father after he died. On the other hand, Buddhists felt that they were in hostile territory. A Japanese Buddhist layman wrote back to his temple Hongwanji that “towns bristle with Christian churches and sermons, the prayers of missionaries’ shake through the cities with the church bells.” With the competition, both Buddhists and Christians had to clean up their own messes. The lay Buddhist complained that fake Buddhist priests were collecting money and disappearing.
In 1898, the population of Asian Americans significantly increased when Hawaii, whose population comprised mostly Asians, was made a U.S. territory. The Asians received full U.S. citizenship.
As part of its increasing engagement with Asia, the United States took on the Philippines as a territory after defeating Spain, and then implemented the separation of church and state. The results were the growth of an independent, indigenous Catholic Church (the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, colloquially known as the Aglipayan Church), the reform and indigenization of the Roman Catholic Church, and the arrival of Protestant missionaries.
In the same year, Japanese Buddhists of Honpa Hongwanji sent another fact-finding mission to the United States. Their visit led to the establishment of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association and the first Japanese Buddhist temple with two priests in San Francisco.
Asian Americans met the 20th century with religious organizing in the United States, support for revolutionary movements in Asia, and resistance against a growing nativist anti-Asian movement.
Early in the century, Japanese American Buddhists established Zen centers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism extended its reach by establishing two temples in Washington state and one in Chicago. Chinese Americans continued to add to an estimated 400 folk Buddhist temples created in the 19th century.
The Catholic Church in the United States started to respond more attentively to Asian American needs. In 1904 Chinese Catholics began to increase their numbers and grow their organization with the help of the Paulist Society of Helpers. A few years later, in 1909, Transfiguration Catholic Church in New York City began its outreach to Chinese Americans.
After becoming part of the United States, Filipinos started arriving in greater numbers. After 1900, when the United States government declared that Filipinos were eligible for U.S. citizenship, over 110,000 Filipinos moved to Hawaii between 1909 and 1930.
Over 7,000 Koreans were also recruited to work on the Hawaiian sugar plantations to offset the danger of Japan, who was discussing the annexation of the territory. The Korean Protestant community grew rapidly. Korean Americans also helped to start Protestant missions in Los Angeles and San Francisco.7
A relatively new arrival among Asian Americans was the practice of Sikhism by immigrants to California from the Punjab religion of India. The Sikhs established at temple in 1915 in Stockton, California. There were also Muslims and Hindus among the Punjabi immigrants.
Sikhs joined the tradition of Asian American religionists fighting oppression in Asia. At the Sikh temple, the revolutionary Ghadar movement held meetings to promote the overthrow of British rule in India. A few years later, after the brutal suppression of a Korean uprising against Japanese rule, the Korean Church Council of North America was founded to sustain the independence movement.
Asian Americans had to face anti-Asian bigotry both in general society and in the ranks of their own religions. In a highly charged ceremony covered by the Christian Herald, First Chinese Presbyterian Church was founded in New York City on December 18, 1910. The Presbyterian denomination’s representative talked about his own prejudice and how he was convinced to dump his own racism after interacting with the Chinese pastor Huie Kin. “During the period when you first came, I, personally, found it unbearable to see any Chinese attending the church in my diocese. For once I meet anyone in Chinese costume and wearing long hair, the falsified ugly image of a Chinese ascribed by the anti-Chinese appears immediately before my eyes … I changed my views and felt the goodness of the Chinese and decided to work for them to atone for my mistakes.” Unfortunately, not enough hearts were changed to stop the anti-Asian sentiments in the United States.
In the period just before and after World War I, Asian American Muslims started to establish religious organizations. Starting in 1907, the Tartars from Central Asia settled in Brooklyn and helped to establish the American Mohammedan Society.8 Their numbers increased as the Russian civil wars crescendoed. In 1920 the Ahmadiyya mission Mufti Muhammad Sidiq of India started a society for the promotion presentation of Islam in America and later started a mosque in Chicago.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Asian American religionists were also supporting revolutionary movements in Asia. Brooklynite Thoms cofounded the Chinese Empire Reform Association to support Kang Youwei’s attempt to establish constitutional monarchy as a replacement for authoritarian imperialism. This conservative reform movement seems to have had less popularity among Chinese Christians as did Sun Yat-sen’s nationalistic democracy movement. While in America, several churches in San Francisco and New York City say that they protected Sun from the assassins sent by the Chinese Imperial government.
Korea was also in turmoil after Japan annexed it in 1910. Korean Christians became prominent leaders of the resistance movement. After receiving his PhD from the leading Presbyterian educational center, Princeton University, Syngman Rhee returned to Korea in 1910 to aid the resistance. He eventually became the first president of the Republic of Korea. The Korean Church of New York, which was established in 1921, was very active in the independence movement.9
The Japanese attempts to conform Korean Buddhism to the Japanese model also provoked the ire of Buddhist Lee Duk An, who also joined the underground resistance. He later became a significant Korean Buddhist leader in the United States.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese and Japanese American religious organizations developed supports for a new second generation of Asian Americans. Such an optimistic development faced the dark march of anti-Asian sentiment through American public opinion. The Protestant establishment was theologically divided, and the missionaries of the evangelical wing were not able to generate enough unified support to stop the anti-Asian movements.
Some Japanese Americans tried to get out from under the anti-Asian mood by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to declare them “free white persons” as specified in the United States Constitution. A Japanese Christian, Takao Ozawa, pushed forward his application for citizenship against the opposition. However, in 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rejection of his application on the basis that “white” in the U.S. Constitution meant not color but Caucasian race. The court said that it was blocking Ozawa’s application even though “his family attended American churches.” Three months later, the court issued the same ruling for the Sikh Hindu Bhagat Singh Thind.
The anti-Asian movement finally won complete control of the United States Congress, which banned most immigration from Asia with the Immigration Act of 1924. Later, in the infamous 1927 case of Lum versus Rice, the Supreme Court found that states possessed the right to define nine-year-old Martha Lum as non-white or non-Caucasian for the purpose of admission into a public school.
Despite the political storm, Asian Americans continued to develop and spread their communities and religious institutions. In 1925 Swami Paramahonsa Yoigananda established the Self-realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, anticipating several tenets later taught by Transcendental Meditation. In the same year in Northern California, Chinese Christians established the Hip Wo School, the largest and most successful Chinese school in the United States. Chinese Christians established similar schools in New York City and other places.
Flying into the teeth of racism, Takie Okumura, a Christian clergyman in Hawaii, in 1927 established a movement to promote assimilation into American society. In the Japanese American community, there was a division over whether to assimilate, with Christians favoring assimilation and Buddhists opposing it. Global politics that would burst into World War II were already simmering. The promotion of nationalism was led by Buddhist priests in the Japanese schools.
However, the young children attending these schools were mainly second-generation Japanese Americans, called Nisei, and many of them were Christians. They resented being forced to bow to the emperor and being mocked for their Christianity. Daniel Inouye, who later became a United States senator from Hawaii, recounted his experiences to his biographer:
Day after day the [Buddhist] priest who taught us ethics and Japanese history hammered away at the divine prerogatives of the Emperor … He would tilt his menacing crew-cut skull at us and solemnly proclaim, “…there must be no question of your loyalty. When Japan calls, you must know that it is Japanese blood that flows in your veins …” “One day, when the priest was mocking Christianity, Inouye demanded that he respect his Christian faith in the same way that the boy respected his teacher’s Buddhism. Inouye was thrown bodily out of the school, and he never went back.”10
At the time there were about thirty Japanese American churches.
At about the same time, a former Chinese revolutionary Kai Chong Yeung took over as pastor of First Chinese Presbyterian Church. There were about forty-four Chinese American churches in the United States.
Then, in 1931 Japan invaded China. From then until the end of World War II, the conflict became a crisis for Asian American Christians. In 1932 Chinese and Japanese American pastors met together to pray for peace and sent the governments cablegrams asking them to stop fighting. Two members of the Chinese cabinet in 1935 were former members of the Chinese Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. The United Chinese Christian Association and Chinese Presbyterians cofounded Relief for Refugees in the Motherland. There were also great floods precipitated by the destruction of dams, canals, and the like during the battles. Many older Americans remember growing up with the “pennies for China” collections (which started as a promotion in missionary magazines two decades before). Parents started reminding their children to eat their food with consideration for the starving children in China.
