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.
Connie A. Shemo
The history of East Asian religions in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the broader history of United States–East Asian relations, and specifically with U.S. imperialism. For most Americans in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, information about religious life in China, Japan, and Korea came largely through foreign missionaries. A few prominent missionaries were deeply involved in the translation of important texts in East Asian religions and helped promote some understanding of these traditions. The majority of missionary writings, however, condemned the existing religions in these cultures as part of their critiques of the cultures as degenerate and in need of Christianity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement in the United States, women missionaries’ representations of East Asian religions as inherent in the oppression of women particularly reached a large audience. There was also fascination with East Asian religions in the United States, especially as the 20th century progressed, and more translations appeared from people not connected to the foreign mission movement. By the 1920s, as “World Friendship” became an important paradigm in the foreign missionary movement, some missionary representations of East Asian religions became more positive, reflecting and contributing to a broader trend in the United States toward a greater interest in religious traditions around the world, and coinciding with a move toward secularization. As some scholars have suggested, the interest in East Asian religions in the United States in some ways fits into the framework of “Orientalism,” to use Edward Said’s famous term, viewing religions of the “East” as an exotic alternative to religion in the West. Other scholars have suggested that looking at the reception of these religions through a framework of “Orientalism” underestimates and distorts the impact these religious traditions have had in the United States. Regardless, religious traditions from East Asia have become a part of the American religious landscape, through both the practice of people who have immigrated from East Asia or practice the religion as they have learned from family members, and converts to those religions. The numbers of identified practitioners of East Asian religions in United States, with the exception of Buddhism, a religion that originated outside of East Asia, is extremely small, and even Buddhists are less than 2 percent of the American population. At the same time, some religious traditions, such as Daoism and some variants of Buddhism (most notably Zen Buddhism), have exercised a significant impact on popular culture, even while a clear understanding of these traditions has not yet been widespread in the United States. Some understanding of Confucianism as well has recently been spread through the propagation of “Confucian” institutes in the United States. It is through these institutes that we may see the beginnings of the Chinese government exercising some influence in American universities, which, while not comparable to the impact of Christian missionaries in the development of Chinese educational institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nonetheless can illuminate the growing power of China in Sino-American relations in the beginning of the 21st century.
While the term “East Asian” religions is frequently used for convenience, it is important to be aware of potential pitfalls in assigning labels such as “Western” and “Eastern” to religious traditions, particularly if this involves a construction of Christianity as inherently “Western.” At a time when South Korea sends the second largest number of Christian missionaries to other countries, Christianity could theoretically be defined as an East Asian religion, in that a significant number of people in one East Asian country not only practice but actively seek to propagate the religion. Terms such as “Eastern” and “Western” to define religious traditions are cultural constructs in and of themselves.
Craig R. Prentiss
With the slow realization that race was not a category in nature, but rather the fruit of social imagination emerging from colonialism, scholars in the late 20th century shifted their focus to the cultural elements feeding that imagination, including religion and the arts. Although most studies in the field address fairly conventional constructions of religion and the arts (two categories that, like race, have also been destabilized), some studies reveal the potential for these three categories to be co-constituting. Studies addressing religiously themed music, including spirituals, gospel, hip-hop, and a significant portion of country music, have shed light on the ways in which these genres encode and inform racial paradigms. Portraits in theater, dance, and film of ideas and practices associated with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and other social groupings have proven active sites for the production of influential, and often competing, conceptions of race. Stereotypes linking religious and racial classifications are perpetuated as well as challenged in these artistic media. Given that the racial imagination in the United States is articulated using the language of color, painting and sculpture have been instrumental in conveying vivid connections between race and religion. For instance, many paintings celebrating Christianity’s triumph over America’s indigenous people concurrently depicted white dominance over them as well. A theological system rooting skin color in divine decree, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did in its Book of Mormon, helped assure a fair-skinned and fair-haired Jesus would populate its art. The politics of Jesus’ color continued to be played out in painting and sculpture in the United States to the present day, and exemplifies the interaction of racial, religious, and artistic categories.