Review of Religious Research T he Official Journal of the Religious Research Association ÂŠ Religious Research Association, Inc. 2012 10.1007/s13644-012-0095-9
Rethinking the Connections between Religion and Civic Life for Immigrants: The Case of the Chinese Diaspora Elaine Howard Ecklund 1 , Yi-Ping Shih 2 , Michael O. Emerson 1 and Samuel H. Kye 3 (1) Rice University Sociology Department, Rice University, MS-28, Houston, TX 77251, USA (2) Fu Jen Catholic University, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan (3) Indiana University Sociology Department, Bloomington, IN, USA Elaine Howard Ecklund Email: email@example.com Received: 13 February 2012 Accepted: 31 October 2012 Published online: 1 December 2012
Abstract Through interviews with 33 Chinese American first- and second-generation immigrants, we ask how narratives that describe the link between religion and civic life differ among Buddhists, Christians, and nonreligious Chinese. All groups stress the tight institutional connections between religion and politics in the United States. For Chinese Christians, congregations provide opportunities to serve their fellow parishioners and the wider community, as well as political rhetoric to guide practices. Buddhists actively criticize a religious organizational approach to community service and the US connection between politics and religion, emphasizing the development of inherent ethical dimensions for motivating service to others. And the non-religious stressed the role of religious organizations in facilitating volunteering. There is also a difference between the responses of first- and second-generation immigrants, with firstgeneration immigrants having a more difficult time understanding the meaning of American community service. Results expand scholarship on the connection between religion and civic life.
Keywords Chinese – Religion – Civic life – Narratives – Immigration
Introduction A small number of scholars have investigated religion and civic life among post-1965 immigrants to the United States (Chen 2003, 2008; Ebaugh and Pipes 2001; Ecklund 2006; Foley and Hoge 2007; Kniss and Numrich 2007; Levitt 2008). By civic life,1 we mean broadly the ways individuals view and practice their commitments to non-economic activities that are voluntary and strengthen American society. In their comprehensive examination of volunteering, Musick and Wilson (2008, p. 3) write of such behavior, “[Volunteering’s] goal is to provide help to others, a group, an organization, a cause, or the community at large, without expectation of material award.” As such, civic actions are also generally concerned with improving the common good, and they are often related to local community service and political participation (Musick and Wilson 2008; Putnam 2000; Wuthnow 1999, 2003). Here we ask how Chinese Americans understand community service and political participation. In addition, how do religious frameworks play a distinct role in this process, if at all? Using narratives of Chinese immigrants, this study examines how the relationship between religion and civic life may differ among Buddhists, Christians, and nonreligious Chinese. Scholars of late 19th- and early 20th-century European immigration saw religious participation as a central part of developing identities as American citizens. High levels of cultural and religious assimilation were expected to include immigrants into the networks and institutions of American society, including mainstream American civic life (Gordon 1964). Scholars argue that due to structural and cultural constraints (e.g. being unfamiliar with social customs and civic practices), such immigrant groups face difficult transitions into civic involvement (Musick and Wilson 2008; Tossutti 2003). But post-1960s immigrants may challenge these assumptions, both about civic inclusion and civic action that is religiously motivated but occurs outside religious organizations. Recent immigrants, and particularly Asian immigrants, have assimilated more quickly into the economic mainstream, bringing with them professional and managerial status from their native countries (Zhou 2006). And contemporary immigrant groups (such as those from the Caribbean and China) also have more diverse racial, ethnic, and religious identities than those of early 20th-century white, Christian immigrants. While the largest proportion of recent immigrants identify as Christian, there are increasing numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, and even those who have brought new forms of Christianity (Alumkal 1999; Cadge and Ecklund 2006, 2007). Research on civic life among post-1960s immigrants mainly focuses on political incorporation and whether or not religion provides resources that help immigrants gain citizenship or a vote (Lien 2004). A small set of studies also examines the extent to which immigrant religious organizations provide social services (formally or informally), with a main focus on
social services for other immigrants (Ebaugh and Pipes 2001; Min 1992).
