Association of American Geographers, Tampa, FL (8-12 April 2014)

I am writing from Tampa, Florida to talk about the national conference that I am attending. As usual, I am at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. There’s a lot going on here in geographies of religion (check out our specialty group’s newsletter) – the field seems to be growing, though many of my colleagues couldn’t attend this year! – and I will also be checking out sessions on migration, Asian geographies, urban studies, and other things, in addition to meeting colleagues and catching up with old ones.

I am presenting in a session this afternoon (Tuesday, 8 April) on Critical Geographies of Religion. My paper is titled The Civil Human Rights Front: religion and radical democracy in post-handover Hong Kong and features a lot of the field work I did among progressive Christian groups in Hong Kong in 2012. Here’s the abstract:

After Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the Special Administrative Region has seen the emergence of calls for universal suffrage, the preservation of civil liberties, and solidarity with the materially marginalized in Hong Kong’s civil society.  In one moment of collective solidarity, an umbrella group called the Civil Human Rights Front launched a protest against anti-sedition legislation based on Basic Law’s Article 23, a law whose alleged threats to free speech drove some 500,000 Hongkongers to the streets on 1 July 2003.  This paper analyzes the radical democrats who have been key to such political placemaking activities in Hong Kong, contesting the city’s policy landscape through physical demonstrations.  It argues that while a wide swath of Hong Kong’s Catholics and Protestants have historically been allied with the state establishment both under British and Chinese sovereignty, the emergence of radical democratic groups like the Civil Human Rights Front have been driven largely by Catholic and Protestant Christians who emphasize a separation of church governance from the state.  While the separation of church and state has often lent itself in other contexts to more conservative politics, this spatial schematic has led these radical democratic activists, their churches, and their solidarity groups to contest the modus operandi of Chinese sovereignty.  This is thus a contribution to critical geographies of religion, for it shows the potential power of religious movements to critique the practices of the state in order to imagine more socially just cities.

There are two parts to this session. I am the first paper on the first part, which promises to be an engaging discussion on religion, politics, and the public sphere. Find us in Room 17 on the First Floor of the Tampa Convention Center. The first session is from 2:40 PM – 4:20 PM. The second session runs from 4:40 PM – 6:20 PM.

Tomorrow (Wednesday, 9 April), political geographer John Agnew will be giving our Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Annual Lecture. His lecture is titled The Popes and the city of Rome during Fascism, 1922-1943. Here’s the abstract:

It has become popular in recent years to see the Fascist years in Italy as reflecting the relatively successful transformation of Italian society at the behest of its Fascist rulers. This reflects both the rehabilitation of Fascism in contemporary Italy and the “cultural turn” in Italian historiography that has tended to emphasize the “making” of Fascist selves and other markers, such as the makeover of many urban monumental spaces, as measures of the regime’s success. My purpose is to disrupt this emerging consensus, alongside other commentators I hasten to add, by pointing how much the Fascist regime had to collaborate with other powers, not least the Catholic Church, and was often outflanked by them in its designs, most notably in efforts at making over the city of Rome as its showcase capital.

We want as many people as we can to attend, and we hope to see many of your there! Find us in Room 23 of the First Floor of the Tampa Convention Center, Wednesday, 9 April, 10 AM – 11:40 AM.

Please also join us for our business meeting. That is scheduled for Thursday, 10 April, from 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM in Room 9, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor. I will be chairing, and if you want the meeting agenda, please email me.

I look forward to a lot of collegial interaction this week, and I am anticipating learning a lot! It’s great to be with people in my home discipline, and I hope I have more to bring this year from all of my interdisciplinary journeying.

“The Last Acceptable Prejudice” and “The Last Civil Rights Struggle”: Anti-Catholicism, Same-Sex Marriage, and Racial Solidarity (Catholic Newman Center at UW)

I am giving a talk on March 20 entitled “The Last Acceptable Prejudice” and “The Last Civil Rights Struggle”: Anti-Catholicism, Same-Sex Marriage, and Racial Solidarity. The venue for this event is the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington, and it is being hosted by Frasatti: UW Newman Young Adults and Grads. The talk starts at 7:30 PM, and the discussion will end by 9 PM. Drinks and refreshments are provided by the Newman.

Let me tell you a little bit more about the talk, what prompted me to generate this topic, and why I’ve chosen to give it first at the Catholic Newman Center.

WHAT’S THE TALK ABOUT?
The talk itself combines three conversations that are unlikely companions: anti-Catholicism in America, the same-sex marriage debate over the last two decades, and prospects for racial solidarity in the twenty-first century. The Roman Catholic Church in America and the proponents of marriage equality seem to have been locked in a die-hard zero sum game. On the Catholic side, there seems to be a push toward a more just society through religious freedom, often invoking the need to overcome the historic American prejudice toward Catholics. On the marriage equality side, there seems to be a push for more sexual equality, often invoking the need to overcome the historic American propensity toward heteronormativity. The discourse goes that if we overcome anti-Catholicism, we will have overcome “the last acceptable prejudice.” If we overcome barriers to marriage equality, we will have overcome “the last civil rights struggle.” The problem is that these two “lasts” seem locked in an epic battle to the finish.

