What Jeremy Lin means to Asian American Christians

How much do we really know about the the communities NBA player Jeremy Lin represents?

Keeping up with the newsfeed on Jeremy Lin has been a new hobby of mine. I’ve justified this time sink as work since I am an Asian American professor who studies and teaches race and religion in American culture. In the sea of news pieces, blog posts, and Facebook essays it’s clear that most everyone now knows the following: Jeremy Lin is an Ivy League grad and few have made it into the NBA. Jeremy Lin is Asian American, of Chinese/Taiwanese descent. And finally, Jeremy Lin is Christian.

But how much do we really know about the the communities Lin represents?

Asian Americans are a small population; in fact, they are a variety of populations. The 17 million Asian Americans counted in the 2010 census are about five percent of the U.S. population. Of these, about a quarter describe themselves as Chinese or Taiwanese in background, making them the largest group of Asian Americans. That seems like a lot but let’s be clear: we’re talking about 3 to 4 million people in a population of 308 million or about one percent of the nation. In terms of race and ethnicity, Jeremy Lin is a rare American.

On matters of religion, more people look like Lin: 78 percent of Americans today identify as Christian according to the Pew Landscape Survey in 2008.

But for Jeremy, and other Asian Americans, being Christian is a different experience than it is for most Americans. First of all, Christianity is rare among Asian Americans. In a more in depth blog post on Patheos.com, I report that about 22 percent of Asian Americans are Protestant Christian. That’s about 3.7 million Asian American (not just Chinese/Taiwanese) Protestants or a little more than one percent of the national population. In terms of race and religion together, Jeremy Lin, again, is a rare American.

What’s particularly important in the Asian American story of Christianity is that this faith tradition is both old and new.

The tradition is old in the sense that Asian American congregations have been around since the 1800s. But Asian-American Christianity is also new. When immigration policy was reformed in 1965, migration from Asia and Latin America surged. Indeed, immigrants take up the lion’s share of Asian Americans even today. According to political scientists Janelle Wong and her colleagues, 67 percent of Asian-American residents are foreign-born, like Gie-Ming Lin and Shirley Lin, Jeremy’s parents. Immigrants bring with them various aspects of their cultures including their religious faiths. For Taiwanese and other Asian immigrants this is surprisingly more often Christianity than one might expect from that country. As scholars have argued there tends to be a pro-Christian migration to the U.S., even in places like Taiwan which according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, reported less than 2 percent of the 23 million residents as Protestant Christian.

As I mention in more detail on Patheos, Asians are likely to attend an Asian church even if they are not Christian when they arrive in the States. Nothing I have read has reported whether Jeremy’s family became Christian before or after their immigration. Nevertheless, as with most immigrants they settled in an ethnic immigrant church, Chinese Church in Christ in Mountain View, California. There the Lins would find others who can speak their native language and receive spiritual uplift on a regular basis. They would be able to provide support for new Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants.

But for Jeremy and other children of immigrants, their parents’ native tongue is not their primary language (indeed Jeremy admits his lack of fluency in Mandarin). If he were to understand Christianity it would have to be through English. Most religious parents bring their children to their place of worship but in many instances, second-generation children, teens, and young adults at ethnic churches are segregated into religious services and activities conducted in English.

And then there’s Harvard. In the 1930s through the 1960s the Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities blatantly or subtly discriminated against the so-called “model minority” of the day, Jewish Americans. Since the 1980s the new “model minority” has been Asian Americans, and recent evidence suggests that they too as a racial minority are also experiencing discrimination in gaining entry into this elite world. So it’s no small feat that Jeremy Lin proverbially “pahked his cah at Hahvard Yahd.” In 2010, Harvard’s 6700 students reflected a mere 0.3 percent of the 1,985,550 students attending four year colleges. And of the approximately 1139 Asian American Harvard students, they represent about 0.6 percent of the Asian American undergraduates attending four year colleges at that time.

So in many ways we can see why Jeremy Lin has such an amazing appeal. Of course he’s an amazing basketball player; we would not take notice otherwise. But his faith resonates with many who consider themselves fellow believers. His background as a child of immigrants fits well with our narrative as a nation that still welcomes many from distant shores. His achievements at Harvard confirm a belief that children of immigrants can succeed in ways that their parents would never be able to in their home country. His particular background as a second-generation Asian American Christian speaks particularly to a class of high achievers, many of whom are writing and commenting on him today, who identify with the narrative nexus of faith, adaptation, and achievement.

(Special thanks to Christina Chan-Park and Julie J. Park for research assistance.)

Image courtesy of The Daily Sports Herald.

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  • IndianaJames

    FYI, when we are talking about Asian-American Christians, we are talking about predominantly Korean. Out of 7,000 AA churches, the top two are Korean (~4,000) and Chinese (~1,000) according to the latest version of Operation World. So, Korean-American Christians are not rare.

  • djchuang

    You’re comment is right, there are a good number of Asian American Christians, with a large %age being Korean. The way I read the article here, Dr. Park is noting that Christians among Asian Americans are still a minority, and thus, rare.