Religion is a synthetic concept for Asian American studies. It represents much of what animates and vexes Asian American studies as a discipline and Asian Americans in their everyday lives, especially in light of the dynamic flux and flow of the alchemy of identity. Deploying religion as a keyword in Asian American studies demands making accounts of generic sociological data such as religious affiliation, the racializing cunning of Orientalism, the American cultural preferential option for Christianity, and the tenacious presence of white supremacy. Situating religion in a racial discourse about Asian America will inevitably reveal racist associations with the “Oriental” religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other “exotic,” non-Western traditions in the conversation. These are companion traditions to Christianity in the grand narrative known as the “world religions.” And yet, these notably Asian religions are decidedly “other” to the Christian moral and theological norms that have shaped the mythology of American exceptionalism.
Religion refers to structures, beliefs, values, and practices of living, making, and finding meaning. There are overlapping yet critical differences in how religion serves as a keyword for Asian Americans and for Asian American studies. As a keyword for Asian American studies, religion indicates horizons of beliefs, practices, values, communities, histories, traditions, worldviews, identities, and ways of making and finding meaning for Asian Americans. While Asian Americans practice and identify with Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Shamanism, Confucianism, Jainism, Sikhism, and a host of other “world religions” (let alone the huge variety of sects within each of these traditions), leaving the matter of religion to this sort of typology inadequately reflects the complex functions that religion plays in the lives of Asian Americans. After all, what can be said about the fantastically diverse constellation of traditions and practices called “religion” among Asian Americans? Indeed, much needs to be undone in the scholastic affair of naming the religions of Asian America as a sufficient methodological conceit.
The root of the word “religion” derives from the ancient Latin “religare,” meaning “to bind” and “to bind again.” It makes sense to ask, in considering the centrality of religion for Asian American studies, what binds and rebinds Asian Americans? Toward this end, consider the ways in which religion and race configure the social imaginary of Asian America. As Charles Taylor frames it, social imaginaries are mutually constitutive spheres such as the public sphere, market economy, and civil society that form horizons of meaning for modern life. A social imaginary refers to “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations. . . . [A social] imaginary is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (2003, 23). Religion generates social imaginaries for Asian America. It mediates the particular and the general, such as the ordinary experience of being a racialized subject in the American empire. Religion is a social imaginary that provides frameworks of interpretation for making sense of Asian American experience. It marks the convergence of spheres of life and ways of being in the world.
While traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and the like render coherence for Asian American identity, there are negative binding forces at work as well (D. Kim 2003). The specter of Orientalism haunts the discourse about religion in Asian American studies. The vibrancy and visibility of Asian American religious communities intensifies with the massive influx of immigrants from Asia after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. Not surprisingly, much of the scholarship on Asian American religions of the last thirty years has focused on immigration, underscoring the centrality of “the new immigrant church”––where the “church” is a stand-in for temples, gurdwaras, mosques, and non-Christian religious communities. In part, the impetus of this research was a demonstration that Asian American immigrants are bellwethers for an underrecognized and underacknowledged religious diversity/pluralism (Eck 2002; R. B. Williams 1988; Min and Kim 2002; Carnes and Yang 2004). Religious diversity/pluralism is a kissing cousin to the politics of representation. The argument has purchase in the context of a Protestant Eurocentrism and the predominance of white supremacist norms about what “American religion” looks like. Will Herberg is the straw man here. Herberg (1960) articulated the dominant yet wildly inaccurate conceit that America is a nation whose religious stories are readily captured in the mythic triptych “Protestant Catholic Jew.” And yet even when positioning Asian Americans as a corrective to Herberg’s anemic pluralism, one still finds misrecognition and a presentist view at play. It is not simply that religion appears magically among Asian American communities after 1965. Religion has been an integral part of the Asian American experience from the beginning of Asian American history (Takaki 1989; Iwamura and Spickard 2003; D. Yoo 1999).