My talk calls both sides to revisit the racial struggles from which they both borrow. The trouble with the arguments on both sides seems to me that they both implicitly think that the struggle for racial justice is a done deal.

But is it? And if it isn’t, what new unlikely solidarities can be called forth? How have Catholic already been tied to racial and sexual justice movements? And if, as Andrea Smith would put it, new unlikely solidarities are developed (or have already been developed!), how would it reframe the epic “last” battle for equality?

WHY THIS TALK
I’m a scholar who works on public spheres. Oftentimes, these publics are conceptualized as “secular.” I agree that publics might be secular if we were talking about secularization as a theological process. But if secular means that these publics are non-religious, then I think that’s a mistake.

I came to this conclusion while working on Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with the public sphere. It was there that I began thinking about the same-sex marriage debate, as many of my field subjects in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong were concerned with opposing same-sex marriage. Far from imposing their religious views onto the public sphere, though, they often adapted their arguments to be more secular so as to attempt to effect maximum impact.

The accusation that religion was entering the public sphere struck me as a very Catholic way of putting things. It reminded me of how many of the founding works in the social science of religion were in fact positioned against the Catholic Church; due to the work of folks like Andrew Greeley, however, I should note that this is much less the case nowadays. It led me to think more about how Catholics approached the marriage equality and religious freedom questions differently from their evangelical allies. It made me curious about how Catholics engage the public sphere differently from evangelicals and yet how they have worked together over the last thirty years.

There was also a lot of talk by the Cantonese Protestants about the race question, accusing LGBTIQ activists of basically stealing from race to advance their “special rights.” That made me think about how some LGBTIQ scholar-activists themselves (such as Judith Butler and Jasbir Puar) were themselves conflicted about whether advocating for things like marriage equality cast the race problem as essentially settled when it was not. At the same time, it made me ponder over whether the religious freedom activism also borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement. It made me think about how all of this talking about the “last acceptable prejudice” and the “last civil rights struggle” may have contributed to a Supreme Court decision like Shelby County v. Holder where race is seen as a done deal in comparison with more purportedly important and contemporary civil rights struggles.

The result is this talk, that is, my musings on topics beyond the scope of my immediate work, has direct bearing on my future work. I see this talk as a place to voice what I have been thinking about for a long time and to get a conversation about this unlikely bundle of topics going.

WHY THE NEWMAN
It’s one thing to theorize all of this in the secular classroom, which I have been doing in my American religion class. There, we have dealt with anti-Catholicism, race, and sexuality issues. It’s another thing altogether to try this topic out on people with faith commitments.

That’s where the Newman comes in. Yes, I think my musings can be developed into an academic paper in a “secular age” (as Charles Taylor would put it), but the Catholic Newman Center is a place to try this out to make sure that Roman Catholics who very much obviously have a stake in the anti-Catholicism part of the talk might be able to give some feedback. With the references to Butler and Puar, I’d be just as happy to shop this around to LGBTIQ activists as well (some of whom, mind you, might also be Catholic).

However, I think there’s something particularly Catholic about this talk that I do want to highlight. It seems that what is intriguing about Catholicism as classically conceived might be its solidarity dimensions. It’s this that I want to explore in this talk.

Consider this an attempt to hear directly from the publics that I research about how I conduct my research. I look forward very much to this talk and especially to the conversation that will follow. My hope is that we will be able to imagine some unlikely solidarities that can be built in order to contribute to a more just and peaceful world.

SSHRC Postdoctoral Award, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington

While this will come as no news to many of my acquaintances, I am pleased to formally announce that I will be taking up a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Award at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, beginning on 1 January 2014. This is an externally funded postdoctoral award from the Government of Canada that allowed me to apply by proposing an international institution at which to hold the fellowship.  The purpose is for freshly minted Canadian doctoral graduates to be postdoctoral fellows as part of an institution’s academic life. My award funds my postdoctoral fellowship for two years while providing me with a base from which to get launched onto the academic job market.

