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Latinos for Trump at the 2016 RNC (public domain)
Body Politics

Making Sense of Minority Christian Voting Trends: Complicating the Liberal/Conservative Binary

I have a very vivid memory of the 1976 U.S. Presidential race. I was six years old, living in the Panama Canal Zone, and I remember my father sitting the family down at the dinner table to explain why he, a lifelong  Republican and career military man in the U.S. Army, was voting for Jimmy Carter. For many Puerto Ricans of my father’s generation a career in the U.S. military meant a pathway to education and financial security, which is why with the lone exception of the 1976 election, my father always voted Republican. In 1976, despite the fact that Carter campaigned on slashing the bloated military budget, my father voted for Carter over Ford because Ford pardoned Nixon and Nixon had desecrated the highest elected office in the land. Simple as that.

Sadly, my father passed away in 2012 and did not live to see the Trump era. I wonder what the man of character who voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 would have done in 2016? Would my father have gotten swept up in the tide of “Latinos for Trump” that has ensorcelled so many of my relatives, especially those living in Florida? Or would he have stood firm on principle and resisted the rise of Trumpism that now threatens to dismantle the GOP?

Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals and sixty percent of white Catholics voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Despite an abysmal four years during which President Trump catered to white nationalist extremists, used the bully pulpit to besmirch Black Lives Matter, and signed executive orders criminalizing refugees seeking political asylum, Trump made electoral gains among minority voters in 2020, especially among Christian conservative minority voters. Why did more African American, Latinx, and Asian American voters turn out for Trump in 2020?

In 2016, candidate Trump made a series of disparaging and racist remarks about Latinx people, calling them rapists, animals, and “bad hombres.” As president, he enforced a series of policies that have further dehumanized Latino/as by criminalizing them through all manner of legal and judicial means, even deploying the US military to stop a supposed tidal wave of undocumented immigrants overwhelming our southern border. His zero-tolerance border enforcement policies have created holding facilities that were de facto concentration camps, squandering innocent lives, separating children from their parents, and subjecting the most vulnerable detainees (women and children) to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their jailers.

So why were so many Christians silent—and by extension complicit—in Trump’s anti-immigrant nativism? Why, despite Trump’s racist words and actions, do so many Christian minority voters continue to support him? In the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol riot, a majority of Evangelical Christians still support Trump, fueling “Trump’s baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud.” For them, Trump is a savior. In the words of presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway, the “most pro-life president in history.”

The Capitol insurrection was a coordinated attack weeks in the planning, and likely with support from the former president, who after all, ignored multiple pleas by the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of DC to send the National Guard to restore order. This was a temper tantrum writ large. The culmination of years of pent up white male resentment during the Obama presidency stoked by an opportunist President unable to face electoral defeat after running the most dysfunctional administration in the history of the United States.

Unfortunately, the damage is done and the effects will be long lasting. Scholars of religion have begun the arduous process of unraveling American Christianity to figure out what ethicists, theologians, and philosophers can do to diagnose, treat, and if necessary, amputate the more cancerous parts of American religion that condoned and participated in the events of January 6.

Many liberation and postcolonial theologians, as well as social justice activists are confounded by the growing support among many Asian Americans, Blacks, and Latinos for conservative politics generally, and the Republicans and Donald Trump in particular. Expecting these minorities to reject the racist and xenophobic politics espoused by Trump and his GOP enablers, they struggle to explain the steady support and undeniable collaboration among many of these minorities with the Trump agenda and vote for the GOP and Trump in November 2020. If progressive theologians and social justice warriors are truly honest with themselves, they would realize there is a major problem when they struggle so hard to convince rank-and-file minorities to support #BLM, #StopAAPIHate, #JusticeforGeogeFloyd, etc. Clearly, 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. 

How are we to explain why the blind anticommunist Chinese Christian activist, Chen Guancheng who was granted political asylum by the Obama administration, endorsed Trump at the August 2020 Republican National Convention? Chen’s enthusiastic endorsement of Trump, which blindsided many progressive activists and theologians, is not an aberration but a canary in the mine. Many Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong Americans echo Chen’s support for the GOP and Trump despite Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric.  These theologians and activists are also at a loss to explain the steady growth in numbers of Cuban Americans and Vietnamese Americans voting for Trump and the GOP between 2016 and 2020. Likewise, the November 2020 election surprised many when many Trump and the GOP scored big in the Tejano heartland along the Rio Grande in South Texas which traditionally voted Democrat, pulling an upset win in Zapata county and gaining new votes in Webb and Starr counties. 