The Tartars, who had fled World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, gathered enough people and resources to help establish in 1931 the first building in New York City that was solely dedicated as a mosque, called the American Mohammedan Society located in Brooklyn.
There was a brief respite to anti-Asian legislation when congress voted to allow Asian Americans who fought in World War I to receive citizenship. Consequently, Bhagat Singh Thind, now a religious teacher, was finally granted the citizenship that he was denied in 1923.
Because immigration of Asian Americans had basically stopped, the second generation was becoming the largest group in their religious congregations. For example, in 1940, the second generation became a majority (52 percent) of Chinese Americans. Consequently, Asian American religious organizations were adding family and children ministries.
On the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were eighty Japanese American Christian congregations in the United States and Hawaii. In an obtuse misreading of Japanese Americans as potential enemies, the United States government swiftly acted to quarantine Japanese Americans. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending over 100,000 people of Japanese birth or ancestry on the West Coast to internment camps. Japanese families had to store their personal belongings and often did so at churches and temples. For example, in Los Angeles, six hundred families stored their household goods in the Buddhist Nicheren Temple, which was later looted.
A Japanese Quaker, Gordon Hirabayashi, challenged the presidential order by refusing to evacuate. Eventually, he was given a thirty-day sentence to a camp in Arizona and went back home afterward. Japanese American Christian churches raised most of the money needed to resettle Japanese American students outside of the camps so that they could continue their college education. There was tension between some Christians and Buddhists in the camps.
The war forced the United States government to rethink its anti-Asian discrimination. One concern was that China was now an ally. So, in 1943, the government repealed the Chinese exclusion that had been in effect. Asian and White Americans volunteered to fly in defense of China through groups like the Flying Tigers. The agitation of the young Nisei forced the government to admit them into United States combat units. They formed the all-volunteer Japanese American 442 Regimental Combat Team. Fighting in Europe, the men won 18,143 decorations for bravery, becoming the most highly decorated military unit in United States history. Reverend Hiro Higuchi took a census of the 442nd soldiers’ religion. Many (46 percent) said that they were not religious, 35 percent Protestant, 5 percent Catholic, 13 percent Buddhist, and 1 percent Mormon.
In the postwar period, immigration from Asia restarted in a small way. Adjustments were made by Japanese American Buddhists to become more fully identified as American Buddhism. In 1944, Jodo Shinshu renamed itself the Buddhist Church in America, and adopted such measures as adding the hymn “Onward, Buddhist soldiers.”
Among Japanese American Christians, there was a trend toward the liberal theology that had already gained predominance in white churches.
The United States also promoted independence for India and Pakistan. In 1947, the partition and independence of the two countries led to turmoil and immigration of Muslims to the United States. In 1952, the conservative Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat from Pakistan began missionary work in the United States. In the same year, the Federation of Islamic Organizations, which included some Asian Americans, was founded.
An aggressive expansion of Communism in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia involved the United States with Asian affairs to an unprecedented degree. Religiously, one result was a wave of religious organizing by refugees from Asia. At the same time that the United Nations was setting up in New York City, a Chinese American church was being founded to accommodate Chinese Christian immigrants and workers at the international agency. By 1952 there were over sixty Chinese churches in the United States. The arrival of refugees from the wars in Southeast Asia meant the arrival of new kinds of Buddhism, folk religion, and Christianity.
Young educated Chinese fleeing the turmoil in China joined second-generation Chinese Americans to establish numerous college and university fellowships in the 1950s.
Newly arrived Chinese Buddhists also made their presence known. They were generally more educated than the followers of folk Buddhism and preferred a more orthodox, intellectual form of Buddhism; modern, textually knowledgeable clergy; and lay leadership. At first the young lay Buddhists started informal groups to chant, meditate, and study texts. Soon they found nonprofits to sponsor the immigration of monks and nuns.
The first nonprofit was the Chinese Buddhist Association of Hawaii, founded in 1953. Others included Buddha’s Universal Church in San Francisco, and the Sino-American Buddhist Association. The disciples of the influential Master Hsuan Hua founded the Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco.
Buddhism also caught the attention of the beatniks like Allen Ginsburg, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Alan Watts. This injection of religions from the “Orient” touched upon Asian American religious life mainly through the sponsorship of the immigration of Buddhist and Hindu scholars, who taught, in parallel, the counterculture and Asian American communities. This phenomenon grew in importance.
The 1960s and 1970s were a tumultuous period that included the impact of worldwide events and a change of immigration laws that would lead to unprecedented levels of religious change and Asian immigration in future decades. First, the 1960s and 1970s youth counterculture developed a fascination with “Eastern Religions” and introduced several of their significant teachers. Master Hsuan Hua came to Chinatown in San Francisco to become one of the first Asian religion teachers to both Asian and white Americans of all five main schools of Buddhism: Chan, T’ien-t’ai, Vinaya, Esoteric, and Pure Land. Various spiritual teachers from India also made an impact.
Second, the lay Buddhist associations that were founded in the 1950s were able to gather enough resources to establish temples. In 1963 the Eastern States Buddhist Association established what today is the oldest continuous temple in New York City’s Chinatown. At the same time, the Hawaiian Buddhists established Han Yun Temple, and in San Francisco, a lay group built Buddha’s Universal Church. In 1964 another group also established the Buddhist Association of the United States.
Third, in 1965, the doors of the United States were opened wide to immigration from Asia through the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act. It took about five to ten years before the flow of immigrants became a gusher.
At the same time, unnoticed by most, there was a conservative Muslim revival occurring throughout the Muslim world, sparked by the Pakistani teacher Maulana Mandudi and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. Very quickly, their teachings found hospitable soil among some young Asian Americans. This did not mean the rise of violent Islam, but did create discomfort with “corrupt” American society. The 1967 and 1972, Arab–Israeli wars increased anger within the Muslim world. The defeat of the Muslim power structure led many to look for alternatives in “purer” forms of Islam promoted by political dissidents.
Partly in order to contain the dangers of radicalization, the Muslim establishment in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere started investing in the building of mosques in the United States. This often resulted in the spread of a conservative form of Islam. American Muslim university students who were influenced by the theologically conservative trends formed the Muslim Student Association in 1963, and in 1969, the Muslim Community Center of Chicago. The mosque had a mainly South Asian congregation.
Also, in the 1960s, a momentous revival of Korean Buddhism was taking place in the mountain monasteries. As Korean emigration to the United States increased, monks from this revival also came.
Christianity was growing even faster in Korea and establishing denominations and seminaries that would soon send thousands of trained religious workers to the United States.
In China the Culture Revolution, which started in 1966, closed all churches and banned all religions until after 1976. The unanticipated result was disillusionment with the Communist Party and a growing demand for an ideology or religion that would give meaning, order, peace, and freedom to Chinese. To the surprise of many, this resulted in an explosive growth of Christianity that eventually sent believers and teachers to the United States.11
The Vietnam War propelled an interest in Vietnamese Buddhism. The notable teacher Thich Thien-An started teaching in Hollywood, California, in 1966. His version of Zen Buddhism included the Theravadin tradition of Southeast Asia and the Pure Land traditions. After the war’s end, hundreds of thousands of refugees came to the United States, bringing their faiths.
An assertive, some say nationalistic, Hinduism also made its appearance in the 1960s with the founding of VHP of America in 1969 in New York City.12
In the 1970s a combination of native-born growth, immigration, and catastrophic global events lead to a quicker pace of religious change among Asian Americans.
Chinese American Christianity grew quickly. Churches founded in the 1950s saw significant growth in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, First Chinese Baptist Church in Chinatown Los Angeles grew with a major influx of immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, making it one of the largest Chinese American churches in the nation. In New York City, Chinese Americans from Southeast Asia (many had fled China after the Communist takeover) started the Overseas Chinese Mission. Its nine-story building in Chinatown housed the largest Chinese American congregation on the East Coast.