I chose the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington because I wanted to be part of an institution where I could augment my studies in religion while being part of a community that valued my disciplinary home in human geography and my topical interest in Asian American and Asian Canadian studies. I was attracted to the Jackson School because of the Comparative Religion Unit directed by Professor James K. Wellman, Jr., who will be my postdoctoral supervisor. As a specialist in Protestant studies, Wellman is a good fit because of his knowledge of mainline Protestant studies (I have found his readings of the Niebuhr brothers very enlightening, particularly as he grounds their work ethnographically; see The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism) and evangelical studies (see Evangelical vs. Liberal), including in new evangelical paradigms and megachurch models (see Rob Bell and a New American Christianity). I look forward to working with him to develop my interests in American religion while reading and writing broadly around the nexus of religious studies and theology, which means that I will continue to engage the revisionist conversation on secularization as well. The Comparative Religion Unit is also a base from which to network with a diverse range of scholars across departments at the University of Washington whom I plan to engage in conversation about trends in the social sciences of religion. Finally, because the unit is located within the Jackson School, this situates me in an institution that cares about Canada-America relations, human geography, and Asian American/Asian Canadian/trans-Pacific migration and ethnic studies. I plan also to contact geographers and Asian Americanists for further conversation.

My postdoctoral project is titled Witnessing in the None Zone: Younger Generation Asian North American Protestants and public engagement in the Pacific Northwest. Following on the heels of my doctoral project on Cantonese Protestant engagements with the public sphere, this project now moves to a ‘younger-generation’ Asian American and Asian Canadian Protestant population and how they engage existing publics while creating new ones. By younger generation, I mean to say that I am not only interested in ‘second-generation’ Asian North Americans who are born in North America, but also 1.5-generation and transnational migrants as well. The project starts in the Pacific Northwest (especially Metro Seattle and Metro Vancouver) because much of the work that has been done on younger-generation Asian Americans has been conducted in California. This approach does not exclude the Californian case studies; instead, it can be a way to compare and contrast newer ethnographic work in the Pacific Northwest with the work in California. The Pacific Northwest is itself important because it has been conceptualized by many as a ‘none zone’ of religious life, and the fact that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians are engaging and creating theological publics in these sites may serve as a challenge to that thesis. By starting in the Pacific Northwest, I plan to later extend my postdoctoral fellowship work to other sites southward (say, to the San Francisco Bay Area, Greater Los Angeles, and sites in Texas, such as Houston and Austin) and eastward (say, to Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and New York), depending on where the connections may lead and whether these publics are bound by metropolitan units (as in my doctoral work) or conceptualize their geographical parameters differently. Again, the project does not focus on congregations, per se; it examines rather how younger-generaton Asian American and Asian Canadian Protestants engage and create publics, including in electoral politics, grassroots activism, planting congregations (one area of inquiry is whether congregational sites are conceptualized as public or private), participating in circulations of material culture, and involvement in social media (this list is not exhaustive! I am preparing to be surprised by my findings!). My plan is to start interviewing key informants at the beginning of 2014. In other words, details are forthcoming.

In addition to conducting this new research, I will also be writing papers to submit into academic journals in geography, religious studies, and American ethnic studies, while also converting my dissertation into a book to be submitted to an academic publisher. Finally, in keeping with the regulations of my grant, I will be teaching one course at the Jackson School on American religion in the Winter Quarter in 2014. I will write about that course separately.

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I look forward to my time in Seattle as an opportunity for further professional development. I anticipate that there will be a lot to learn, and I am very excited to be working with James Wellman. This postdoctoral fellowship promises to be a time that will hone my work on religious and racialized publics, and I am very eager to be challenged in ways that I will not have previously imagined.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Boston, 8-10 November 2013

I am here at the Westin Waterfront Hotel in Boston, MA, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), which is being jointly held with the Religious Research Association (RRA), from 8-10 November 2013.

I organized a session for Saturday, 9 November.  It’s a paper session titled Faith, Class, and Space: Geographies of Religion, session G-10 on the SSSR program. It will be held from 2-3:30 PM in the Carlton Room, and it will feature geographers who work on religion, including Banu Gökariksel (Geography, University of North Carolina), Anna Secor (Geography, University of Kentucky), and Betsy Olson (Geography, University of North Carolina). Ann Taves (Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara) is our discussant; this is more than appropriate because Taves was our Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS) at the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting earlier this April 2013. If you are here in Boston, you are warmly invited to attend.

The genesis of our paper session came from a conversation that I had with Lily Kong at the AAG earlier this year. Following Kong’s 2010 paper in Progress in Human Geography (which was incidentally her inaugural Annual Lecture for GORABS in 2010), we discussed the various conferences that geographers needed to attend and in which they needed to intervene in order to spread the word that geographers are interested in religion as an analytic. Having heard from Ann Taves and James Wellman (Religion, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington) that the SSSR was a conference that we must attend, I decided to organize a panel with some of the latest work in geographies of religion. Kong herself was unfortunately unable to attend. However, we really did get the cream of the crop in our discipline. Gökariksel and Secor have made fascinating interventions in the intersection of religion and consumption in their study of tesettür, Turkish veiling fashion that is seen as morally and aesthetically ambivalent and yet political in regard to secular states. Olson is presenting work that she conducted with a team of social geographers in the United Kingdom interested in the intersection of religion, childhood and youth studies, and postsecularism; her collaborators include Peter Hopkins (Geography, Newcastle University), Giselle Vincett (Geography, University of Edinburgh), and Rachel Pain (Geography, Durham University). Their collective project focuses on the young Christians in Scotland and factors in class to differentiate different kinds of youth in their sample. These two projects are some of the latest work being published in geographies of religion and represent an exciting turn in the discipline where religion is demonstrably a geographical analytic that, when it intersects with other social factors, presents a powerful entryway into theorizing how the contemporary world is constructed.