Immigrant Religion and Civic Life Religion continues to remain vitally connected to civic life (for an exhaustive review see Bekkers and Wiepking 2007). Not only do religious organizations provide places within a community for public gathering, but scholars have also argued that congregations provide practical resources for civic engagement, such as leaders, networks, and frameworks for political involvement (Fowler et al. 1999; Hart 1992). Research has found that this connection remains strong among non-white groups; for example, the strong link between religious life and volunteering among African Americans (Hall-Russell and Kasberg 1997; Musick and Wilson 2008). Scholars of religion and immigration are beginning to ask whether and how the religious organizations of first- and second-generation immigrants extend their reach beyond the boundaries of the immigrant community. Religious organizations often provide their members with motives for volunteering and connections to local forms of religious or nonreligious community service (Ecklund 2006; Wuthnow 1999). And religion may provide a moral narrative that encourages helping others outside a personâ€™s own religio-ethnic community (Chen 2008; Ecklund 2005, 2006; Wuthnow 1991, 1995). In particular, researchers are starting to look at the ways in which ideological and doctrinal differences among certain religions might influence the connection between religious life and community service. For example, Chen (2002, 2008) shows how a Taiwanese Buddhist religious organization and a Taiwanese evangelical Protestant religious organization differ in their framework for and practice of public engagement, with the Buddhist temple focusing much more on service to those outside the religious organization than the Evangelical congregation does. And Cadge (2005) compares a largely white American Theravada Buddhist temple and a Thai Theravada temple, showing how the Thai temple consistently emphasizes ritual to uphold its ethnic traditions, whereas the American temple consistently deemphasizes ritual and outreach to the community. And Ecklund (2005, 2006) reveals that Korean American evangelicals within the same social class and same religious tradition have different narratives for community service depending partly on whether they participate in a co-ethnic or multiethnic congregations. Using data on Asian Americans from the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, Ecklund and Park (2007) found that Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, and Hindus participate in community volunteering at different degrees. Hindus and Buddhists are less likely to volunteer than the nonaffiliated â€”possibly because civic life in the United States is more organizationally based than individually based. This may leave Hindus, Buddhists, and those in other religious traditions with a less established infrastructure that is disconnected from organizationally based US civic life. Immigrants who are part of Protestant religious traditions, Ecklund and Park argue, may be more likely to be asked to volunteer by
community service organizations since their organization leaders connect with one another. Survey researchers also study how religion shapes the political participation of immigrants, particularly Asian Americansâ€”who, according to the 2000 Census, accounted for more than 40 % of immigration between 1990 and 1999. Among Asian Americans, for example, Lien (2004) finds that those who are involved in a church are more likely to vote. Likewise, Cherry (2009) finds that religion is a vital resource used by Asian American Christians across a broad range of civic engagement measures. Compared to other religions (Islam and Buddhism) and other immigrant groups (Koreans, Indians, West Africans, and El Salvadorans, for example), members of Chinese churches specifically have the highest rates of voter registration, but not other forms of political participation, such as campaigning (Foley and Hoge 2007). There is evidence that religious identities sometimes mix with racial and ethnic identities to undergird new political coalitions among immigrants and their children. For example, researchers find that evangelical Protestant and traditional Catholic Latinos are defying the conventional liberal/conservative allegiances and are more like black Christians in that they are economically liberal but socially and morally conservative (Espinosa et al. 2003; Leal et al. 2005). Chinese Americans, on the other hand, have conservative religious tendencies (Carnes and Yang 2004), with Chinese Christians more politically conservative than other Asian Americans as a whole (Lien 2004). Yet we do not know how conservative religious values might relate to civic life among Chinese Americans. Views of the connection between US religion and politics are often influenced by political participation models and transnational ties received by immigrants from their nations of origin (Levitt 2002). Although not well studied, the relationship that immigrants continue to have with their home countries also might have an impact on civic life. If immigrants are extensively involved in the political life of their country of origin, we might imagine that they will be less involved in US politics. Levitt (2009) finds, however, that immigrants are more involved in a large global religious system than ever before. It stands to reason that if religious systems facilitate civic life, they will do so in both the country of origin and the United States (Levitt 2009). Once immigrants gain access to the American political system through forms of participation like citizenship, voting, and campaigning, they can join US political factions that are fostered by ideological allegiances (Lien 2004).
Chinese Americans Here, we look specifically at Chinese American immigrants in the United States (first- second-, and 1.5 generation). We examine their narratives for connections (or lack thereof) between religion and civic life and, where possible, connect such narratives to particular civic practices. We examine issues related to religion and civic life among this specific immigrant ethnic group for a number of reasons. First, Asian Americans constitute one of the two fastest-growing racial groups in the United States,
with Chinese Americans representing the largest population in this group. Furthermore, Chinese immigrants have a long history in the United States that gives their ethnic community resources not shared by more recent groups (Alba and Nee 2003). Strong kinship ties to their ethnic community, a well-established ethnic enclave economy (e.g., Chinatowns), and ethnic segmentation of the housing market have provided Chinese immigrants with a unique context in which to build social solidarities within and beyond their ethnic boundaries (Zhou and Logan 1991). Such measures of social integration and networks are important given their positive relationship with increased volunteering and with a greater belief that oneâ€™s volunteering is effective (Collett and Morrissey 2007; Wilson 2000). Chinese Americans generally achieve middle- to upper-class status fairly early in their migration trajectory, and they also have higher educational attainment than many white Americans (Cao 2005), although certainly not all Chinese Americans are high SES. The class distinctions are important because such differences can influence how immigrants understand civic life. In general, those who have more financial resources give more in civic contexts (although this relationship is curvilinear after a certain point, with the very wealthy giving much less in proportion to their overall income and resources) (Wilson and Janoski 1995). Ecklund (2006) found that for a group of Korean American evangelicals who are all part of the same class structure, the type of religious organization they are part of (multiethnic versus monoethnic) shapes the way that class is interpreted in relation to community service. Post-1960s Chinese immigrants also obtain US citizenship fairly quickly compared to some other immigrant groups, such as Mexican Americans. On