Many Chinese American Buddhists were still meeting in home devotional groups, but they also started expanding their institutional infrastructure. In 1970 Master Hsuan Hua and the Sino-American Buddhist Association renovated a mattress factory into the influential Gold Mountain Monastery. The Buddhist teacher started four more temples between 1975 and 1984.
The next year, the Eastern States Buddhist Association started the Mahayana Temple and sponsored the immigration of dozens of nuns and monks in the following years. These protégés went on to found various associations and temples, including the China Buddha Association, the Buddhist Association of the United States, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association of America, the Eastern Buddhist Association, and the Grace Gratitude Buddha Temple on Eldridge Street.
South Korea’s Christian population grew rapidly between 1960 and 1985. They were fervent; they established Christian schools, hospitals, and other organizations, and they were identified with modernization. The Korean immigrants to the United States were young urbanites who were the most likely to be Christian in South Korea. They started hundreds of churches, from which have come some “name brands” in the Korean American community.
In 1973 a group organized Young Nak Presbyterian Church, which became the largest Korean American congregation in Los Angeles and a community leader.
The revival of Korean Buddhism came to the United States through the activities of monks and laypeople. In 1972 the monk Soen-sa-nim came to the United States and founded several temples, including the Providence Zen Center in Rhode Island and the Chogye International Zen Center in New York. A Korean layman founded the Korean Buddhist Sambosa (Temple of the Three Treasures) in Carmel Valley, California.
Several catastrophic events affected Asian American religions in the 1970s. The civil war leading to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 spurred an influx of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, and consequently the establishment of mosques. In 1974 changing United States and Soviet Union policies allowed Russian Jews to emigrate to the United States. About 14 percent of the 700,000 Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States were Central Asian Jews who held with worship services with Asian characteristics.
Then in 1975, the Communist Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. The movement executed up to one-third of the population and particularly targeted the religious clergy. The victors almost annihilated the population of the traditional Khmer Buddhist monks and killed every Christian pastor whom they could identify. They destroyed temples and turned several Buddhist monasteries into torture centers. About 150,000 Cambodians made their way to the United States accompanied by a few surviving Buddhist monks.
This disaster was only the opening scene to a vast influx of Southeast Asians as the Vietnam War came to a close. Buddhist and Christian Southeast Asians established many religious centers scattered around the country. Refugee resettlement agencies landed several thousand Southeast Asians in Louisiana. The Vietnamese American community settled around their veritable ethnic cathedral, the Mary Queen of Vietnam Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans. In New Iberia, there arose the Wat Thammarattanaram, a Theravada Buddhist temple of Laotian Americans.13
In the 1980s, Asian American religion started to go to outer space. In 1985 the U.S. astronaut Ellison Onizuka became the first Buddhist in space. During the flight, Onizuka wore a medallion with the Japanese Buddhist Jodo Shinshu crest. (Later, Sunita Williams, a devotee of the Hindu deity Ganesha, carried the sacred Bhagavad Gita during her space flights, and Kjell Norwood Lindgren, originally from Taiwan, played the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes from the International Space Station.)
Asian American Buddhists initiated several important ventures. Thai Buddhists founded several wats (temples) in California and New York. Lu Shenguan of Taiwan started the unconventional True Buddha Sect in Seattle, Washington, and spread temples elsewhere in the United States. Taiwanese Buddhists of a tradition that propounds “humanistic Buddhism” built the massive Hsi Lai Temple in the Los Angeles area. Following the “humanistic Buddhism” of Reverend Tai-Xu (d. 1947), Taiwanese Buddhists built the Jade Buddha Temple in Houston, Texas, in 1989. This form of Buddhism includes more emphasis on social services, moral reformation, and theological purity than some other Buddhisms.14
The decade ended with the crushing of the Chinese Democracy Movement in Tienanmen Square. The United States government granted 52,425 Chinese permanent residence. The growth of Christianity among the “Tienanmen generation” was quite noticeable. Sociologist Fenggang Yang, himself from a university in Beijing, concluded that Christianity had become a template for sticking together Chinese, American, and Christian identities.
Another dissident to China’s government, the Tibetan Dalai Lama, won the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. He also promoted the consolidation of a Tibetan American community. At his Madison Square Garden gathering in 1991, he performed rituals to initiate his followers onto the path of pure Buddhahood. Eight years would pass before this initiation ritual was repeated in the United States.
Indonesian Christians, mainly, and also Muslims arrived in numbers never seen before. In New York City several Indonesian churches flourished, and a mosque Masjid Al-Hirkmah was built in Astoria, Queens.
In 1990, Filipino American Catholics held a historic series of meetings in San Francisco with Roman Catholic Church leaders. The Filipinos complained that they had been “shut out” from the churches. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the policy board for Catholics in the country, issued their A Catholic Response to Asian Presence with an admission of a neglect of Asians and an unwelcoming “coldness.” Ten years later, the church opened a national Filipino Apostolate headquarters, the Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz in New York City.
In 1993, Muslims from radical mosques in Brooklyn attacked the World Trade Center. However, the full dimensions of the growth of a violent anti-Western Islam out of the conservative reformation was not realized until the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Asian American Muslim leaders realized that their criticisms of moral corruption in the United States, which were spurred by concerns over their children, had been manipulated by the radicals. Asian American Muslims decided to emphasize an appreciation of the United States as their home and its values and to combat terrorism done in the name of Islam. This change of emphasis was seen in the polling of mosque leaders before and after the 9/11 attacks.
President George W. Bush invited Muslim leaders to the White House in a show of support for their place in America. In various ways the government has worked to ensure a place for Islam, including Asian American Islam, on the public square. In several notable speeches, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the building of a mosque near Ground Zero with the injunction to an audience of imams, “There is nowhere in the five boroughs of New York City that is off limits to any religion.”
However, this turn-around is still ongoing. The main problem is setting up enough educational programs for the training of imams in the United States. At present most of the imams come from conservative programs located overseas. Some have resorted to Cyber Islam for education, but that venue is also filled with websites for turning younger Muslims toward violence and martyrdom.
Asian American religions continue to grow at a fast pace, a reflection of demography and their own activism. Among Christians, Asian Americans are nicknamed “God’s Whiz Kids” for their dedication to education, innovation, and religious activity.15 Asian Americans are a growing presence in church planting and religious leadership. The “Jeremy Lin” fervor of 2010 that swept through Asian American congregations is also representative of the emergence of a lively pop culture that reflects Asian American religions.
In 2014, there were 1678 Chinese churches listed in a United States directory. In 2015, there were over 3,000 Korean Christian congregations, and hundreds of other congregations and religious organizations associated with other Asian American nationality groups. An active Indian American Catholic Bobby Jindal ran for the presidency of the United States. And in 2016, the leadership of two of the most prominent evangelical Christians organizations was assumed by Asian Americans. Korean American Michael Oh became head of the high-profile international mission group the Lausanne Movement. Tim Lee, whose parents came from Taiwan, will become the leader of one of the most important evangelical campus organizations, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Hundreds of Buddhist, Taoist, and popular religious temples and ritual places are also popping up. Asian American Muslims are founding mosques at a record pace. In New Jersey, Zoroastrians just opened their first temple.
Next year, the world’s largest Hindu temple will open in New Jersey, the BAPS, or Bochasanwasi Akshar Puruhattam Swaminarayan Sanstha.
Over the last fifty years, Asian Americans have increased their portion of the general population in the United States over eightfold. In 2012 their eighteen million people accounted for about 5.8 percent of the population in the United States in contrast to their.7 percent in 1965.
Note: Based on the total Asian-race population, including adults and children. There is some overlap in the numbers for the six largest Asian groups because people with origins in more than one group–for example, “Chinese and Filipino”–are counted in each group to which they belong.
By 2008 the number of immigrants from Asia outpaced that of every other immigrant group, including those from Central and South America (ACS 2010, U.S. Census). Immigrants coming from China today are more numerous than those from any other group, including those from Mexico.
In 2011 Asia sent 723,000 international students to the United States, the largest group being from China (158,000), according to the International Institute of Education.
However, the Japanese American population is slowly shrinking.