Again, the specter of Orientalism and white supremacy appropriately pervade analyses of Asian American religions, particularly when giving due credence to histories of Asian migration that reveal the transnational forces of “the church,” Western missionizing, and U.S. foreign policy that sought to establish American-style secularism in shaping Asian American peoples. Think of the complex genealogy of missions and the massive conversion of “heathen” Chinese in Asia and the proleptic racist legacy of these movements in the migration histories of overseas Chinese in the United States. The subsequent structural effects of these forces culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Further, the entanglement of religion and racism helped to animate the social and legislative actions of hatred against “Hindoos,” Japanese, and Filipinos that were patterned after the anti-Chinese movements of the turn of the twentieth century (Robert Lee 1999, 108). Surely, the American wars, imperial and otherwise, in the Philippines, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam have shaped Asian American lives, through the inducement of migrations and the creation of refugees (Prashad 2007, 176). Religion was party to all of these transnational migrations: from the oppositional role of Catholics to American colonization in the Philippines and later to martial rule during the Marcos era; to the resurgence of cultural Confucianism among Chinese and Korean immigrants; to the dispersion and reconfiguring of Buddhism by and among Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese transnationals; to the racialization of South Asians through Islam in post-9/11 America.
It would be a mistake to conclude that these conditions render Asian American religious identities utterly irredeemable. Asian American studies has been adroit in adapting the core insight of the postcolony, namely, that one can never fully exorcise the imperial even after the fall of empire (Mbembe 2001). Religions for Asian American life cannot nor should they exist apart from Orientalism and white supremacy and the overdetermining effects of a Western modernity shaped by Protestantism. Instead, these communities are much better served by gaining a fulsome appreciation for how the horizons of meaning of Orientalism, white supremacy, and the centripetal force of Protestant Christianity shape and racialize Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Islam, and secularism. This is not to say that Asian American Christians feel diminished by their fellow white Buddhists or Christians and the like (Suh 2004). Instead, it is to note that ethnic hierarchies, racial logic, Orientalism, and other characteristics of white supremacy that Asian American studies has vigilantly subjected to critique since its inception operate for Asian American religionists whether they detect it or not. While the lived experience of multiracial Asian American religious communities may disavow its presence in their common and collective spiritual lives, the persistence of white supremacy demands otherwise. Desires for forms of living religion apart from the dehumanizing effects of anti-Asian racism and the constitutive power of race is understandable but unrealizable if not utopian in its aspirations. Longing to be free of the toxic effects of white supremacy in one’s spiritual life makes sense. And yet arguing that Asian American psychic, spiritual, and public life can somehow exist apart from these effects is to insist on a state of false consciousness that is thoroughly at odds with the core practices of critical thought that have been the hallmark of Asian American studies.
Asian American religions highlight a paradox of the American social imaginary. Asian American religions simultaneously function as synthetic stereotypes of Orientalist cultures, inheritances, and racist claims of foreignness, while they also represent archetypes for wooly narratives and celebrations of American pluralism. Which is to say, Asian American religions ably represent the other and the assimilated celebrants of American multiculturalism. As noted by the recent, large-scale study of Asian Americans and religion conducted by the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, despite constituting just under 6% of the American population, Asian Americans have had a disproportionate impact on the valorization of religious diversity in the United States. As the Pew report argues, “[Asian Americans] have been largely responsible for the growth of non-Abrahamic faiths in the United States, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism. Counted together, Buddhists and Hindus today account for about the same share of the U.S. public as Jews (roughly 2%). At the same time, most Asian Americans belong to the country’s two largest religious groups: Christians and people who say they have no particular religious affiliation” (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2012).
