Fundamentalist America and Asian America

Quick: Which of these two pictures depicts American evangelical Protestants?

Of course, the answer is both.  But a lot of us still have a lingering, politely unmentionable stereotype about the nature of race and ethnicity in Fundamentalist America.

Academic historians of religion in America often lament this knee-jerk connection of whiteness with evangelicalism.  (See, for example, Edward Blum’s recents posts on the subject at Religion in American Life.)

Beyond just African American evangelicals, the connections between non-white America and Fundamentalist America are profound, but complicated.

Yesterday, the Pew Research Forum published the results of a survey that will illuminate the religious lives of Asian Americans.  As the authors titled the report, there is no simple way to pigeonhole this “Mosaic of Faiths.”  Religious identity for Asian American often depends on the country of origin, with Filipinos often Catholic, Koreans often evangelical Protestant, Vietnamese often Buddhist, and Indians often Hindu.  But just as common is a firmly non-religious identity.

“Indeed,” the report describes,

“when it comes to religion, the Asian-American community is a study in contrasts, encompassing groups that run the gamut from highly religious to highly secular. For example, Asian Americans who are unaffiliated tend to express even lower levels of religious commitment than unaffiliated Americans in the general public; 76% say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives, compared with 58% among unaffiliated U.S. adults as a whole. By contrast, Asian-American evangelical Protestants rank among the most religious groups in the U.S., surpassing white evangelicals in weekly church attendance (76% vs. 64%). The overall findings, therefore, mask wide variations within the very diverse Asian-American population.” 

What does this mean for those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America?  First of all, it is another reminder that we need to look beyond deep-rooted stereotypes about the nature of conservative religiosity.  The sweaty Southern tent preacher with snakes in a box and a kerosene-soaked cross up on the hill is a thoroughly misleading picture.  On the campus of the large public university where I work, one of the most active campus religious groups is the Korean Baptist Fellowship, not the traditional Campus Crusade for Christ or Intervarsity Fellowship.

Second, we need to keep in mind that Fundamentalist America no longer maps evenly or neatly onto conservative evangelical Protestant America.  The ecumenism of conservatives got a big boost with Jerry Falwell’s inclusion of Jewish and Catholic conservatives in his Moral Majority movement in the late 1970s and 1980s.  More recently, conservative Catholic scholar Robert P. George and conservative Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf teamed up to demand the elimination of pornography from major hotel chains.  Catholics and Jews have long claimed their roles as part of Fundamentalist America.  And those groups have been given a push in a thoroughly conservative direction from members of the faith from outside the Euro-American sphere.

Perhaps in coming decades we will see more and more partnership among conservative Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others.  After all, this was the claim of scholar James Davison Hunter in his 1991 book Culture Wars.  The America of the 1980s, Hunter claimed, no longer was divided between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, but rather between the “tendency toward orthodoxy” and the “tendency toward progressivism.”  Perhaps the orthodox will continue to widen their boundaries to embrace the mosaic of fundamentalism among the Asian American community.

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2 Comments

  1. Pro-family Christian

     /  April 23, 2013

    I think you have done something you are careful to avoid in other articles, and which you criticise the mainstream press for: categorising conservatives as “fundamentalist” incorrectly. Conservative Jews and Catholics are *not* part of “Fundamentalist America” in the sense of the way you imply: actual Fundamentalist Jews (Haredim) stay in their separatist communities in Brooklyn etc.and do not get involved in Christian Coalition-type pro family work, though they have their own small pro family political operations.

    “Fundamentalist” Catholics (to the extent they exist, the term having been condemned by the Vatican for reasons even the split-off groups could agree with) i.e. Ultramontanes- such as the Culture Wars site which defends the Crusades and Inquisition and calls Jews Christ-killers, and Tradition in Action/SSPV, the type who condemned Connie Marshner’s Pro-Family Forum for suggesting non-Catholics may be Christian and her book “Decent Exposure” which argued masturbation was not sinful contrary to the hierarchy. are similarly fully separated just as they were in the age of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition.

    In fact, I would say it’s not Fundamentalism without separatism though by the Marty-Appleby “fundamentalisms in society” definition it may be counted as such, by the stricter standards one would apply to Protestantism to distinguish ultraconservative evangelicals (Liberty U, Regent U, Cedarville) from fundamentalists (Pensacola, Ruckman’s Pensacola Inst. & Trinity Baptist College just in the Panhandle- and Michael Palmer’s Victory Christian Academy for sure) the sort of right-wing Jews and Catholics who get involved in the major battlefields of culture war are better described as orthodox than Fundamental.

    PFC

    Reply
    • @PFC, point well taken. Your objection is the main reason why I’ve abandoned the use of “Fundamentalist America” as the intellectual center of this blog. I had tried to use it in the broader sense of “conservatism” or “orthodoxy” as laid out by James Davison Hunter. However, it led to too many oversimplifications like the one you describe. In this case, I think it can be fair to talk about groups as “fundamentalist” even if they don’t subscribe to a more specific self-identification as fundamentalist. But it can also be–and too often is–simply used as a way to dismiss groups or individuals with conservative theologies from the circles of respectable intellectual opinion.

      Reply

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