Yet, the national origins of Asian Americans are very diverse, and their socioeconomic achievements are not uniform. The size of Asian American groups ranges from small tribal groups to the over four million with Chinese ethnic origins. Asian Americans have ethnic origins from over twenty countries, ranging from Pakistan in west Asia to the Pacific Islands east of the Asian landmass. Over one in five (23 percent) Asian Americans have an ethnic Chinese background, 20 percent Filipino, 18 percent Indian, 10 percent each Vietnamese and Korean, and 8 percent Japanese, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Seven smaller groups number more than 100,000 people: Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Pakistanis, and Thais.
Asian American religions have had quite a dramatic history, and likely will have a growing role in the United States culture and society.
Asian American Beliefs, Doctrines, Worship, and Rituals
Almost three-quarters (75 percent) of Asian Americans identify with a religion. Another 13 percent or more have religious beliefs in God, spiritual forces, the continued life of deceased ancestors as spirits, or the importance of celebrating religious holidays.
While fewer Asian Americans rate religion as very or somewhat important (69 percent) in their lives than does the general public (82 percent), they attend (32 percent) weekly worship services at only a slightly lower level than the general public (36 percent).
The highest commitment to religious faith as very important in their lives is found among evangelical Protestants (79 percent), mainline Protestants (64 percent), and Catholics (64 percent).
The believers who are least likely to rate religion as very important to their lives are Buddhists (27 percent) and Hindus (32 percent). Moreover, the children of Buddhist parents are much more likely to leave the Buddhist faith for a religious identification as a none or Christian than are Hindu children.
Asian American religious beliefs are often associated with particular ethnicities and national origins. Almost two-thirds (61 percent) of Korean Americans identify themselves as Protestants, mainly evangelicals. 65 percent of Filipino Americans are Catholic, 52 percent of those unaffiliated with a religion are Chinese American, and 51 percent of Indian Americans are Hindu. Japanese Americans are split three ways in their religious identification, with 38 percent as Christians (mainly Protestant), 32 percent unaffiliated, and 25 percent Buddhist.
Note: 2012 Asian–American Survey. Q30. Figures may not add to 100% due to rounding. General public numbers are based on aggregated data from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the people & the Press in 2011, except where noted.
Asian American religious institutions reflect the fact that 74 percent of Asian Americans are foreign born. The first generation tends to set the language, culture, and mores of the congregations and worship sites. However, the presence of a large minority of 1.5 (born overseas, came as children) and 2+ generations continues to create challenges surrounding conflict resolution, congregational styles, and transmission of religious values and beliefs.
The Asian Americans have also become the best-educated and highest-average-income group in the United States. The achievements mean more material and intellectual resources for Asian American religious groups. However, Asian Americans also have to be wary of amplifying the existing class divisions in the nation’s religious movements. In seminaries, colleges, and religious organizations, there has been a bit of blindness about the spiritual plight of the working and lower middle classes.
Asian Americans have significantly higher median household incomes than does the general public in the United States, according to the 2010 American Community Survey. Asian American income is $66,000 in comparison to the $49,000 for the general population. Among Asian Americans, Indian Americans have the highest median income at $88,000 per year.
These higher incomes reflect the fact that United States immigration policy has favored the better-educated and higher-income professionals, the Asian American immigrant success ethic, two-parent families, and a concentration of education in fields that pay better after graduation. Asian Americans are three times more likely to be in science and engineering (14 percent) than is the general public (5 percent). Fewer Asian American children (15 percent) are born into single-parent homes than are children in the general population (37 percent).
In The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld claim that the package of successful traits includes a feeling of group superiority, personal insecurity, and high impulse control. According to sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, Asian Americans bring a strong “success frame,” which is strictly defined as earning a degree from an elite university and achieving employment in a high-status field.
The emphasis on “group superiority” may leave a bad taste in some less-privileged mouths. An increasing isolation of upper- and professional-class Asian Americans from working and lower-middle-income classes could lead to racial tensions.
A Korean American sociologist found that in her study of Christian fellowship groups at high-status universities in New York City, there were unintentional class divisions. The majority of Asian American students came from high-income families, and their conversations about ski trips and BMWs drew a line between them and the working-class and lower-middle-class students.
Further, an overemphasis on high achievement looms over the Asian Americans who are struggling with education and lower incomes. Although on the average 49 percent of Asian American adults have a college degree, the highest of all the major racial/ethnic groups, young Southeast Asian Americans face an uphill battle in reaching higher education. Only 16 percent of Vietnamese Americans have a college degree. Laotians, Cambodians, and Khmer have rates of college degree completion around 5 percent.
Another social context has presented challenges to Asian American religious communities. In the 21st century, Asian Americans are intermarrying across ethnic and racial boundaries at a high rate. Between 2008 and 2010, 35 percent of recent Asian newlyweds were married to someone of another race or ethnicity. Many others married across Asian ethnic lines, according to the American Community Survey in 2010 (U.S. Census). A majority of Japanese Americans and Filipino Americans intermarried someone from another racial or ethnic group, according to a Pew Center analysis of census data. About one-third of Koreans (39 percent), Chinese (35 percent), and Vietnamese (27 percent) also intermarried in 2011. The children of white–Asian American marriages tend to identify themselves as white. “Interracial” identities are also on the rise.
It is uncertain how Asian American religious organizations will respond to the intermarriage challenges. What happens when an Asian American congregation becomes mostly not Asian American? Will multi-racials feel incorporated into the Asian American experience? Vice versa, are whites prepared to redefine what “white” means? In the past, Italian and Irish Americans moved from “black” to “white,” but not without a lot of pain. How will Asian American whites (and Hispanic whites) fare?
Large numbers of Asian Americans are also refugees from religious persecution, extreme violence, and poverty. Various refugee programs and treatment centers for the victims of torture have developed to handle some of the problems of refugees, including Asian American refugees. Cultural differences can lead to mistakes in compassionate care. The consequences of religious miscommunication between a Hmong family and medical professionals was vividly told by Anne Fadiman in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and The Collision of Two Cultures.
Chinese Christians and other religious believers fled the severe repression of the Communist government that enforced its atheist ideology. The current president of China has reiterated the importance of atheism for the Communist Party and its policies. Other countries like India and Indonesia have policies of toleration, but religious minorities often face discrimination, prejudice, and violence. Muslims and Buddhists from Bangladesh have come to the United States to get away from civil war and poverty. Burmese Christians and Muslims fled an authoritarian government and religious repression. Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian religious believers fled the Vietnam War and religious repression. Some Filipino Catholics and Protestants left their country to get away from the iron-fisted rule of Ferdinand Marcos.
Note: The “All Christian” category includes Protestants, Catholics, and other Christians. Subgroups are listed in order of the size of the country-of-origin group in the total Asian–American population. Those who did not give an answer are not shown. Other religion, Hindu and Buddhist not shown for some subgroups.
Asian American religious refugees sometimes remain quite active in promoting democracy or relieving suffering in their countries of origin. The Dalai Lama is hosted by American Tibetan Buddhists during his periodic forays to the forums promoting Tibetan independence and freedom of religion. Bob Fu, a Protestant evangelical, and Harry Wu, a Catholic, have been prominent Chinese Americans fighting on behalf of the persecuted religious believers in China.
More recently, some young evangelical Asian Americans have revived the social reformism of earlier evangelicalism. Although their liberalism is often more of a reflection of current Western liberalism, some Asian Americans are trying to connect it to the earlier Chinese, Korean, and other Asian Christian traditions.
The 1.5- and second-generation Asian Americans have generated several new theological approaches. First, they are continuing their grandparents’ dialogue with the Confucian strand within Asian culture. However, the issues are different because of the different historical context. Whereas early 20th-century Chinese Christians wrestled with whether to depose the emperor, the younger generations of the late 20th century wrestle with whether to rebel against their parents, the mistreatment of minorities, and conservative gender mores. The younger generation, sometimes, has pushed back against the perfectionist expectations of their parents and the idea that they have to be a “model minority” in American society. Some have criticized the strong authority and conservatism of the Chinese American churches as unbiblical practices.