My paper is titled ‘We were very orderly and peaceful’: model minority evangelicals in public space. This paper is drawn from my PhD research, but because I want to focus on just one case study, it will explore how Cantonese evangelicals in the San Francisco Bay Area participated in activism around Proposition 8. At a theoretical level, this paper also seeks (like the other papers) to intervene in the social scientific study of religion by arguing that geographers become part of this conversation by focusing on how places are constituted, constructed, and contested. Here is the abstract:

Images of Chinese evangelical demonstrations against sexual liberalization in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong have circulated throughout a global debate about sexual minorities and marriage equality.  While anti-marriage equality demonstrators have often been portrayed as motivated by private religious convictions and homophobic sentiments, little has been done to theorize their intersections of race, ethnicity, and class.  This paper focuses on one such group: Cantonese-speaking evangelicals in the Pacific Rim.  Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2011 and 2012 that involved 140 interviews and 13 focus groups, I argue that Cantonese evangelical protests against sexual liberalization often invoke a middle-class ‘model minority’ conception of participation in public space as an orderly activity over against lower-class forms of anarchy.  While notions of the ‘model minority’ have been anathema in Asian American studies, that Cantonese evangelicals actively invoke their peaceful, legal, non-violent, and non-anarchic approach to public space as a frame for their political activities suggests that fissures along class among migrant religious populations.  These analyses must in turn be grounded in space, demonstrating that class differences as to how public spaces are used are illustrative of larger conversations about religion, ethnicity, and class in the public sphere.

So far, it’s been a very good and interesting conference. There is a lot of interesting talk about the social sciences and interdisciplinarity. I also attended a very interesting ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session for Julie Park’s new book, When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher EducationIn addition to our disciplinary intervention with human geography here at the SSSR, I am enjoying meeting and reconnecting with people who are also interested in the social scientific study of Asian American religions. All that is to say, I am very glad that I am here, and I look forward to continuing to be productive while I am here.

Exponential and the Open Letter

It has been one week since the Asian American Open Letter to the Evangelical Church was released on Nextgenerasianchurch.com.  I am one of the original signatories and part of the planning committee for this open letter.

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Because I have been on vacation over the last two weeks, I apologize for my delay in blogging about this important event, as well as an article in the Vancouver Sun that featured some research that Johanna Waters and I did on transnational youth between Hong Kong and Vancouver.  This post will cover my involvement in the publication of the open letter.  A forthcoming post will focus on the Vancouver Sun article.

My involvement in the Asian American open letter began when Religion News Service’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey contacted the group of us who had blogged about the Rick Warren ‘Red Guard’ fiasco and said that she had obtained information about an orientalizing incident at Exponential, a church planting conference that was incidentally being hosted at Saddleback Church but had no connection to the actual church itself.  Kathy Khang has provided a rundown here of what happened.  The gist of things is as follows: the Rev. Christine Lee, a Korean American Episcopal priest and assistant rector at All Angels’ Church, New York, tweeted that she had seen a skit at the conference where a white pastor used an orientalizing accent, but when she reported her concerns, her comments were brushed off.  This tweet was shared by Asian American writers Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, who proceeded to write the open letter.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey directly obtained the story from these tweets.

My comment to Bailey was that this second incident demonstrates the necessity for why the conversation must remain public.  I said: ‘It is worth observing that it has almost been 10 years since ‘Rickshaw Rally,’ and there are prominent American evangelical publishers, conferences, and pastors who still use Orientalizing imagery’. What I was doing was to place this incident in a historical trajectory that dates back to the Asian American evangelical campaign to pull ‘Rickshaw Rally’ from Lifeway Publishers’ Vacation Bible School publications in 2004. I am thankful that the open letter also uses this trajectory, because the concerns of Asian American evangelicals focus on whether they in fact have a place in American evangelicalism, especially if prominent pastors and publishers feel free to orientalize them despite a decade of protests. (It would be a worthy academic history project to check if there is activism that predates this decade, and whether those activists are connected to the ones at present.) As I have said repeatedly, each of these incidents were public, which makes a public response to them, including one via the press, extremely appropriate.

