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August 2014, Cuban refugees that built a raft and were rescued by a Carnival cruise ship (photo by Andrew Smith)
Body Politics

Editorial Response: Further Complicating the Binary

If there is one common thread which cuts through the essays in this symposium, it is the powerful testimony of the important role that religion plays in shaping the socio-political viewpoints of many conservative religious minorities.

When Jonathan Tan and I proposed a symposium on “Making Sense of Minority Christian Voting Trends: Complicating the Liberal/Conservative Binary,” one of our explicit goals was to tear down essentializing discourses that continue to pigeonhole minority voices according to the dominant narrative of liberal/conservative, Rural/Urban, Red/Blue, Republican/Democrat. If nothing else, this symposium has shattered the myth that ethnic minority voters in the US—especially recent immigrants—blindly and unquestioningly vote Democratic. Hopefully, we have also repudiated the generalization that Christian minority voters who support Republican candidates are single-issue voters motivated solely by an anti-abortion agenda. If there is one common thread cutting through the essays in this symposium, it is the powerful testimony of the important role that religion plays in shaping the socio-political viewpoints of many conservative religious minorities. Yet, as Sammy Alfaro asks, “how could Trump seduce a great majority of the Jesus-believing, Bible-thumping, church-attending evangelical conservative community when his values are so contrary to those of Jesus, the Bible and what the church should stand for?”

Each of our contributors has demonstrated that every minority population has its own history of marginalization and struggle as well as a history of assimilation and success within the dominant White culture, so as political theologians we have a responsibility to avoid reducing the minority experience in the US to a simplistic narrative of seeking liberation from socio-economic marginalization and suffering in order to embrace the wide and varied mosaic of minority experiences thus providing a more accurate and helpful analysis of American political reality. From Henry Kuo’s essay addressing the complexities of Asian American identity but applicable, mutatis mutandis, to all racialized minority communities: “This means resisting an ontologized Asian America and recognizing the tremendous diversity of political, economic, and theological perspectives and concerns within Asian American Christian communities, even if we find some abhorrent.” Erica Ramirez makes a similar point in her essay documenting the complexities of the socio-political worldviews of many conservative Mexican American Pentecostals, whose “disrepectability politics” have been shaped by anticlericalism and anticolonialism in Mexican history.

As Joseph Scrivner elaborates, the media hype over Donald Trump’s gains among minority voters in 2020 is refuted by a deep demographic analysis that shows ethnic voters in 2020, especially African American voters, voted according to longstanding patterns. We want to suggest that the media hype touting Trump’s gains among minority voters—especially Christian minority voters—reflects a certain cultural bias and intolerance in the media and in scholarly circles that finds the beliefs and practices of more traditional Christian minority populations abhorrent. Rather than deal with the challenge such diversity of belief within minority populations poses for their binary framework, pundits would rather perpetuate racializing ontologies they then use to intentionally misrepresent those who stand outside their essentializing discourse as deviant or worse, traitors to their race. Without reducing our argument to a single, admittedly controversial issue like abortion, the polarizing nature of the abortion debate in the US helps demonstrate how this abhorrence colors and alters the analysis and description of political reality.

By moving away from the moderate paradigm of keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” the Democratic Party has embraced an absolutist stance that factored heavily in the 2016 presidential election and has the potential of alienating large subsections of the American electorate. Donald Trump was behind in all the polling leading up to the November election until he attacked the new DNC platform by aggressively presenting Clinton as the “pro-abortion” candidate in the final 2016 presidential debate. Trump then became the first sitting president to speak at the annual March for Life in 2020, declaring: “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House.”  Without question, there has been an increased absolutism of the pro-life movement that predated Trump but was emboldened by his 2016 electoral victory, which has sought to restrict abortion, overturn Roe v. Wade (within the realm of possibility given the new 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court), and defund Planned Parenthood. But the Democratic strategy of embracing abortion absolutism, given the American public’s more moderate views on abortion, undermines genuine moral discourse.

According to the Pew Research Center, despite almost fifty years of concerted efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, the majority of Americans (61%) still believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while only 38% say abortion should be illegal all or most of the time. Joe Biden won the 2020 election by relying on traditional Democratic bases like African American, Latino/a, and Asian American voters, but a closer look at these constituencies’ views on abortion is warranted, especially as there are indications of a growing gap between the party leadership and the party faithful. While the party justifies its opposition to the Hyde Amendment claiming that a lack of federal funding for abortion disproportionately impacts the poor and women of color, 66% of black Democrats support legal abortion as compared to 83% of white Democrats, and when asked if “voters should support only candidates who favor legal abortion” 35% of white Democrats agree while only a paltry 7% of black Democrats answer affirmatively

Dorothy Roberts’ milestone study, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997), problematizes abortion from a Black feminist perspective by arguing that the dominant reproductive rights narrative has focused on white “women’s increasing control over their reproductive decisions, centered on the right to an abortion” to the neglect of the harrowing history of “dehumanizing attempts to control Black women’s reproductive lives” (4). In light of this social reality Cherilyn Holloway, founder of Pro-Black Pro-Life, argues that Democrats cannot commit to fighting racism while promoting abortion in black communities: “Do you want to help my community? Stop providing funding to these abortion clinics.”