The problem of how to honor their parents while becoming independent adults has sparked a number of books and articles. One aspect of the conversation is how peace can be achieved and how to avoid church splits over such issues.
Christianity from China to America
By far the largest portion (42 percent) of Asian Americans are Christian.
The most common religious beliefs and doctrines among Asian Americans are those associated with evangelical Christianity. However, the various Asian American social contexts have wrought a different emphasis on the meaning of these beliefs.
Asian American Protestants started out connected closely to the evangelical, missionary wing of the Protestant movement. The evangelicals emphasized a belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who historically came and was resurrected for humanity’s sins, that salvation comes with faith in Jesus, that this is the gospel (“good news”) that should be evangelized (told) to the world, and that the Bible is the God-given book by which all men and women should be guided.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Protestant movement split between evangelicals and those who followed a more liberal theology. The liberal group felt that they were closer in spirit to Jesus’s concern for the poor and flexibility toward people of other religious faiths. Some called this the “social gospel,” though some evangelicals agreed with the part about concern for the poor. The theological division tore through foreign missions and affected to a greater or lesser degree the theology of Asian American Christians. On the whole, Asian American Christians sided with the evangelicals. (However, today, West Coast Asian American churches associated with the older Protestant denominations tend toward theological liberalism, as do Japanese American churches.)
The Chinese imperial government saw evangelical Christianity and its missionaries as representatives of the threat of the Western powers that were pressuring, sometimes violently, the Chinese imperial government to give trade concessions. The government instigated Confucians, Buddhists, and Taoists to violently attack Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians.
Confucian traditionalists rejected Christianity without a careful consideration of its strengths as a handmaiden to modernization. As Confucian traditionalism lost ground to the appeal of modernization, Confucian scholars tried “self-strengthening” against the Western intrusion by adapting modern science and technology without providing a place for them in a Confucian holistic worldview. They tried to identify the value of modern science and technology as insignificant in comparison to Confucian values and meaning of life. However, to Chinese modernizers, science, technology, and capitalism appeared more closely related to Christianity or secular Western rationalism. Consequently, the perception grew that Christianity symbolized modernity, freedom for the peasants, and democracy.
The Chinese in America generally supported the revolutionary modernizers in China and often did so as Christians. The state-supported hostility to Christianity and modernization provoked Christian-influenced revolutionaries to fight back. The first great revolutionary attempt to overthrow the Ch’ing dynasty in the mid-19th century was the Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion led by Hong Xiu-chuan, who late in his career styled himself as a brother of Jesus. When the Taipings lost, the imperial government perpetrated a mass slaughter of Chinese Christians. Later revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen and Mao Ze-Dong admired Hung and his fight for peasants’ welfare. Sun, the founder of modern China, became a Christian.
Chinese Christians in America raised support for Sun’s revolution to establish the Republic of China. So, at this point in time, evangelical Chinese Christians supported a democratic reforming spirit against the Confucian legalism and traditionalism as embodied in the Chinese imperial government. Chinese pastors pointed out that salvation through belief in Jesus Christ was also a freedom from legalism and traditionalism. Chinese Christians also became divided by the civil war among the Chinese government, warlords, Communists, and Nationalists.
Before World War II, some of the Chinese Christians associated with the mainline Protestant churches in the United States became supporters of the Communist revolution, and some later became leaders of the Communist-approved Three Self Church in the People’s Republic of China.
However, most evangelical Chinese Christians were wary of the Communist movement, which was based on a radical rejection of religion. Consequently, after the triumph of the Communists and the jailing and execution of evangelical leaders, the Chinese American church turned away from its involvement with secular affairs outside of the United States. They tended to become strong supporters of the Republic Party and focused inwardly toward church and family strengthening.
Confucianism did not disappear from Christian churches. At the same time that Christianity was associated with democratic, even revolutionary, ideologies, Chinese Christian pastors adapted some Confucian values like respect for elders, patriarchy, and religious traditionalism. This approach allowed them to emphasize that Chinese Christian churches were Christian while also being distinctly Chinese.
The result was resistance to theological innovations, support of a strong authority of the church leadership, and politics that favored the Republican Party. Although the ideas of liberal social reform lay dormant in evangelical churches, they lived on as a part of mainline Chinese American church teaching.
Christianity from Korea to America
A similar identification of evangelical Christian theology with modernity and political reform took place in Korea in opposition to the authoritarian rule of the Japanese empire. Each year, Korean churches hold special services to remember the role of Korean Christians in the independence movement. On March 1, 1919, thirty-three Korean leaders announced Korea’s independence as a challenge to the Japanese occupation. Although at this time in Korean history Christians made up less than 5 percent of Korea’s population, they made up half of the signers of the independence proclaimation. For this bravery and because Christians are more concentrated in the urban, science, technological, and business sectors, Christianity became associated with the modernization movement.
After the Communists took over North Korea, Christian leaders in the north fled anti-Christian witch hunts. Then the Communists invaded South Korea, which was aided by a defense led by the United States endorsed by the United Nations. The majority of Christian leaders became decidedly more conservative and orientated to the United States. With the mainline Protestant churches, however, a left-wing movement arose against the authoritarian South Korean governments.
Today, among most Korean American churches, the theology is conservative, the politics conservative, and the lifestyle mores conservative. Among some mainline Protestant and Catholic Korean Americans, the tendency is more liberal.
Christianity from Japan to America
In Japan the growth of Christianity was cut short by fierce persecution. However, later in America, second-generation Japanese Christians led a break from Shinto-influenced Buddhist authoritarianism.
Before World War II, the Shinto-influenced Buddhist priests represented the imperial ideology and authoritarianism of Japan. However, young Nissei like Daniel Inouye (who later became a United States senator from Hawaii) rejected the emperor-centric imperialism that was taught in the Buddhist schools. Inouye recounted to his biographer how in the 1920s–1930s the Buddhist priest in his school promoted Japanese emperor ideology. “Day after day the priest who taught us culture and Japanese history hammered away at the divine prerogatives of the Emperor. One day, when the priest was attacking Christianity, Inouye demanded that he respect his Christian faith in the same way that the boy respected his teacher’s Buddhism. Inouye was thrown bodily out of the school, and he never went back.” The Christians formed their own schools.
Christianity from the Philippines to America
Prior to 1898, Catholic priests in the Philippines served as advocates and intermediaries between the Spanish autocracy and the Filipino people. However, this role was continually compromised by the fact that there was no separation of church and state. In the late 19th century, an independent Catholic Church grew quite large. Its presence laid the groundwork for the future growth of Protestantism. The independent Catholic Church and the Protestants became advocates of Philippine independence and democracy.
After the American takeover in 1898, the separation of church and state forced the Catholic hierarchy to connect more closely with the Filipino people. The church started ordaining indigenous priests and involving lay leadership, including female Filipinos. The church gradually moved from its role as an advocate within the system of power to a role as an independent voice by 1986.
In the 1980s Cardinal Sin and other leaders of the Catholic Church mostly supported the People’s Power Movement, which led to the formation of a functioning democracy.
Filipino American Catholicism is focused on the sanctity of the family. It also has a number of traditions and practices that make it unique in the American Catholic Church.16
The Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—is a divine model for the church, the human nuclear family, and the extended family, a clanlike structure of multiple families with strong connections. The family is overseen by the Holy Father (the pope), and other fathers (the priests). The emotional attachment to the pope is very strong.
Filipino Catholicism consequently places a great emphasis on devotions to Santo Nino (the Holy Baby Jesus) and the Virgin of Antipolo.
The veneration of the Virgin of Antipolo started in the late 17th century with the arrival of a statue of Mary that physically resembles a Filipina woman. The icon was carved in Mexico out of a dark wood and made several trips back and forth until finally settling in the Philippines. Consequently, her figurine is also known as “Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage.” Other important Marian celebrations include Foers de Mayo and Salubonga at Easter.
Buddhism from Asia to America
Buddhism is resurging in the Chinese community, particularly with the help of Buddhists from Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Korean and Japanese American Buddhism is growing not as much or not at all. There are several Buddhist traditions that are well represented in the United States. The traditions (or schools) have a great deal in common with one another.