Over the week after Bailey’s article was published, the planning committee for the open letter gathered signatures. Exponential also issued a public apology after gathering a group of Asian Americans to talk about the skit, at which the story is that Jeya So’s story about her past of being bullied as an Asian American resonated with the conference organizers. I signed the letter to indicate my public support for this public response to these public cases of orientalization. The signatories comprise people gathered from diverse points on the theological spectrum. It is worth noting that this is a letter to the evangelical church and thus includes those conventionally labeled the ‘mainline’ and those whose theological orientations are ‘liberal’ and ‘liberationist.’

The idea now is to keep this conversation about the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism–and indeed, in American religion–public.  Indeed, the letter indicates that this is not so much a letter that goes on an attack, but rather, it is an invitation to a public conversation. As some noted to me, the letter struck them as conciliatory, and I agree; it should not sound a note of aggression.  Instead, it signals that while private conversations are necessary, like the one that led to Exponential’s informed apology, they are insufficient. If a decade has passed since Rickshaw Rally, then this conversation about race and orientalization must be had with American evangelicals in a public forum, one whose openness provides some accountability for actual change to happen.

This public conversation is in turn not a niche conversation. It is good for our public sphere. In a social and political situation where evangelicals are themselves the subject of public discourse, this conversation fits within key debates that are being had in American civil society, especially regarding the intersection of faith and politics. The openness of the open letter is one way to enter into this conversation because it interrogates whether the word ‘evangelical’ in our public discourse is inclusive of Asian Americans. If it is not, that would be curious indeed, given the observations in the social science of religion that Asian Americans are a quickly growing group of evangelicals and have historically been part of key American Protestant conversations. This open letter is thus an invitation to a broader conversation about American religion, especially because American religion concerns every person in the American public, and if that’s the case, then it is an imperative to know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘evangelicals,’ including the fact that there are many Asian Americans who are very much included in that term.

Religion News Service: Rick Warren gets backlash from Asian American Christians for posting photo

Yesterday, Sarah Pulliam Bailey posted an article on Religion News Service detailing a controversy that has been generated by Pastor Rick Warren, the founder and senior pastor at a Southern Californian megachurch called Saddleback Church.  The article quotes me, as well as Professor Sam Tsang (Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary), Intervarsity Christian Fellowship staff worker and blogger Kathy Khang, Seattle church planter Pastor Eugene Cho, and Asian American evangelical blogger and compiler Grace Hsiao Hanford (click on all of the links to find them all).  What I want to do here is to provide some context for these remarks so that what is geographical about the events of this week can be more fully understood.

Here is what happened. On the morning of 23 September, Warren posted a picture of a Chinese Red Guard captioned with, ‘The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.’ Drawing initial criticism on the comments section of the photo itself, Warren responded by saying, ‘People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me! Did you know that, using Hebrew ironic humor, Jesus inserted several laugh lines- jokes – in the Sermon on the Mount? The self-righteous missed them all while the disciples were undoubtably giggling!’ This drew the response of several blog posts (see here, here, and here) that outlined for Warren the extent of his offence. Warren then responded on one post that was especially shared–Professor Tsang’s–where he said, ‘Thanks so much for teaching us! It was removed instantly. May God bless you richly. Anytime you have guidance, you (or anyone else) can email me directly.’ While Tsang accepted this response as an apology, Warren’s lack of public apology and explanation to his supporters drew more criticism. This story was then picked up by Religion News Service’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey.  In addition to doing due diligence through interviews and the reading of relevant posts (our interview was also very pleasant, as we had already been in contact to talk about my academic research), she also contacted Warren’s publicist. After the story broke on Religion News Service, Warren issued a public apology on his wall. (If you need this story in bullet point form, Kathy Khang outlines it here.)

Here is what I said. In my interview with Bailey, I said that, as Bailey elegantly phrases it, the ‘controversy over the photo raises questions about how public or private the evangelical conversation on ethnicity should be.’ Indeed, this scenario has raised two key issues for me. The first is that the place of Asian American evangelicals in American evangelicalism has already become a central conversation and item of debate in American religion. While Asian Americans were once target populations for missionaries to evangelize, events since the mid-2000s have shown that Asian Americans are not ‘the other’ to American evangelicalism, or to American religion more generally. Instead, they are part and parcel of it, and they are making their voices heard. Within American evangelicalism, their voices were especially pronounced in protesting Lifeway’s ‘Rickshaw Rally’ Vacation Bible School curriculum in 2004 (minor clarification on Bailey’s article: promotional materials were pulled, while the curriculum was in fact circulated), youth specialties’s ‘Mee Maw’ skit in Skits That Teach in 2007, and Zondervan’s Deadly Viper: a Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership in 2009. These protests are indicative of larger developments within American evangelicalism itself. Within academic circles, it has been commonly noted by scholars like Rudy Busto, Karen Chai Kim, and Rebecca Kim that university campus ministries are increasingly dominated by Asian Americans. Academics such as Antony Alumkal, Russell Jeung, and Sharon Kim have also studied the emergence of second-generation Asian American congregations, which themselves have been the subject of reflections by people like journalist Doreen Carjaval, evangelical writer Helen Lee, and theologians Jonathan Tran and Amos Yong. Indeed, this sea-change in American evangelicalism has prompted pastoral theologian Soong-Chan Rah to term this the ‘next evangelicalism,’ a challenge to what he terms the ‘white captivity of the evangelical church’ in America that finds difficulty with the changing geographies of American religion.