Alarmingly, such celebrations of Asian Americans as agents of religious pluralism produce a new variant on the model minority myth. In this context, analysts swap out educational and economic excellence for the civic virtues of multiculturalism, diversity, and pluralism as signs of the exceptionalism demonstrated by Asian American public life. For example, as socially conservative, ethnically coherent, and situatable in an American mythology of felicitous pluralism, the Asian American evangelical resonates with the narrative of Asian America as a model minority in the public sphere (Busto 1996). Just as the model minority myth has overshadowed the suffering and oppression of the vast majority of Asian Americans in the spheres of the economy, culture, and education with its persistent message that Asian Americans are unlike other racial and ethnic minorities insofar as they affirm a bootstrap mythology of American success, the exceptionalist narrative about Asian American Christians as prototypes of minority religious flourishing has obscured and skewed what counts as “acceptable” religion. Overinflating the value of “statistical significance” based on demography––and subsequently undervaluing and not accounting for minorities among minorities like Asian American Muslims and Sikhs––is more than simply methodologically irresponsible; it unwittingly obscures violence and discrimination.
Even as a pluralist narrative about religion in the U.S. celebrates Asian Americans for serving as banners for the multicultural creed, it is critical to see that there is a dark side to this sort of notoriety. Setting aside the specious designation of certain ethnicities as stewards of particular religious traditions (“The Japanese are Buddhists, the Chinese are Confucians, the Indians Hindus. Right?!”), there is an existential problematic that arises in this racialization of Asian American religion. Must Asian Americans cultivate a possessive investment in “our” traditions? How do we contend with the hybridity of these traditions when deep in the mix we find Orientalist remnants such as the fetishization of Asian American faces practicing Buddhism or Hinduism? How might Asian American studies dispatch a constructive critique of this anxiety of authenticity without dismissing the traditions as unviable and irretrievable?
The constitution of Asian American identity through religion, race, and the American imperium has found its most clarifying instantiation in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a climate of opinion in which “Islam” has been transformed from “mere” religion to a symbol of terrorism directed against all things American domestically and abroad, the brown-skinned peoples of Asian descent and those who appear to be vaguely “Arab” have become targets of racism and violence. In a post-9/11 world, religion has intensified the racialization of Asian America. The culture of the American war on terror has intensified the American white supremacist taste for racial reductionism, where the counterpoise to secularized Protestant cultures and peoples is a terrorizing “Islam.” And the racializing logic here is to compact and condense through appearance and ignorance. Asian American Sikhs have been targeted for violence because of a cartoonish presumption that turbans and beards are markers of “Muslim terrorists.” The shooting at a Sikh temple and the alarm over the rising visibility of Asian American Muslims in American public life are exceptions that are proving a white supremacist rule. We also have witnessed the limits and limitations of American multiculturalism in the moral and political indignation over the would-be “mosque” designated for construction in the area near the Ground Zero site in Manhattan. Never mind that the proposed Muslim cultural center found its inspiration in the civic-minded model of the YMCA––the “Young Men’s Christian Association.” Here it was clear that an American supremacist anxiety had trumped the civic virtues of multiculturalism and pluralism. Seemingly “the one” to which “the many” should defer is increasingly intolerant of the brown and the non-Christian. E pluribus unum, perhaps.
Indeed, the continuing racialization of Asian American religions continues to emerge as a difference that celebratory pieties of toleration and diversity find difficult to absorb, let alone cultivate as markers of a vision of collective unity. It is this context that demands Asian American religious communities to engage in the reclamation project of Asian American religious traditions––projects in which Asian American claims to Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and other Asian religions will flourish only through a full and comprehensive racial consciousness. The religions of Asian America necessarily find shade and purpose, specter and meaning in the face of white supremacy and race. Asian America must set aside the wish to live and practice its religious traditions apart from these forces of power. The private and public are porous rather than fully separable. Seeking escape from stereotype by insisting on an alternative authentic archetype is politically naïve and, potentially, an act of bad faith. Seeking recognition for Asian American religions free from the overdetermination of white supremacy and anti-Asian racism is a laudable but ultimately self-defeating enterprise. Socially and politically engaged Asian American Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam do not represent compromises of these traditions but rather are necessary and vital reinvigorations.