All the schools base their teachings and practices on the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. The Noble Truths affirm that enlightenment comes when a person can stop self-centered desire and control. The way to escape the self-centeredness and reduce the suffering in the world is through the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhist practices like meditation and prayers. Each tradition or school of Buddhism centers their interpretation of these essentials of Buddhism around a particular book for the Buddhist scriptural canon and with an emphasis on certain practices of worship and living a Buddhist life.
For example, the T’ien-tai school focuses upon the Lotus Sutra and the Huayen (which is based on the Avatamsaka Sutra). The Lotus Sutra has a tale similar to Jesus’s story of the prodigal son. Tien-tai is an intellectual school and emphasizes textual study like Reformed Protestants emphasize detailed theological study of the Bible.
Ch’an Buddhism (Zen) is distinctive in its emphasis on meditation to move one toward a direct seeing (enlightenment) of your own Buddha nature. Enlightenment about the ephemeral nature of selfishness may be aided by manual labor and farming.
Pure Land Buddhism focuses upon the faithful recitation of Amitaba’s name, which, if you have faith, will ensure rebirth in the Pure Land where, enlightenment can be achieved. Often, Chan and Pure Land are practiced together with the Pure Land being enlightenment of the mind.
A Reformed or “engaged” Buddhism has spread to America since World War II. Drawing from Christians practices, this Buddhism is more socially and politically active. Two of the major forms of Reformed Buddhism that have a large visible presence in the United States is His Lai and Tzu Chi.
Chinese American Buddhists also practice and combine a medley of other traditions.
Most Chinese American Buddhists are not so strictly tied to a textual tradition. Most laypeople see Buddhism through the lens of the practices and visual icons of popular Chinese religion. It is not uncommon for the Buddhist priests at a funeral to give deft, thoughtful sermons that are mostly ignored in favor of attention to the chanting and burning of money and paper copies of earthly treasures for the sake of the departed family member.
Most Asian American Buddhists believe in ancestral spirits (67 percent) and reincarnation (64 percent), according to the PEW survey on Asian American religions. Many believe that spiritual power resides in physical things such as mountains, trees, or crystals (58 percent) and see yoga as a spiritual practice (58 percent).
Asian American Buddhism is often more about ethnic and familial identity and symbolism. Few Asian American Buddhists (12 percent) attend weekly worship services and prefer to practice their religion at home by tending a shrine. Relatively few (14 percent) meditate on a daily basis.
Southeast Asian Buddhists have a more active relationship to their faith. For example, Vietnamese American Buddhists are more likely to say their religion is important to their lives and have a shrine at home. However, few attend worship services on a weekly basis or meditate daily.
Their Theravada Buddhism also differs in a number of ways from other Buddhisms. For example, Thai American Buddhists perform merit-generating ceremonies in which their performance causes good karma to wash over the worshipers and the world, and to take away the “sin” of the dead so that they may be reborn into a higher status in their next lives.
Popular Chinese religion and Taoism from China to America
Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, popular or folk religion, which mixes reverence for local deities with elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, has made a tremendous comeback. The most famous is the apocalyptic Falun Gong, which grew so fast from a spiritual exercise group to a nationwide religious movement that the Chinese government made it a top priority to eradicate. Some of their leaders and practitioners fled to the United States, reportedly with secret Chinese agents behind them, and have become boldly active.
Perhaps the most pervasive divine presence among Chinese who follow popular religion is the Kitchen God, whose icon is found in many new Chinese immigrant homes and restaurants.
Every village and town in China also has local good- and bad luck-beliefs and gods that are brought to the United States by some of their followers.17 Some Chinese immigrants identify certain times as propitious, like days or years that have the letter eight, and some foods and clothing as beneficial or deleterious, depending on the circumstances. There are many of these beliefs, which vary quite a bit by religion, but mostly they reflect popular Taoist ideas of Yin and Yang and the values associated with the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west. Tai Ch’i, which can be secular or religious, also has roots in Taoist practices.
The priests, often called masters, at Chinese popular religious temples listen to problems and help believers pray for the sick, give thanks for safe passage in immigration, and ask for solutions to difficult problems. The masters may interpret dreams and visions given as response to the prayers. Or the master may go into a trance as he or she is inhabited by the local deity and deliver advice and interpretation of dreams. Ken Guest has portrayed how Master Lu, a Fujianese immigrant to New York City, became a spirit medium for the god of Fuqi village with the name of He Xian Jian.18 Lu grew up in a Buddhist home with a devotion to the Chinese bodhsattva Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy. During the Cultural Revolution, his mother secretly prayed that her son would get to America.
Some friends of Lu suggested that he should pray to He Xian Jun, who they claimed was very effective in answering prayers. After praying, Lu indeed had a dream in 1973 of a person wearing a long white robe talking about the two Chinese characters for writing the month of April. He interpreted that the robe, which could be up to 12 feet long, meant that he would travel to America by 1985, arriving in April. That is what happened, Lu points out.
There are dozens or more of these masters, and their success here rebounds back into their villages of origin in the form of new temples, publications, and training institutes.
There are also some masters who practice strictly Taoist forms of religion without as many of the practices of local popular religion.
To the extent that they are devout, Buddhists, Taoists, and popular-religion practitioners perform similar daily rituals of burning incense and saying prayers before an icon in their homes and have similar life-cycle rituals.
The “nonreligious” Chinese Americans are not necessarily devoid of what many people would call religion. Often, they will revere sacred statutes; perform rituals at home, on holidays, and at life-cycle events; and perform prayers. They might not see this as “religious” but merely practicing Chinese culture, paying respects to their ancestors, and ensuring family continuity.
Of course, Protestant Chinese Americans generally see those practices as superstition. Catholic Chinese Americans ae somewhat divided over the issue, and this has been the cause of various “rites controversies.”
Hinduism from South Asia to America
Hindus relate to a variety of deities and sacred texts that take on different importance according to the regions of India. Also, after the encounter with Christianity, Hindu reformers insisted that Hinduism is actually monotheistic with one supreme God manifested in different forms with different names. Of course, people of other faiths may not perceive Hinduism that way.
Hindus do not have a single founding figure like Jesus in Christianity, nor a single sacred text like the Bible or the Quran. Hinduism has a complex history with numerous heroic and evil figures and a large set of intricately wrought texts.
Asian American Hindu temples may take on a northern Indian or southern Indian style; most take on the southern style. Each temple tends to have a central deity to which it is dedicated with other subsidiary deities that are also important to devotees. Also, Hindus from the Caribbean and Africa have brought some different styles to their public worship, temples, and home religion.
Almost all Asian American Hindus see their religion as important to their lives. Most do attend temple during holidays like Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. However, as a whole, Hindus practice their faith more often at home than at the temple. Over three-quarters (78 percent) have a shrine in their homes, while only 19 percent attend weekly temple worship services. Families may also get together for satsangs (devotions, literally meaning “congregation of truth”) to build friendships, learn Hindu teachings, and hold bala vihars (child development meetings). Gavindankutty Nair, the founder of one such group in the Los Angeles area, observed, “Christians have the church as a support group; Hindus don’t have anything.” So, he and some other south Indians founded an association of about twenty families that gets together regularly. Asian American Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice (73 percent), and over half (59 percent) believe in reincarnation and astrology (53 percent). Asian American Hindu-run businesses often have a shrine and perform periodic ritual devotions.
Islam from Asian to America
Almost all Asian American Muslims believe in one God, or Allah, and most say that religion is very important in their lives, according to data from the 2011 PEW survey of Muslim Americans. Indeed, almost half say that they do the five required prayers a day. The same number also say their prayers at least once per week in a mosque or Islamic center. 48 percent of mosque leaders in the 2011 Mosque Study of 524 leaders drawn from 2106 mosques noted that most of their close friends are within the Muslim community. A third also participate in other kinds of social and religious events at a mosque.
However, over half (56 percent) of the mosque leaders in the United States in 2011 said that they take into account both modern conditions and Islamic teachings in making decisions.