the whole, all of their civic resources provide Chinese Americans with a base from which to negotiate civic identity and participation (Lien 2004). Still, Chinese Americans in the United States are a diverse group. Recent Chinese immigrants come from a number of national contexts, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, where individual citizens and religious communities have different kinds of relationships to the state (Chai 2010; Cunfu and Tianhai 2004; Yang 1998, 1999; Yang and Tamney 2005; Yang and Ebaugh 2001). Chinese immigrantsâ€™ nation of origin may have an impact on their religious selection and conversion after relocating to the United States. In China, for example, the state carefully manipulates and controls all kinds of religion. As Yang (1998) argues, coerced modernization in China has promoted Chinese immigrantsâ€™ increasing conversion to evangelical Christianity. In Taiwan, on the other hand, religious organizations function as negotiating powers with the state. Taiwanese religious organizations are often treated as crucial civic groups that have frequent contact with local communities. Chinese Americans have gradually changed and incorporated US religious and civic institutions. Studies find a growing phenomenon of conversion to Christianity among Chinese Americans (Cao 2005; Hall 2006; Ng 2002; Yang 1998; Zhang 2006). Researchers also find that Chinese immigrants have different ways of selectively representing Chinese and American cultures at church (Ng 2002), creating individual and new forms of religious practice and meaning under the same Christianity. These studies lay a solid foundation for us to understand how Christianity influences the ways in which Chinese
Americans adapt to the US and the civic roles they play. With the exception of a very small body of literature (Chen 2003, 2008; Ecklund and Park 2005; Lien 2004), we know little about the connection between religion and civic life among Chinese Americans, especially when civic actions occur outside of organizational and congregational contexts, among nonreligious individuals, and across different religious traditions. Here, we push the literature on religion and civic life among new immigrants and their children forward in new directions (Cadge and Ecklund 2007; Chen 2008; Ecklund 2006; Ecklund and Park 2007). Specifically, we expand the results of existing survey research on factors that influence civic participation (See Ecklund and Park 2005, 2007). We see religion as more than an independent variable that influences factors such as rates of voting or hours spent in community service, and we join the researchers who have done in-depth qualitative studies in considering how multiple religious groups within the same ethnic group view the connection between religion and civic life (See Ecklund 2005, 2006; Ecklund and park 2005; Chen 2008; Hondagneu-Sotelo et al. 2004). We do this by specifically examining the narratives related to community service and political participation among the following Chinese American groups: Christians (Catholics and evangelicals), Buddhists, and the nonreligious.2
Methods The data for this paper consist of interviews with Chinese immigrants and second-generation Chinese Americans. Initially, 43 letters requesting interviews with Chinese American respondents (all of the Chinese respondents who participated in a publicly accessible dataset, the Portraits of American Life Study) were sent out over a six-month period between September 2007 and February 2008. We sent each potential respondent a 15pre âˆ’ incentiveanda20 post-incentive if the interview occurred. In total, 33 in-depth interviews were conducted either in person (16) or over the phone (17). Nineteen of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin (by one of the co-authors), while the remaining 14 were done in English. While certain degrees of class variation existed in our sample, most respondents came from upper-middle class or professional backgrounds. Although our study cannot hold class constant, the largely similar class backgrounds of our respondents helps to mitigate any influences class differences may have had on how respondents understood civic life. Of the 33 respondents, 18 were currently working in professional occupations ranging from accounting, law, engineering, government, etc. An additional six respondents had retired from, or had spouses working in, similar professional status occupations. The remaining respondents had either recently arrived to the US and were looking for work or were university students. Realizing the diversity within a group often labeled uniformly as â€œChinese immigrants,â€? we take into account the various regions of origin from which our respondents
(or their parents) originally immigrated. Seventeen of the respondents were from mainland China or were second-generation Chinese whose parents came from the mainland. Six of the respondents were from Taiwan, and six were from Hong Kong. Four of the respondents were immigrants who had migrated from China to another country within Asia before migrating to the United States (one from Vietnam, two from Indonesia, and one from South Korea). Overall, twenty of the respondents were first generation, six were second generation, and seven were 1.5 generation. Although some researchers define “1.5 generation” according to a specific age of migration to the United States (Alba and Nee 2003), we allowed the respondents to self-identify as 1.5 generation. Our respondents were also living in a variety of geographic regions across the country. Most of them came from the California area, while others came from Texas, the Midwest, or the Northeast. While California and New York have historically hosted the largest concentrations of Chinese Americans, cities in Texas, such as Houston and Dallas-Fortworth, and those in the Midwest, such as Chicago and Detroit, have continued to also see their Chinese populations rise. Consequently, we believe the geographic locations of our sample of Chinese respondents to reflect the larger picture of Chinese Americans in the US.3 In this paper, we are not primarily concerned with whether and where these respondents volunteer or whether or not they vote. Rather, we are concerned with the kinds of narratives Chinese Americans have for the relationship between religion and volunteering as well as religion and political incorporation. These narratives are not representative of all immigrants or of all Chinese immigrants and their children. Instead, the narratives from this small sample shed light on the ways that some immigrants perceive their civic participation and religious involvement. We largely present analysis from respondents’ answers to the following questions: What role does religion or spirituality play in your life now? What did community service look like in the country from which you migrated? Could you tell me a little more about what kinds of political and community-service activities you or your parents were involved in, in your home nation? To what extent does religion currently play a role in you serving those outside your own community? [If respondent is part of an organized religion,] does your religious organization [or church or temple or center] play any role in your volunteering? To what extent are you still involved in the politics of your home country? How do your religious commitments figure into that involvement? Do you see religion and politics as connected in the US? [If “yes,”] How do you see the current connections between religion and politics in the US?
How does this compare to the way religion and politics were connected in the nation you migrated from? The interviews were mainly conducted by one co-author in order to cut down on inter-interviewer subjectivity and because of language facility. They lasted between 20 min and 2 hours, with an average time of about an hour. The interviews were translated and transcribed, and codes were developed in relationship to the above questions. Each of the codes was applied by more than one author in order to achieve coding consistency.