A 2019 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that most Hispanics identify as pro-life, with 58% of Hispanic Protestants (evangelical and non-evangelicals) and 52% of Hispanic Catholics responding abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, making Hispanics the only US demographic in which a consistent majority identifies as pro-life. Yet, as Eli Valentin points out, “the only group among Latino/a Christians whose voting preference tilted toward Trump” was Latino/a evangelicals. Still, even within that demographic subset support for Trump is under fifty percent. While in 2020 both parties courted the US Latino/a vote, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, cautioned that Hispanics are not single-issue voters, but seek a holistic agenda that addresses their concerns as Hispanics and evangelicals: “We’re pro-life. We want criminal justice reform. We want educational equity. We want a healthy economy. Because we’re not one-issue voters, people think if they come to us with talking points they’re gonna get us—no.” 

Like the Latino/a voting block, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (API) constitute a diverse group representing different nations, religious perspectives, and linguistic traditions. While Asian Americans are more religiously diverse than the general US population, Pew Research Center data shows Asian American Christians have similar voting patterns to Latino/a populations. A growing number of Asian American evangelicals for whom pro-life concerns are important have embraced their political power, and like Latino/a voters, do not want to be perceived as single-issue voters: “As a Christian, I believe that I am called to a consistent ethic of life, from womb to tomb. I don’t believe in being defined by a single issue . . . Everything is interconnected . . . there is no realm of life that is off limits to the work of God. If Jesus is coming to redeem all creation, then God has something to say about all aspects of life.”

Given this diversity of perspectives on abortion within the Democratic Party, a continued push toward pro-choice absolutism undermines the possibility of a more nuanced position in support of legalized abortion and public funding for the most disadvantaged populations. African American, Latino/a, and Asian American advocates do not want to be reduced to any single political issue, but neither do they want the moral worth of the most vulnerable lives—be it the unborn fetus or the economically and politically marginalized mother—trampled by either party’s absolutist advocacy. 

As Jonathan Tan contends, “there is a big gap between the idealistic vision espoused by the scholars and activists on the one hand, and ordinary minorities who are far from being ‘woke’ about racism, xenophobia, police brutality, and capitalism.” The tendency by the media and scholars to paint minority voices as monolithic is neither accurate nor helpful. It undermines the moral agency of minority populations and limits their political power by making them beholden to existing party binaries. One possible explanation is that essentializing minority populations benefits the dominant socio-political and economic binaries, e.g., blue vs. red, conservative vs. liberal, capitalism vs. socialism, etc., providing Democrats with a tried and true reliable minority voter base and Republicans with a unifying—and racially charged—“culture war” narrative.

While such essentialism may be useful to undergird and sustain the dominant socio-political binaries, in the long run this runs the risk of alienating minorities for whom such binaries are irrelevant or marginal to their lives. We already see this in the examples of many Cuban Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Chinese Americans, and Korean Americans who support Trump and the GOP in much larger percentages than Latinx and Asian Americans taken as a whole. As Henry Kuo rightly points out, essentializing the categories of “Asian American” and likewise, “Latinx” hides the fact that there is much intra-communal diversity, difference, and pluralism within these communities than these labels may suggest. Moreover, by shining a spotlight on the significance and implications of fervent anticommunism among many conservative Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and Korean Americans, Kuo reminds us that the powerful rhetoric of anticommunism plays just as important role in shaping their sociopolitical viewpoints, and for that matter among many Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans.

One exercise Jonathan did among his students in his “Introduction to Asian American Studies” course in spring 2021 at Case Western Reserve University was to poll them on their parents’ political viewpoints and support for Trump/GOP. One Chinese American student, A, posted the following to the class’s Canvas discussion blog:

You perfectly describe my dad and other Chinese church parents I know. Their personal histories and cultural influences [in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution before they emigrated to the U.S.] will never allow them to consider other perspectives… my dad has always called Bernie a liar saying that the communist party [in China] used to promise the same things Bernie promised by they ruined Chinese lives and I always thought it was so interesting how his trauma [is] manifested in this way… There seems to be a weird sense of patriotism/nationalism he also has with America [as] he is always saying, “I love this country and I will support whoever [that] doesn’t want to ruin America but that just means supporting conservative republicans… It is disheartening though, it seems that people like my dad don’t really understand the impact voting for Trump will have.

A Korean American student, B, posted the following on the class’ Canvas:

Growing up in a conservative Korean American community in the US, my parents are both conservative, especially my father, who is an avid Trump supporter. They are both firm Christians. The Korean American community I grew up in is centered around a small Korean church, and so many of the Koreans in my life were from that church … many of the older people in the church are fairly conservative. They have pretty standard conservative beliefs one such example being that they don’t believe abortion should be legal. Another reason is because many people in my Korean American community are older immigrants. They remember the dangers of communism and the Korean War and this affects their ideologies. Although my parents are one generation removed from them, my father is still wary of “communists” in American politics (his favorite to curse out is Bernie Sanders), likely because of the mandatory military service he carried out in Korea designed to train soldiers in case of war breaking out with North Korea. Because of this aversion for communism, I feel that they’re more likely to be right leaning in their ideologies.