Around two-thirds of Asian American Muslims are Sunni, many fewer are Shiite, and about 20 percent list “Muslim” without specifying a specific community of Islamic belief. A small number offer various other Islamic denominational identities.
When focused within the Muslim community, a plurality maintain that there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of Islam. However, a majority are more relaxed about interpretational differences among Muslims, agreeing that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of the Quran.
This relaxed view of the majority also carries over to attitudes toward religions and cultures outside of the mosque. A majority allow that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” However, many differ with this view, saying that only Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life.
Before 9/11, Islamic preaching in the United States often focused upon how corrupt and immoral the nation was. Afterward, Asian American Muslim leaders joined others across the country in recognition that their harsh condemnations of American culture were inconsistent with their anger at the terrorist attacks. By 2011 a majority of mosque leaders disagreed with the condemnation of American society as immoral. By all reports, this is a dramatic shift. Consequently, mosque leaders are adamant that they want to be involved in American society. Indeed, over half of mosque leaders of all ethnicities and national backgrounds in 2011 noted that many of their closest friends are not Muslim.
Religious Nones from Asia to America
“Nones” are more prevalent among Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans than among most other ethnic groups in the United States. According to data from the 2012 PEW Survey of Asian American Religions, over half of Chinese Americans (52 percent) identify as agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular”; 33 percent of Japanese Americans made similar identifications.
However, the religiosity of Chinese and Japanese Americans may not be adequately captured by standard questions on religious identity and affiliation. The 46 percent of Chinese Americans who came from the People’s Republic of China have had limited opportunities to explore or articulate their beliefs as a “religion.” The Communist Party is atheist and is in constant conflict with religious groups.
Chinese American practitioners of popular or folk religions may see what they are doing as continuing Chinese cultural traditions and family identities. Many would not identify home or business rituals or paying respects and prayers to icons in their temples as “religious” or belonging to a religious denomination. To a lesser extent, such phenomena may occur among Japanese Americans who say that they are not religious but still feel connected to Shinto or Buddhist cultural traditions. Sociologist Grace Davies calls a similar cultural affinity with Christianity among European nones “vicarious religion.”
Among Chinese Americans, 36 percent identify themselves as “nothing in particular,” 16 percent as agnostic, and 13 percent as atheist.
However, among these Chinese American nones, 16–19 percent say that religion is “somewhat important” to them, and 44 percent of those who identified their religion as “nothing in particular” said that they believe in God, as do 24 percent of the atheists. Among Japanese Americans, the figures of belief in God by nones are slightly lower.
Another nuance is that Japanese Americans (46 percent) and Chinese Americans (39 percent) believe in qi, a name for spiritual energy. If you question the leaders of Tai Chi practitioners in New York City’s Chinatown (the place from which American version of Tai Chi originated) about their experience while doing their exercises, many will say “I feel the spirit (qi) come down over me.” Although tai chi can be practiced naturalistically, these respondents feel that they are having a spiritual experience. 46 percent of Japanese American “nothing in particulars” believe in “qi” or “spiritual energy.” Both Japanese American (47 percent) and Chinese American (44 percent) “nothing in particulars” believe that their deceased relatives continue to exists as spirits.
Most celebrate Christmas. Almost all Chinese Americans celebrate the Lunar New Year, and many practice its religiously inspired customs and celebrate a spring festival (Chingming) of sweeping the graves of their ancestors. Many Japanese Americans keep home shrines, an idea that originated from the Buddhist and Shinto traditions.
Asian American Religious Organization and Leadership
Among Chinese Americans, mainline denominations and their white missionaries dominated early church planting, which took place mainly on the West Coast. Even today, there is a significantly higher concentration of mainline Chinese churches on the West Coast than there is anywhere else in the United States. This also meant that the older West Coast churches today are more often inclined toward the liberal theology that dominates their parent denominations.
However, the churches established after 1965 tend to have no affiliation with an American denomination or have affiliations with evangelical denominations. Non-denominational evangelical churches make up about half of all Chinese American churches. About 20 percent of Chinese churches in the United States today are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Chinese American pastors mainly train at evangelical seminaries, though some go to the few seminary or Bible institutes that have been established by Chinese Americans.
Recently, several independent churches and church networks in China have established churches in the United States or incorporated already existing Chinese churches into their networks. However, the independent mainland Chinese churches have only a loose network relationship to Chinese American churches because the Chinese government is resolutely fearful of the “linking and connecting” movements as a threat to its power. Some Chinese American Christian leaders have established official relations with the government-approved and -controlled Protestant churches (about half of which are inclined toward an evangelical theology). The fast growth of Christianity in China will continue to have an impact on the Chinese American church scene.
Denominations have a more important role among Korean Americans than they do among the Chinese Americans. The most popular Korean American denominations are Presbyterian. Many churches are also affiliated with the Methodist and Baptist denominations. There is also a large number of churches that are affiliated with the Assembly of God, Holiness denominations, or are non-denominational. The Korean American churches that are affiliated with the mainline Protestant denominations are markedly more conservative in their theology than the liberal theological trends in their denominations.
Korean Americans have established dozens of seminaries and Bible training institutes. They also have substantial number of enrollees at evangelical seminaries. Quite a few Korean American pastors received their training at seminaries in Korea, which are well developed.
Most Korean American churches emphasize strong authority of the pastor and have an elaborate eldership system. Even Methodist, Baptist, and Assembly of God churches have elders, which their parent denominations do not have. The reasons for the high involvement of members in such leadership roles include the satisfaction of giving status to Korean Americans who lost status by immigrating to the United States and gaining the commitment of family networks and resources to the ministry of the local church.
Catholic Korean Americans do not often have their own Korean parishes. In the New York City/New Jersey area, there are only three Korean American parishes, although there are over twenty-five Korean Catholic communities scattered through the churches. Most Korean American Catholic communities operate within multi-ethnic parishes. The small number of specifically Korean American parishes has meant that Korean American Catholics are less involved with their churches.
Korean American Buddhists have increased their number of temples in the United States, but they have had difficulty in recruiting enough priests. Few Korean American Buddhists participate much in their temples because the structures are often located away from Korean population concentrations and offer few social services and educational programs. Most of the temples belong to the Chogye Order, though a few are affiliated with Won Buddhism, which was established in 1916 as an act of independence from Japanese control.
In the United States a religious challenge for Filipino Catholics is that their population is so spread out that there are few concentrations that can sustain a specifically Filipino parish. Consequently, Filipino Catholics have either integrated into the Anglo churches or formed home prayer groups and Filipino centers in which extended families and friendship networks can have fellowship. Filipinos are also involved in a vast array of social, religious, and philanthropic groups that parallel their sense of Filipinos as one vast extended family.
Filipinos have often complained that the “Irish churches” (i.e., white churches) did not provide a welcoming atmosphere to Filipinos and were “cold” and “shut out” Flipinos from deep involvement in Catholic life. In the 1980s, this dissatisfaction spilled over into dramatic confrontations at meetings in San Francisco. As a result, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the central collaborative body on national Catholic policies, took measures to give more recognition and resources to Filipino Catholics. In 2000 the church opened a national Filipino Apostolate headquarters at the Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz in New York City.
The mosques of Asian American Muslims are governed by a board of laypeople (mainly men). The imam and muzzerin (the caller to prayer), if the mosque can afford one, are appointed by the board and is usually trained overseas. After the founding of the mosque, the board is self-perpetuating by choosing its successors.
South Asian mosques, in common with other mosques, do not have membership, but worshippers are often related by language, nationality, and region of origin. Families grow up together through attendance at mosque events. Men are more often present at the worship services, which are usually segregated by gender. Mosques often have Quran memorization and other educational programs. They are moving to offer more community services. A number of Asian American Muslim women have begun to challenge the gender-role divisions found in the mosques. Most mosques are orientated toward a school for imams that teaches a particular brand of Islam. These are networks rather than denominational ties, however.