I said that what happened this week is a key episode in this unfolding conversation. In other words, the events of this week are not ‘conversation-starters.’ They are an invitation to a conversation that is already vibrant and that is objectively happening regardless of whether its existence is acknowledged.

However, the debate in this conversation revolves around how public or private it should be. This gets to the meat of what I said to Bailey:

The offensive image was public, and Warren’s initial response to it (that Asian Americans should have more humor) was also public, so the Asian American response to Warren was appropriately public. However, the apology is only semi-public because Warren has not addressed the 4,021 followers who liked the post and explained to them why he took it down.

Over the last week, there has been contention over whether this ‘backlash’ is an Asian American way of attacking Warren’s ministry and whether the blogposts that went up were indicative of Christian practice; indeed, some thought that Warren should have been approached privately and that this affair should not have boiled over into the public sphere. While I have argued in the past that all geographical debates are theological (see my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘), the question here is really a geographical one at heart. As I said in my interview, that these events began on an online public makes it uniquely appropriate that the response also happened on an online public. However, Warren’s supporters suggest that what would be Christian would be to approach this affair privately. This was my other comment, that ‘those supporting Warren [could be] part of a larger narrative that Asian Americans should assimilate into a broader white mainstream,’ that is, that instead of seeking to re-orient the racial contours of American religion through public conversation, private strategies should be pursued to preserve a status quo into which Asian Americans should integrate. While this is theologically intriguing and requires more theological reflection by competent scholars who study the Christian tradition, the larger debate that this gets at is whether Rick Warren and Saddleback should be considered as private individual institutions whose private governance insulates them from public opinion or public figures involved in a vibrant public conversation on American religion that is already happening. These are competing visions for how to make conversation in evangelical circles, and these geographies should be more thoroughly interrogated and discussed.

Yet what this means is that there must be absolute clarity that Rick Warren is neither under attack by Asian American evangelicals nor being defended by his ardent supporters. What is really going on is a conversation about two questions, the first of which concerns the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism, and the second of which interrogates the extent to which this conversation should be public or private. On all sides, there is the attempt to invite Rick Warren into these conversations, albeit on different geographical terms, with some pushing for a public conversation while others seek to keep it in the private sphere. Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article sheds very clear light on those geographies, and for that, her work in engaging this issue should be appreciated while she deserves the gratitude of everyone working in and on American religion.

Update: this story has been picked up by Christianity Today and given due diligence by Her.meneutics editor, Kate Shellnutt.
Update #2: this story has been picked up by The Huffington Post. The title is overly melodramatic, though, and does not capture the spirit of conversation that any of the parties involved intend.
Update #3: a version of this story has been picked up by Hong Kong’s ecumenical-evangelical newspaper, The Christian Times.  While I am not quoted, that the other three who are cited were originally part of the RNS piece suggests that there is some cross-fertilization. (I understand that Khang was unfortunately not cited by name in the original piece, but the first link in Bailey’s article takes the reader to Khang’s blog, More Than Serving Tea.) What follows is an analysis of that piece that I originally posted on Facebook. Reflecting the genre of social media, the writing at points is a bit more informal and has been slightly edited for the purposes of this post:

Well, our story is now in Hong Kong’s (in)famous evangelical-ecumenical newspaper, The Christian Times. That’s pretty cool. Sam Tsang, Kathy Khang, and Eugene Cho all get a mention.

Let me tell you two things that are cool about it and one that I am worried about.

First, this is Sam in a context that knows him for his sharp critiques of dubious church practices. If you thought Sam was on fire this time, you haven’t seen Sam in Hong Kong. That guy spearheaded the exposure of a major fraud in Hong Kong evangelicalism, and those with Chinese reading skills can read it here, and those with Google Translate can get the gist without reading into every mistranslated word: http://arkwhy.org/. In short, this post doesn’t see Sam as an emerging figure. It sees Sam as doing what he’s been doing all along. And this one was mild.

Second, it includes Kathy Khang by name and homes in on her most important point: that this is not just about Chinese people affected by the Cultural Revolution, but that what’s at stake is the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism. It is also sensitive to Kathy’s central contention as a co-author of the book More Than Serving Tea that Asian American evangelical women have agency and dignity and that they are not invisible figures. It also rightly subordinates Eugene Cho’s reflective contribution about the need for humility to identify blind spots.