Narratives of Religion and Volunteering Organizational Basis of Volunteering Our interviews with Chinese Americans revealed that concepts of volunteering often had an organizational basis. In other words, these acts of civic engagement were centered on helping a religious organization survive or on participating in community service activities that bridged the religious organization with the broader local community. Chinese Christians, in particular, connected volunteering to religion through contributions to religious infrastructure. For example, we interviewed a Chinese American man4 in his late 20s who was a first-generation immigrant. He migrated from Hong Kong and lived in Monterey Park, CA, where he worked as an electrical engineer. He described himself as a Christian who attended a Catholic church. When the interviewer asked how religion connected to volunteering in the United States compared with volunteering in Hong Kong, he explained that in Hong Kong, volunteering was a matter of “just trying to get [parishioners] to go to the church [when] they need some people to serve in the church.” Later on in the interview, when the man was asked whether he currently volunteered, he explained that volunteering might mean for him to “help clean up the church,” explaining that recently he “built steel molding for the church.” Notice that there is no sense that volunteering might mean involving himself in activities outside the church. The same sentiment was expressed by a first-generation Chinese man5 in his early 60s who came from Taiwan and works as a travel agent. He talked in a precise, short style and was suspicious of the study. Before talking about himself, he asked many questions, such as the interviewer’s last name, nationality, and age. Upon being asked whether he volunteered in Taiwan, the respondent stated, “Yes, I evangelized… I wore a white robe which said: ‘I am a sinner,’ walking on the street.” Furthermore, when asked whether he volunteered and how his religion figured into volunteering, he explained that if he saw trash he would pick it up. Describing himself as a Christian, he went on to explain, however, that his primary form of volunteering would be for his church community. In his words, “I will help in church, move chairs, save folding chairs—this is volunteering, too. Arrange seats for women, children, and old people at church; this can be called volunteering, too. … You cannot just sit there. Religion
always asks people to be good. Being good can be various expressions from your behaviors.” It is clear that while this man sees volunteering as generally being moral, the practice of volunteering happens mainly in his church community through acts of service to others in his congregation. We shouldn’t be surprised that Christian Chinese Americans emphasized their congregation’s role in linking them with volunteer activities or that their volunteer activities often occur within their congregations. Researchers who study civic life argue that US volunteering has an organizational basis; Individuals learn how to volunteer in organizations, and one organization will often contribute its members for volunteer efforts in another organization (Eckstein 2001). Other individuals in our respondent group said that if they were to volunteer outside their congregation, it would be mainly through the kinds of activities sponsored by their congregation. Consider a Chinese American woman in her early 30s,6 a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan currently living in Austin, TX, and working as an attorney. She was part of an evangelical7 church she described as “Baptist” and saw her religious identity as “just a Christian.” She defied neat conceptualizations of generational status. She came to the United States when she was 2 years old, went back to Hong Kong at 9, and then came back to the United States again at 14. As a result, she is completely fluent in English as well as Cantonese. Her father was a professor in Hong Kong, which makes it fairly clear that she was raised in an upper-class family. She also has a strong religious background; her father works as a pastor in the United States, and she is very active in churches both in the United States and Hong Kong, embodying Levitt and Jaworsky’s (2007) idea that immigrants can now be part of a global religious culture. The woman explained that she would most likely find volunteer activities through her congregation. When asked to say more about the connection between religion and volunteering, she explained, “I think we would volunteer through different church activities, but in terms of [volunteering] on our own, it was very, very little.” Later on in the interview, she stressed again that “[volunteering is] through church. Here they encourage us to serve the community … we’ve done Habitat for Humanity, we go out there and, you know, help build homes. Let’s see, of course when the hurricanes blew through, we were doing things to help the hurricane survivors or victims.” Perhaps more surprising is that Chinese Americans who are not religious also told us that they would find it easiest to do community service in the United States through a religious organization (Curtis et al. 2001; Hoge and Yang 1994; Lam 2002). Respondents sometimes emphasized the role of Christian organizations in helping them find ways to volunteer, even if they were not themselves religious. For example, we spoke to one Chinese American man in his late 20s8 who migrated to the United States from Hong Kong when he was 9 years old and currently works assembling computers. He explained that he does not consider himself religious and that religion provides him with no moral reason to volunteer. Rather than citing any specific spiritual or religious motivation for volunteering, he said he
volunteers “just to help people, to do what I can.” When he was asked, however, where and when he would find it easiest to volunteer, he said it would be most ideal if “a church asks you, like joining an organization. It’s harder to [volunteer] by yourself.” This interview and others like it are particularly notable because they reveal the potential utility of religious, organizationally based volunteering even for the nonreligious.