How does one explain the gulf and disconnect between the social justice warriors, as well as liberation and postcolonial theologians on the one hand, and the usually ignored masses of minorities who are center-right and pro-conservative politics? One major shortcoming of the many postcolonial, critical, and postcritical theories is their generalization of minorities along functionalist and utilitarian analysis as a legacy of theoretical methodologies influenced by Marxist and Neo-Marxist theorists. In doing so, they often fail to pay attention to the diversity, plurality, and heterogeneity among these minorities who often do not conform to theoretical generalizations. 

A practical consequence of reliance on Marxist and neo-Marxist inspired one-size-fits-all theories is the failure to account for the role that religion plays in the daily lived experiences of these minorities. For example, the large number of naturalized Mainland Chinese Americans who embrace conservative Evangelical Christianity when they emigrate to the US—less than 5% of the total population in China vs. more than 30% of Mainland Chinese Americans—usually as a response to what they perceive as the failings of communism in China should alert scholars and activists to the reality when so many pastors in Mainland Chinese churches openly preached support for the GOP and Trump from their pulpits leading up to the November 2020 election. The pattern is repeated with Evangelical Taiwanese Americans and Korean Americans congregations, as well as among Cuban Catholics and Vietnamese Catholics. Hence, we should not be surprised that the pro-Trump Korean American GOP candidate Michelle Eunjoo Steel, also a practicing Christian, easily won the 48th congressional district encompassing Orange County, which is dominated by conservative Vietnamese, Koreans, and Latinos in the November 2020 election, flipping the congressional seat back to red from its temporary flirtation with the Democrats at the 2018 midterm elections. 

Likewise, the fact that Vietnamese Americans consistently lean Republican and make up the largest bloc of Asian Americans who support Trump should be understood by the fact that Vietnamese American Catholics are not only overrepresented in the United States compared to their numbers in Vietnam (40% in the US compared to 10% in Vietnam), they are also scarred by two major involuntary migrations – the Great Exodus of 1954-1955 when more than 60% Vietnamese Catholics fled across the 17th parallel North to South Vietnam after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords, and the second exodus in the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The same is true of older Korean Americans generally, and Korean American Christians in particular who have deep memories of the painful legacy of the Korean War and the North Korean regime’s continuing military threats against South Korea.

In other words, it is not just conservative religion generally, whether this be conservative Evangelicalism, Catholicism, Falun Gong, or Islam among these minorities, but also the intersection of conservative religion and fervent anticommunism, e.g., the hatred of the communist regimes in Beijing (China), Hanoi (Vietnam), Pyongyang (North Korea), and Havana (Cuba), making them deeply suspicious of leftwing politics generally and “democratic socialism” in particular. It does not help that postcolonial, critical, and postcritical theorists’ deep suspicion of religion generally, and conservative religion in particular blind them to the important roles that religion often play in shaping identity and interpreting painful life experiences.

Jonathan Y. Tan and I have curated this symposium in an effort to get a national conversation started about why conservative minority Christian voices often support conservative political candidates whose politics otherwise threaten their well being as racial and ethnic minorities in our current political climate. Rather than accepting the media’s simplistic conservative/liberal, Red State/Blue State binary, we want to explore the complex political realities that contributed to Trump’s electoral gains among minority voters from 2016 to 2020. 

We have recruited a diverse group of African American, Asian American, and Latinx clergy, academics, and activists to help our readers reflect on the complexities of ethnic representation in U.S. politics, giving special attention to conservative Christian perspectives in order to dispel certain stereotypes and assumptions about Christian minority voters in the United States. Our goal is to provide a more holistic and accurate representation of Christian minority voices and their contributions to the public discourse on a variety of issues, rejecting the tendency by both, political parties and the media, to define conservative Christian minorities as single-issue voters or make generalizations about their political affiliations based on their ethnicity or faith.

Our hope is that these five reflections from Eli ValentinErica RamirezJoseph ScrivnerSammy Alfaro, and Henry Kuo—can help readers think through the rise of Trumpism, its appeal to a substantial number of minority voters, especially conservative Christian minority voters, and suggest avenues for future dialogue between progressive and conservative minority Christian voters that focus on the common good instead of partisan politics as usual.

Symposium Essays

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.