But now let me tell you my worry. It has to do with me not being quoted, but it’s not about me. I’d rather they’d have stolen my analysis without mentioning my name than leaving it out altogether.

I don’t mind at all that this piece does not mention me, but I do mind that the Hong Kong situation, especially the planting of Saddleback HK, makes it seem like this whole thing is another episode in which the radical pro-democracy people in Hong Kong are challenging those in collusion with the established regime. Indeed, as a researcher with commitments in Hong Kong, I am slightly worried that this piece reads this Rick Warren incident through the lenses of intra-Christian politics in Hong Kong (and my, it is tempting because of Sam’s involvement). For what it’s worth, keep in mind that this is not Kung Lap Yan and Narrow Road Church against the rationalists. Daniel KT Cheung has certainly been following the story on the wall, but this is not a one-to-one comparison of his critiques of Truth-Light Society and Co. Kathy Khang is an evangelical feminist who brings a justice and solidarity element, but she is not Rose Wu Lo Sai. This is not about contesting Saddleback HK; it’s about involving Warren and Saddleback in a conversation so that their work at Saddleback, including Saddleback HK, might be more evangelically fruitful.

And that gets back to what I said in the Religion News Service piece and in my own post above. The real question here revolves around the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism, and the central concern is whether this conversation is going to happen in the public sphere or in a private domain. That is what this debate is about; it is not another episode in the democratic contestation of Hong Kong’s evangelical geographies. There are certainly linkages because of Sam’s work and my research, but the involvement of Kathy Khang and Eugene Cho precludes that interpretation. That’s all to say that I don’t mind not being quoted. But I wish that they would have at least stolen my sentiments, if only to frame this piece outside of a hegemonic intra-Hong Kong Christian conversation.

Update #4: my evangelical contacts in Hong Kong have kindly reminded me that while a ‘hegemonic intra-Hong Kong Christian conversation’ should not colonize the Asian American one, there is a conversation happening among evangelicals in Hong Kong that is producing a geography worth probing. The following open letter written by T.r. Mak is an important node in this conversation.

Update #5: the blogger David Hayward, who goes by the pseudonym, the Naked Pastor, has covered this incident on his blog on the Patheos Progressive Christian Portal. While this coverage has been appreciated by those seeking a public conversation with Warren, Hayward’s framing of Tsang as a ‘Chinese pastor’ (he is a noted New Testament theologian in both Anglophone and Sinophone academic circles) and Khang originally as a ‘Korean Christian blogger’ (this has now been amended to ‘an American of Korean descent’), as well as the lack of coverage of this incident on Patheos more generally, has generated a discussion among some Asian American theologians and pastors over the place of Asian American theologies on Patheos, especially because it is frequently omitted.

Update #6: this incident has been covered again on Patheos, this time by Unreasonable Faith on the Atheist Channel.

Update #7: Xinhua New China News Agency in Beijing has picked up on the story from the Huffington Post. Emphasizing that Warren was the pastor who gave the invocation for American President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the piece goes on to narrate the back-and-forth interaction between Professor Sam Tsang and Rick Warren. It concludes by quoting ‘a Chinese’ (一名華人), who says, ‘照片是公開的,華理克最初的回應也是公開的(指讓華人增加點幽默感),華人對華理克的評論也是公開的,但華理克的道歉卻是半公開的,他並沒有向那4021名點讚的教友解釋清楚,’ which reads in English, ‘The photo was public, and Warren’s initial response to it (that the Chinese should have more humor) was also public, so the Chinese response to Warren was appropriately public, but the apology is only semi-public because Warren has not addressed the 4,021 followers who liked the post and explained to them why he took it down.’ Doctoring my original words to substitute ‘Chinese’ (華人) for ‘Asian American’ and thus achieving a unique ideological twist, this means that my contribution to the original Religion News Service article has been edited and translated for the purposes of this article.

Vancouver Sun: Metro Vancouver’s Chinese Christians wrestle with morality of homosexuality

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by the Vancouver Sun‘s religion and diversity journalist Douglas Todd. His column piece on me was posted online on Friday; the print version should be out in the next few days. As usual, I’ll say a bit here about how the whole interview process went, what I think of the piece, and how this feeds into academic work. For my part, it certainly was an interesting experience being in the interviewee’s seat after talking to some 140 Chinese Christians in the Pacific Rim region and conducting 13 focus groups there as well, and it’s certainly very stimulating to read how my work is being interpreted in the press. The interpreter is being interpreted; how fun!