Eschewing and Reconfiguring Religiously Based Volunteering On the other hand, nonreligious respondents9 also explained that they do not think individuals need to be religious in order to volunteer. This group of respondents generally stressed negative past experiences with Chinese congregations. Nonreligious respondents specifically mentioned their cynicism of religiously based community service, which they viewed as more about building the reputation of a religious organization than genuinely helping other people. Consequently, several respondents mentioned the importance of helping others through purer motivations. We spoke to one nonreligious Chinese American woman in her mid-20s10 who migrated from China at 11 years of age and considers herself 1.5 generation. She currently works as a bill collector and attests to being an active volunteer. During her 2 hours interview, the woman explained the myriad of ways that she is involved in community service. She began donating blood after the events of September 11th after finding out about blood drives on her college campus. Now, she donates money to a children’s hospital and participates in a Chinese immigrant organization, with a group of Chinese immigrants from the same area in China. Her father is the vice chair of this organization. When discussing the relationship between religion and donating blood or giving money to charitable organizations, two activities in which she regularly engages, she said, “I feel that doing good doesn’t necessarily need a reward.” An emphasis on “religious volunteering” needing purer motivations was also echoed by this nonreligious 34-year-old Chinese woman,11 who is currently a temporary resident applying for her green card. When asked about her volunteer activity, she stated, “I don’t know. I’ve participated through church activities, but I think some people’s motives [for helping others] are not right… I feel that that is not that good.” She went on to say the following: “You know, some people go and say that they want to convert, but they just want to go to the church to eat free food, or they want people to give them free furniture…I am more opposed to things like that.” Although personally non-religious, this woman has attempted to volunteer through the church but has come away with experiences that for her have raised suspicions about the motives behind such volunteering practices. Another nonreligious respondent had a different view of religion and volunteering. This Chinese man, now in his 40s,12 defined himself as 1.5 generation because he migrated from Taiwan to the United States when he was 12 years old. He currently works as an accountant. He defined himself as agnostic and secular, though when asked about his approach to religion, he explained, “I think I’m spiritual and I
think I have strong core values. I have a set of beliefs that I kind of hold strongly to, but I’m not really tied into any organized religion. I probably would have some resistance to organized religions. I mean, they’re OK for other people, just not so much for me.” This man does not currently volunteer. When the interviewer asked him how religion and volunteering connect—if they do at all—he explained, “No, I’m not sure you have to be religious to volunteer. There are a lot of nonreligious volunteer activities that you can participate in. I would have to say no [you do not need to be religious].” Among these nonreligious respondents, there was a recurring pattern of making references to religion even before it was brought up by the interviewer.13 This may show that in the United States, the cultural connotations of community service are so inextricably linked to religion that even nonreligious individuals still feel necessary to include a response to religion in their narratives about volunteering motivations. Our Buddhist respondents de-emphasized the religious—especially the organizationally religious— aspects of volunteering. They rarely talked about their temples or centers sponsoring specific volunteer activities. Instead, Chinese respondents who said they were influenced by Buddhism (sometimes along with other religious traditions or ideas) talked about the importance of developing character and an ethic of helping others as the central contribution of Buddhism to community service. The interviewer spoke with a Chinese American accountant in her late 30s14 who lives in Monterey Park, CA. This 1.5 generation immigrant from Vietnam initially grew up in a US neighborhood that was exclusively inhabited by other Chinese immigrants. The woman’s class status was apparent: She had a Lexus and a Mercedes in her garage, and many luxury cars were parked in the garages of the homes surrounding hers. When asked how she defines herself religiously, she did not know which category Buddhism fit into, saying: “Religious. [I am] Buddhist. What’s that considered? Religious?” At first she had a hard time understanding what the interviewer meant by volunteering. Respondents like her, in turn, had an even harder time understanding how religion might be connected to volunteering, let alone be present in their own volunteer experiences. When the interviewer asked whether Buddhism played any part in volunteering for her, the woman explained, “It’s not because of your religion you have to volunteer; it’s from yourself, from your heart.” Rather than using religious frameworks as an impetus for volunteering, this respondent appears to represent more of what non-religious Chinese had described as volunteering for “purer” motivations. When later asked about the role of her temple, which she attends about once a week, she explained, “I go to the temple, but I don’t get involved with any kind of activities. … I just go to pray and then leave. I don’t stay for long.” She explained that religion should not be a force that propels an individual to volunteer, a stark contrast to her Christian peers. Another woman in her late 20s15 was somewhat typical of those in the sample who had a Buddhist philosophy or practice. This woman is a first-generation immigrant from China who lives in Los Angeles and works as an accountant. She goes to a temple very rarely, but engages in a personal daily ritual of burning incense and considers herself a Buddhist. When entering her home, the interviewer immediately noticed that there was a Guan-Yin (a goddess in Buddhism) in a corner of the kitchen. The woman
explained that she puts scents in front of the Guan-Yin every morning and prays. When asked if she thinks religion ought to be connected to volunteering in any way, she explained, “No. It’s just doing good things. No matter what religion, it’s all about good things.” Like other Buddhist respondents, she explained that she might even be critical of a Buddhist temple that promoted one form of community service over another. Rather, the purpose of coming together—if they came together at all, and many of our Buddhist respondents did not—was to develop a life ethic and a personal character that would translate more broadly into helping others in ways specific to the individual practitioner.
Narratives of Religion and Politics Religion and Politics as Inherently Intertwined Nearly all of our Chinese respondents (Christians, Buddhists, and the nonreligious) saw religion and politics as institutionally intertwined in the United States. More than one respondent chided the interviewer when asked how or whether the respondent saw connections between religion and US politics. They said this was not a good question: Since religion and politics are undoubtedly connected in the United States, the interviewer should be asking instead whether respondents endorsed the connection. Numerous respondents from different regions (Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China) all mentioned that when they came to the United States, they were surprised to find out that “In God we trust” is printed on US currency. A Catholic Chinese American from Hong Kong who now lives in Los Angeles16 clearly displayed his annoyance at being asked about the connection between religion and politics in the United States: “It says it on the dollar bill, right?” Most respondents see US politics as specifically connected to conservative Christian forms of religion. They said that it is difficult to be elected to political office in the United States without being a conservative Christian. A Chinese American woman in her late 30s who classified herself as 1.5 generation and was most religiously influenced by Buddhism17 told the interviewer that “in the US, if you are religious, you are more likely to get elected as president.” She went on to say that, “The other day, I saw on the news, they were talking about religions, and who the religious are, and who they are most likely to pick as a president. So that’s how I found out, like they put it in a category. If you are more religious, you get picked more.” First-generation respondents were likely to describe this intense focus on religion in politics as foreign to them, regardless of whether they came from Mainland China or another Chinese nation. A Chinese American woman in her mid-20s who migrated in her early teen years and considers herself a spiritual agnostic18 explained, “I feel America places a great deal of importance on religion. Or maybe it’s because when I was young in China, I hadn’t been exposed to religion much, so I don’t really understand.”