Lastly, my father thinks he’s special. I find that many older Korean Americans have this line of thinking. They other themselves from other minority groups and think, “We’re different and better than Black and Latino Americans.” This is why they may be in support of Trump and his immigration policies because 1) they think they’re a different class of immigrants and 2) they believe that the immigrants that Trump is really talking about are Mexican immigrants (which isn’t completely wrong). Another thing is that they also other themselves from other Asian populations. Many Koreans in the community I grew up in despise Japanese and Chinese people due to a long history between the three countries. So if immigration policies will limit Chinese immigration, which they believe Trumps policies will, then they will be more likely to lean towards Trump. My father’s main problem with Biden is that he’s too friendly with China, so this is another reason Korean Americans will gravitate towards Trump.

We would like to suggest that the following seven propositions ought to be tentatively drawn from the essays in this symposium –

1.         These essays highlight the need to pay closer attention to the diversity, plurality, and heterogeneity of racial-ethnic minorities, especially those who espouse right-wing conservative worldviews.

2.         We need to take seriously the painful memories, concerns, and frustrations of those racial-ethnic minorities who are socially, politically, and religiously conservative, and far from being “woke” according to the criteria defined by the political left and the socio-economic progressives.

3.         We need to recognize that the starting point for many of these conservative racial-ethnic minorities is not U.S. history but the history of the worlds they left behind, including failed socialist states, the fear of communist regimes, the failure of the utopian promises of decolonization and postcolonial socio-economic reconstructions of their lands.

4.         For many of these conservative racial-ethnic minorities, their worldviews are often shaped by the psychologically traumatic lived experiences of a world that they left behind when they moved to the United States, e.g., the trauma of failed socio-political systems back home, social-economic chaos, as well as the turn to conservative religion, including conservative Christianity and church life as safe haven and refuge from these social-political and economic upheavals.

5.         All of these point to the fact that the experiences and memories of the post-1965 (i.e., post the passage the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 which liberalized immigration to the U.S.) generation of racial-ethnic minorities, especially the first and 1.5 generation are multivalent, complex, and often shaped in profound ways by the trauma and pain of their past experiences which drove them to emigrate to the United States, whether voluntarily or involuntarily as refugees and asylum seekers. We cannot extrapolate the pre-1965 history of enslavement, segregation, racism, and so forth to minority communities for whom these discussions are abstractions compared to the actual lived experiences of trauma or pain that drove them to seek a better life in the United States.

6.         For better or worse, migration changes the conversation around race/ethnicity and religion, forcing us to move beyond the Black-White binary that has historically defined matters of race and racism in the US. Migration is not always a simplistic linear and evolutionary pathway towards progressive values. Migration also introduces diversity, fragmentation, complexity, and even regression. Migration brings in peoples with new stories, new challenges, new experiences, for whom the past precedents and existing historical experiences may not hold the same meaning. 

7.         All of this means that we need to find new paradigms and new theoretical and methodological frameworks for analyzing and responding to the challenges of politically and religious conservative racial-ethnic minorities, taking seriously political conservatism, economic conservatism, socio-religious conservatism, anticommunist and antisocialist rhetoric as starting points for critical dialogue and in-depth engagements.

Moving Beyond Babylon: Latino/a Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism’s Struggle for Ecclesial and Political Liberation

We see this wholesale adoption of White Evangelical practices in the Latino/a Evangelicals’ increasing support of the White nationalist philosophy which undergirds the White Evangelical theological position. The 2016 presidential election, Trump’s subsequent term in office, and the 2020 presidential election have made this all much more publicly clear.

Who’s Laughing Now? Pentecostal Disrespectability Politics

While some white American converts to Pentecostalism in the early 1900s were experiencing a resurgence of Jeffersonian populism of that era, Mexican nationals were living through revolutionary upheaval of their own. And like the older populism of American evangelical lines, the Mexican revolution’s radical populism was also ​​agrarian, influenced by Jacobinism, and hostile to establishment elites.

The Binary is Black But Breakable

Simply put, Black men are the most loyal group of male voters for the Democratic candidate for president. Their slightly lower numbers for Hillary Clinton in 2016 rebounded for Joe Biden in 2020. Their loyalty to Democrats in this regard is surpassed only by Black women.

Latino Pentecostal Democrat: Oxymoron or Prophetic Voice?

But how could Trump seduce a great majority of the Jesus-believing, Bible-thumping, church-attending evangelical conservative community when his values are so contrary to those of Jesus, the Bible and what the church should stand for?

Beyond Ontologizing Asian America

Even though Asian America is irreducibly diverse, the vast majority of Asian American theological voices are East Asian theological voices, with voices and concerns from Southeast Asian, Filipinx, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Christians being barely heard or simply dismissed. This raises questions about how helpful “Asian American” is as an identitarian category.

Editorial Response: Further Complicating the Binary

If there is one common thread which cuts through the essays in this symposium, it is the powerful testimony of the important role that religion plays in shaping the socio-political viewpoints of many conservative religious minorities.

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