Asian American Muslims mostly adhere to the Sunni tradition, so prefer schools with this perspective. A minority trace their lineage back to the Shi’ite tradition. Both traditions have conservative and more modern networks in regard to how strictly Islamic law is followed, how separate believers must be from outsiders, and support of or opposition to militancy. A mosque may be very conservative and network with other conservative mosques, but this does not mean having an interest in politics or militant Islam. Relatively few South Asian American mosques have veered toward militant networks. Many mosques are vigilant against such tendencies. Consequently, Cyber Islam has emerged as an alternative for people who want to network with militant groups.
However, there are also many nonmilitant educational alternatives in Cyber Islam. There are still limited educational opportunities for imam-level studies, so many South Asian Americans either go overseas to study or study on the internet.
Literature Review, Notes, Suggested Readings
The written history of Asian American religions has hardly begun. So far, the history of Asian American religions is lightly scattered in general Asian American histories, overviews of specific Asian American religions, biographies, and congregational histories.
Review of the Literature
From 1965 until the late 1990s, Asian American studies largely overlooked the religions of Asian Americans. R. Stephen Warner’s edited collection Gatherings in Diaspora. Religious Communities and the New Immigration, published in 1999, included a fresh look at immigrants through the lens of religion. His work, which he said illustrated a new paradigm for understanding religion and society, inspired many to follow his example. In the same year, Fenggang Yang published his path-breaking book Chinese Christians in America. Other scholars like Robert Orsi, who were following a plan to understand religion as it is actually lived, collected their work in Gods of the City.
The results of the new attention to Asian American religions came in the form of dissertations and collections of new materials. Nine months before the September 11, 2001, attacks, Tony Carnes and Anna Karpathakis published New York Glory. Religions in the City, a collection of research on religion in America’s largest city with several chapters on Asian American religions. Contrary to predictions by social scientists who studied New York City, religion had not disappeared in importance in urban America, but was growing fast.
Multiple projects and notable collections of material came out in the early 21st century on religion and immigration and, specifically, on Asian American religions. They include several outstanding works like Pyong Gap Min and Jung Ha Kim’s Religions in Asian America; Ho-Youn Kwon, Kwang Chung Kim, R. Stephen Warner’s Korean Americans and their Religions; Jane Naomi Iwamura and Paul Spickard’s Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America; and Tony Carnes and Fenggang Yang’s Asian American Religions: The Making and Remaking of Borders and Boundaries.
Since then, researchers and journalists have filled in various gaps and proposed new theories and research and reporting needs. Some of the outstanding contributions are listed in the “Suggested Readings,” and those works can guide readers to other worthy works in the field.
There are still tremendous gaps to be filled in our knowledge and understanding. We have only scratched the surface of the history, current life, and looming challenges of Asian American religions and their global impact. We need studies of the lived religion, the objects of their faith, their creativity, their controversies, culturally sophisticated and psychologically deep profiles of their leaders and laypeople, much greater collections of original materials, and a commitment by museums to archive, analyze, and display the religious history of Asian Americans. There is a great need for street-by-street mapping and personal investigation and reporting on Asian American religions in each major entrepot city. We need to communicate the oral histories and everyday religious lives of Asian Americans. We also need more work with the materials that we already have. There is still much to be learned from the PEW surveys and other surveys.
- Carnes, Tony, and Fenggang Yang, eds. Asian American Religions: The Making and Remaking of Borders and Boundaries. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
- Chen, Carolyn. Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
- Chen, Carolyn, and Russell Jeung, eds. Sustaining Faith Traditions. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
- Connor, Phillip. Immigrant Faith. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
- Eiichiro Azwma, Between Two Empires. Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Fjeldstad, Karen, and Thi H. Nguyen. Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Mediums in a Transnational Age. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
- Fong, Ken Uyeda. Pursuing the Pearl: A Comprehensive Resource for Multi-Asian Ministry. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999.
- Hoang, Linh. Asian Pacific American Religious Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
- Hoang, Linh. Rebuilding Religious Experience: Vietnamese Refugees in America. Saarbrucken, Germany: AkademikerVerlag, 2012.
- Hoskins, Janet. The Divine Eye and the Diaspora: Vietnamese Syncretism Becomes Transpacific Caodaism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013.
- Iwamura, Jane Naomi, and Paul Spickard, eds. Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America. New York: Routledge, 2003.
- Lee, Jonathan H. X., Fumitaka Matsuoka, Edmond Yee, and Ronald Y. Nakasone, eds. Asian American Religious Cultures, vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015.
- Min, Pyong Gap. Preserving Ethnicity through Religion in America. Korean Protestants and Indian Hindus across Generations. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
- Min, Pyong Gap, and Jung Ha Kim, eds. Religions in Asian America. New York: AltaMira, 2002.
- Seligman, Scott D. The First Chinese American. The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo. Hong Kong University Press, 2013.
- Smith-Hefner, Nancy J. Khmer American. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
- Spickard, Paul. Japanese Americans: The Formation and Transformations of an Ethnic Group. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
- Wu, Emily S. Traditional Chinese Medicine in the United States: In Search of Spiritual Meaning and Ultimate Health. Westport, CT: Lexington Books, 2013.
- Yang, Jeff. Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
- Yep, Jeanette, ed. Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents: Asian American Discipleship. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1998.
- Yong, Amos. The Future of Evangelical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2014.
- Yoo, David K. Contentious Spirits: Religion in Korean American History, 1903–1945. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.
1. Unless otherwise noted, most of these statistics are taken from Pew Research Center, Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2012); Pew Research Center, The Rise of Asian Americans (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2013); and Pew Research Center, U.S. Religious Landscape (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2014). Also see American Values Atlas (Public Religion Research Institute, 2015). Available online. Ihsan Bagby, American Mosque Project (Faith Communities Today, 2011). Available online.
2. The basis of this historical narrative includes references to works by Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake (Boston: Shambhala, 1992); John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York before Chinatown (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999); Timothy Tseng, “Asian American Religions,” in The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 253–264; Thomas A. Tweed and Stephen Prothero, Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); and the archives of A Journey through NYC Religions, “Retros,” A Journey through NYC religions, New York, January 2017. Available online.
3. Christopher Viboon Chua, “The Sacredness of Being There: Race, Religion, and Place-Making at San Francisco’s Presbyterian Church in Chinatown” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2014).
4. Joseph R. Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate (Berkeley: University of California, 1965).
5. Mildred Crowl Martin, Chinatown’s Angry Angel, The Story of Donaldina Cameron (Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1977).
6. Martin D. Seligman, “Joseph Thoms: Defending America’s Chinese”.
7. Ho-Youn Kwon, Kwang Chung Kim, and R. Stephen Warner, eds., Korean Americans and Their Religions (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001); and Bryan Hayashi, For the Sake of Our Japanese Brethren: Assimilation, Nationalism, and Protestantism among the Japanese of Los Angeles, 1895–1942 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University, 1995).
8. "Mosque City NY 2015." A Journey through NYC Religions.
9. Cf. Ho-Youn Kwon, Kwang Chung Kim, and R. Stephen Warner, eds. Korean Americans and Their Religions (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).
10. Daniel K. Inouye with Lawrence Elliott, Journey to Washington (Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall, 1967), 27–37; and William Petersen, Japanese Americans (New York: Random House, 1971), 61.
11. Fenggang Yang, Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
12. Prema A. Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table. The development of an American Hinduism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007).
13. Carl L. Bankston III, “Bayou Lotus: Theravada Buddhism in Southwestern Louisiana,” Sociological Spectrum 17.4 (October–December 1997): 453–472; and Carl L. Bankston III, “Vietnamese-American Catholics: Transplanted and Flourishing,” U.S. Catholic Historian 18 (2000): 36–53.
14. Fenggang Yang, “The Hsi-Nan Chinese Buddhist Temple Seeking to Americanize,” in Religion and the New Immigrants, eds. Helen Rose Ebaugh and Janet Saltzman Chafetz (New York: Altamira Press, 2000), 67–87.
15. Rebecca Kim, God’s Whiz Kids (New York: New York University Press, 2006).
16. Stephen M. Cherry, Faith, Family, and Filipino American Community Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014).
17. Jonathan H. X. Lee, Kathleen Nadeau, Lanham, et al., Asian American Identities and Practices: Folkloric Expressions in Everyday Life (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014).
18. Ken Guest, God in Chinatown (New York: New York University Press, 2003).