A second-generation Chinese American in his late 50s who now lives in Los Angeles and works as an optometrist19 considers himself a Christian in a broad sense but is not involved in a religious organization. He believes religion is way too involved in US politics. He thinks “religion and politics should be separate. I don’t think religion should have that much influence on politics or government,” he explained, going on to say that “government should not have that much control over religion because that’s the freedom of the United States; separation of church and state. Church … and any religion and the government should not co-mingle because that’s the problems that we see in the world right now.” The sentiments of this respondent are typical of others who thought religion and politics are too intertwined in the US.
Efficacy of Religious Frameworks for Interpreting the US ReligionPolitics Relationship Religious frameworks, and the specific moral frameworks they provide (Ecklund 2006; Wuthnow 1987, 1991), appear to make a difference in how Chinese Americans perceive the connection between religion and politics. Chinese Christians, for example, talked about the importance of religion influencing politics and often referenced particular conservative evangelical Christian notions of politics, an idea that sometimes appears to have originated in the sending nation rather than having been learned in the United States may be part of a global religious culture (Levitt and Jaworski 2007). For those who are actively part of a Christian congregation (usually evangelicals), their religious participation seemed to motivate their views on political issues. The Chinese Christians we interviewed were either completely uninvolved in politics and did not know their church’s stance on political matters or were very involved in politics and thought a conservative political approach was most warranted. One first-generation Chinese American, a woman in her mid40s who came to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 17 and currently works as an office clerk in an accounting firm,20 explained that although her church encourages protests against same-sex marriage, it does not try to influence her voting decisions. When asked if she thinks there is a relationship between religion and politics in the United States, she said “there has to be … because America is a society based on religion.” When asked about this same relationship in her home nation of Hong Kong, however, she stated, “I don’t think there’s one. There’s not one right now. Chinese people don’t really speak of religion. Religion is just something you do at home.” In her opinion, her US church is not overtly involved in politics, though being a Christian has influenced her views on “homosexuals and stuff,” she said. In her words: Of course I am against [homosexuality]. It’s too scary right now. There’s way too much freedom in schools. My daughter told me that in her school, boys are with boys, and girls are with girls … people hugging and stuff. They don’t think it’s a problem or shameful.
The little ones see this and think it’s normal. [My church is] against it, very strongly against it—for example, signing petitions, and there was a large parade here. A lot of churches went onto the street—is it called a parade? It’s more like a protest. Although this respondent suggested that her church does not have a political influence, it is clear through her affirmation of the church’s practices that her religious framework plays an active role in reinforcing her own political views. However, not all respondents agreed on the connection between religion and US politics. We interviewed one woman in her early 30s who came to the US from Hong Kong and currently works as an attorney in Austin.21 A Baptist Chinese American, she stated that she did not think the relationship between religion and politics was strong enough in the United States. In her words: “I feel like this country was founded on Christian principles, and I think, as a whole, we’ve kind of lost touch with that.” She added that her particular congregation encourages its members to get involved in American politics. The leaders do not tell the members to have particular views on political issues, she said, although in her sense of things, the Bible clearly indicates what Christians should think about certain political issues: “on abortion, on same-sex marriage, … cloning issues, stem cell research, things like that.” When the interviewer pressed her to elaborate on these views, she said, “We feel that the Bible has clear right and wrong answers to these issues [laughs].” She also said that “when the elections come around, [her church] always has the voter’s guide available,” which explains the candidates’ views on the issues most relevant to the things she thinks about as a Christian. Scholars recognize that American conservative Christianity has a variety of political views housed within American evangelicalism (Balmer 2006; Cromartie 2003; Lindsay 2007; Smith 2000). We found, however, that our Christian Chinese respondents (particularly those attending conservative Protestant congregations, even if they did not self-identify as evangelical) emphasized a link between conservative Christian beliefs (and practices) and conservative politics. This may be the most common global connection between religion and politics for those who identity as evangelical Christians. Furthermore, within the United States specifically, the support of Chinese Christians towards conservative political positions may represent the development of finding identity with a new, majority religious status, a contrast to the minority status Chinese Christians currently have in China. Consequently, this distinction may have warranted different political views in comparison to their nonreligious or other minority-religion Chinese peers. For example, Chinese respondents who align with Buddhism, with more than one religious category (e.g. not distinctly Christian), or with no religious affiliation, generally interpreted religion and politics in the United States as being too enmeshed. A Chinese American woman in her mid-40s who describes herself as a Christian but also practices some forms of ancestor worship22 expressed this sentiment: “It’s supposed to be that politics have nothing to do with religion, and they are not supposed to mix.
But I think it mixes over here, even though they say it doesn’t.” When asked how she feels about this connection, she remarked that “we have a Constitution that we are supposed to follow and it [religion] has to be separated.” An agnostic Chinese man in his mid-40s, a 1.5 generation who migrated from Taiwan as a young child,23 also said he feels there is too much religious involvement in US politics, although he appreciates the freedom to discuss the controversial role of religion in US politics. In his words: I actually think there is a strong tie between religion and politics. The sort of ‘religious right’ overrides and it probably, disproportionately, has a lot of influence. I don’t think it’s good; I think it’s not good to impose. It’s a complicated question. Just because everybody thinks it’s the right thing doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. Having said that, you don’t want a small group of fanatics—that’s probably too strong of a word [laughs]—driving all the policies of the US. In contrast, this respondent does believe that the relationship between religion and politics could potentially be more open in Taiwan. As he explained, I think Taiwan is more free than it used to be. But I think that the US is more open for the sharing of information, and it’s easier to voice your dissent. I do think Americans can say whatever the heck they want without repercussion. I’m not sure you can do that as easily in Taiwan. As Ecklund and Park (2005) indicated, we found that Buddhist Chinese at times do view themselves as religious outsiders and religious minorities. In turn, they are either uninvolved or think Buddhist philosophies and teachings would never have a place at the political table because of the extensive power of Christianity in the United States. The formerly mentioned Chinese woman in her late 30s who migrated from Vietnam as a small child24 identifies as a Buddhist and goes to a temple primarily to pray. She explained that people in the United States are too likely to allow their religion to influence their political opinions. In her words: “There should be no a connection in between. Politics is politics. Religion is religion. That’s two different things we’re talking about. … I don’t believe there should be a connection.” Another first-generation Chinese American in her mid-30s who migrated from China, currently lives in Tennessee25 and daily prays to a home altar of Buddha shared her experiences with Christians trying to convert her. When asked about these experiences, she said: “Americans respect everybody, but [emphasis hers] if you tell them you have no religion, they think you are very strange. If you tell them, ‘I believe in this or that,’ they think it is OK. At least you have something to believe in.” She also expressed her belief that religion and politics were too connected in the United States. In her
perspective, Christian churches are too powerful, and Buddhists will not have much influence on US politics because of the their comparative lack of wealth. “The church is very rich,” she said, telling the interviewer that every beautiful building she sees is a church. She believes the connection between the church and politics is unhealthy and the church and state should be more separate. In her view, the church is powerful in the United States and can influence US politics because of its economic strength.
Conclusions Of the factors that influence an immigrant’s understanding of civic life, research has consistently shown that generational status is of great importance. First-generation immigrants, particularly those who have not been in the United States for a long period of time, may have a difficult time understanding the importance and meaning of community service in the US. Furthermore, given their experiences in their native countries, immigrants may struggle to attach meaningful connotations to the term “volunteering.” And narratives among respondents in this study show an inadequate understanding of the US political system may be an obstacle towards developing an interest in politics. For Chinese Americans, our findings suggest that their particular country of origin also matters. Given the size and scope of our data, we can only make meaningful comparisons among those who migrated, or whose parents migrated, from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. For those who migrated from China, the relationship between religion and volunteering appears to have very little meaning because of a lack of organized public religious infrastructure in their home country. This was seen in sentiments similar to this 35-year-old, first-generation Chinese woman26 who, when asked if she had ever volunteered in China, stated, “No. Volunteering was not popular in China at the time. Even if you wanted to volunteer, you just could not find the right place to go.” For those from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the relationship between religion and volunteering seems to be more tightly connected to building religious infrastructure; Christian and Buddhist respondents stressed the importance of maintaining their place of worship, for example. When we examine the connection between religion and volunteering, we find that religious organizations and identities do matter for first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants. They matter in different ways for different religious groups, however. Chinese Christians (some of whom attended congregations that would be described as Evangelical) stress the importance of their religious organization in helping them connect with volunteer activities. Moreover, volunteering is something that occurs primarily within the walls of their churches. This finding is in line with other research on religion and volunteering that emphasizes the importance of congregations in linking individuals with volunteer activities (Becker and Dhingra 2001; Wuthnow 1991). These findings may also reveal that in linking
religion to civil society, Chinese Christians map onto an institutional space that is already occupied by other Christian groups. Our findings also suggest that, in contrast to research arguing that non-Christian immigrant religions adopt a congregational form to fit into the US religious landscape (Warner 1993, 2000; See Cadge 2008 for a different view), such groups (e.g. Chinese Buddhists) may not connect to civic life by drawing on the resources of their temples and centers the way Chinese Christians do. Our Buddhist respondents actually criticized an organizationally based notion of civic life. They argue that participating in a community-service activity solely because it is sponsored by the temple would not be in the true spirit of Buddhist teaching, which they see as promoting the development of individual character traits that foster a spirit of helping others. This remains an area in need of further research, as our findings contrast with prior work that finds temples may be outreach focused in order to prove a sense of loyalty to broader American society (Chen 2008). Our findings confirm that the tangible presence of American notions of volunteering and its perceived connection to religion may have an impact on how immigrants understand civic life. Future research may elucidate the degree to which this impact becomes a positive or negative influence facilitating civic engagement or disengagement. Although we emphasize that our data is limited to Chinese immigrants and should be cautiously used in generalizing to other groups, we suspect that many immigrants who are part of non-Christian religious traditions might have difficulty connecting with the community-service infrastructure in the United States. Because of the perception that US volunteering is organizationally based and further that it is connected with Christian organizations, immigrants in religions like Buddhism, which is not always conceptualized as a religion in the nation of origin and not organizationally based, might have difficulty connecting with such a community-service infrastructure. As other work has pointed out (Ecklund and Park 2005, 2007), immigrants who are members of non-Christian religious traditions may also face a double-minority status when it comes to volunteering (both as non-Christians and as racial minorities). Based on these findings, we suspect that Chinese Christians (and other immigrants who define themselves as Christians) may take part in civic practices that are religiously motivated, and perhaps even be moved to make community-service connections with those outside of their religious and ethnic group (in order to fulfill a perceived call to volunteering through US Christian organizations). For community service more broadly (e.g. volunteering unrelated to churches), however, these groups may be less motivated to act in a similar manner. These and other narratives comparing the place of Buddhism and other non-Christian religions with the place of Christianity in US politics reveal the importance of closely examining how individuals view religious traditions outside their own. Such findings also show the institutional influence of American Christianity as a context for political identities and political incorporation, even for immigrants who are not part of a Christian tradition.
We have only begun to compare how Chinese immigrants with different national origins, religious traditions, and generational statuses build connections between their religions and political identities and practices. Given the diversity of our sample, it is quite striking how truly uniform our respondents’ narratives were in describing the relationship between religion and US politics. No matter their moral interpretation of the situation, this group of Chinese view religion and politics as definitively linked in the United States. In an increasingly globalized world and in a national context in which US-Sino relations continue to grow in importance, it is relevant that Chinese immigrants perceive politics and religion (the “religious right” in particular) as intimately intertwined and that this impression often begins in the nation of origin. This links with other work that more broadly examines the rise of the religiously nonaffiliated as a reaction to the close ties between evangelicalism and the Republican Party, as well as the steady birth rate of first-generation nonaffiliates, who may then raise their children without a religious tradition (Hout and Fischer 2002). Although alternative, liberal religious models for the connection between Christian religion and politics certainly exist (Balmer 2006; Lakoff 2002), such models may not have developed the institutional resources and logics (Friedland and Alford 1991) needed to spread effectively on a global stage (Acharya 2004). As Hoover and Schofield Clark (2002) have argued, evangelicals are historically savvier with new communication technologies when compared to other religious groups given their evangelistic drive to reach more people. On a larger scale, our results suggest that further studies should explore whether Chinese nations see evangelicalism as the dominant religious face of America, and whether Chinese evangelicals in the United States are more aware of their faith. Our results also have implications for other forms of data collection. Those who are able to survey much larger populations of Chinese (and immigrants more broadly) need to take into account the very different meanings that civic engagement parlance—terms like “volunteering”—may have in the United States compared with immigrants’ nations of origin. At times, it was clear that our respondents had no understanding of what we meant by the term “volunteering” or how it would apply to their lives. Researchers should also consider how the relationship between religion and politics differs in the United States and in immigrants’ nations of origin. This is especially salient when studying groups like the Chinese, who all identify with the same ethnic category in America but come from different nations and regions (such as mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam). Finally, we argue that researchers who study religion and immigration have primarily operated within a vacuum comparing groups of religious immigrants but overlooking a comparison of religious and nonreligious immigrants. Our initial results show that this absence in the literature is especially important to address when examining the link between religion and civic life for immigrants, who may describe themselves as secular but may still use religious resources for community service and political participation. Further, such comparisons are needed to discover whether there is something truly unique about the religious contribution to civic life. This paper is a step in a growing research agenda on
immigrant religion and civic life that should continue to take seriously the various ways religion, both inside and outside religious organizations, may or may not provide resources for community-based volunteering and the construction of political identities. Acknowledgments This research was funded by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation, Elaine Howard Ecklund, PI and Michael O. Emerson, Co-PI. Special thanks to Esther Chan for help with manuscript preparation.
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Footnotes 1 Musick and Wilson (2008) continue broadly with their definition, “assum[ing] a quite expansive definition of volunteerism that reaches into social activism.” We use a similarly broad definition here, as studies have documented the strong ties for immigrants between civic engagement and actions such as religious participation (Cavalcanti and Schleef 2005), political participation (e.g. Lien 2004; Cavalcanti and Schleef 2005), and generosity & philanthropy (Bekkers and Wiepking 2007). 2 Prior work has generally not included comparisons of religious and non-religious immigrants, although an exception is Cavalcanti and Schleef (2005), which discovers that nonreligious Latinos in a religious and conservative city find ways to become involved and integrated into local community civic life. 3 Other than New York and California, the 5 cities with a Chinese-American population in excess of 1 % of the total population were: Honolulu, HI (10.2 %), Plano, TX (5.2 %), Seattle, WA (4.1 %), Boston, MA (4.0 %), and Philadelphia, PA (2.0 %) I. 4 CH11. 5 CH1. 6 CH30. 7 Well known difficulties and variation in defining “evangelical” have led to studies estimating their population in the U.S. at anywhere from 7 to 47 % (Hackett and Lindsay 2008). Here we use the term as an identity label that suggests an orientation towards actively communicating one’s religious beliefs that stems from a “heartfelt, personal commitment to and experiential relationship with God” (Smith and Emerson 1998). When used in reference to religious organizations, we use the term to reflect both attributes of the religious organization as described by the respondent, but again, most notably the particular organizational emphasis to actively communicate their religious beliefs to others (Lindsay 2007). 8 CH18. 9 Conceptualized here as those who are not part of a religious organization or who label themselves as secular or as having no religious identity; these individuals comprised about 30 % of the sample. 10 CH9. 11 CH8. 12 CH7. 13 The respondents were picked from the Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity (PS-ARE). When respondents originally participated as part of the PS-ARE survey the study was called PALS study, Portraits of American Life, so that respondents would not be biased in their responses about religion and ethnicity. This makes it significant that respondents sometimes brought up ideas about religion before they were formally asked about religion in the interview, often when asked introductory questions about their day-to-day activities or even earlier during informal greetings with the interviewer. 14 CH13. 15 CH25. 16 CH11. 17 CH13. 18 CH19.
19 CH26. 20 CH14. 21 CH2. 22 CH28. 23 CH7. 24 CH13. 25 CH27. 26 CH27.
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