Douglas Todd contacted me back in May when the Statistics Canada release came out on ethnicity, language, visible minority status, and religion. We had a brief conversation about the statistics, and my hint to him at the time was to make sure that whatever he did with the large Chinese population that identifies as ‘not religiously affiliated’ (about 61%), don’t write them off as ‘non-religious,’ as many engage in popular familial religions, may hold various views of the supernatural, and may even be influenced by Christian environments, such as schools in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and various parts of Southeast Asia. Although he did not incorporate my comments at the time, we developed a professional and collegial relationship through the process, and I’m fairly pleased with the series of articles generated from the statistics, although I had the occasional question about differences of opinion that I had about how to interpret the data. I suppose that’s how we academics are trained–to be critical, but always in a spirit of collegiality.

In any case, Todd said even at that time that he wanted to do a longer piece on my work, which, after a conversation with my supervisor David Ley, we decided would be good practice for these late stages in my doctoral studies. Indeed, I reviewed some of my comments to Todd during our conversation about statistics and found that I had given him a fairly technical academic answer to his questions. Yet as we spoke, Todd reassured me that my academic comments were exactly what he wanted (which, as I’m told, is unusual for a journalist) and that we would bridge academia and journalism in our piece, as he had himself been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Vancouver School of Theology (congratulations, Doug!), and thank you for being able to pull quotes from what I imagine must be a very difficult interview from which to pull, as I like to qualify many of the things that I say.

His call came last Friday. We set up a time for this Monday, and we spoke at length for about two hours about my thesis work, as well as my various theoretical and popular interests. I also sent him various academic articles I had written, emphasizing my interest in both ‘grounded theologies’ and in the empirical work of Cantonese migrations in the Pacific region with a religious spin. There were also popular articles in the batch as well, such as the Schema autobiographical piece and the Ricepaper pieces on Ken Shigematsu and on ‘how Asian religions aren’t that exotic.’ I suppose this may be why he calls me a ‘scholarly dynamo,’ although I certainly do not feel that way most days.

Because the conversation revolved around my thesis’s interest in how Cantonese-speaking Protestants engage the public spheres and civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong SAR, the discussion naturally veered toward the sexuality issues without us even attempting to get there. As you will see in the piece, we spoke at length about some of the pressing issues in Vancouver around parental rights activism, the drama between Liberal and Conservative Chinese Christian politicians vying for the vote in Richmond, and the Anglican crisis in the Diocese of New Westminster.  What I did was to try to shed light on the internal conversations that I have been hearing in relation to what I have read in more popular and academic portrayals. Todd is right to say that the press has been interested in this story for quite some time, himself being one of this literature’s main contributors. There are also other journalists like Marci McDonald (in The Armageddon Factor), John Ibbitson and Joe Friesen at the Globe and Mail, and Chad Skelton at the Vancouver Sun, who have all written about Chinese Christians engaging the Canadian public sphere, and sexuality has often come up as an item of interest. Indeed, one might say that their work lies somewhere close to the genesis of my doctoral project, for if they were examining the conversation as outsiders, I thought that it might be interesting to tackle the question of what imaginations and practices constitute Cantonese Protestant public engagements from within the community itself.

I should note that this body of journalistic work has often been met with mixed reviews by both conservative and progressive Asian Canadians for different reasons, yet both because of the work’s philosophically (and arguably, politically) liberal framework. By ‘liberal,’ I don’t mean the archetypal open-minded opposition to ‘conservatism,’ but the philosophical bent that attempts to seek an ‘overlapping consensus’ from various groups that have bracketed their communities of identity to seek some sort of abstract common ground for political life together. On the right, this work has been seen as ‘liberal’–as in too far to the left–because it is viewed as generally unsympathetic to a case against gay rights; some Chinese Christians have often decried how they have been portrayed as a propaganda-spreading community that is generally top down and unwilling to integrate into Canadian civil society, while many others protest the ‘overlapping consensus’ approach as not paying attention to how their views might be part of a majority Canadian view that is being contested by a vocal minority.  A relevant situation was in 2011, when Todd’s Chinese New Year piece was read as saying that Chinese Christian communities were unwilling to integrate into a liberal society, sparking outrage within Chinese Christian churches and a fairly assertive rebuttal from the Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Ministerial Fellowship that Chinese Christians were Canadian too. On the left, however, this body of literature has also been criticized as overly ‘liberal’–as in too far to the right–in their critique of Asian Canadian identity politics and their recent assertions that the racializing wrongs of the past can be attributed purely to economic reasons. In either case, this body of work has often been done by those who are not themselves Asian Canadian, writing often as outsiders attempting to write about a complex community. With that view in mind, I also regard this work critically while valuing it precisely for its outsider perspectives, views that can come into very interesting conversation with insider accounts, for at a methodological level, there is no monopoly on knowledge by either insiders or outsiders to a community.

All that is to say that it was pleasantly interesting to be interpreted by someone with likely a different philosophical, political, and theoretical bent from mine. As he notes, I do thank ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ in my MA thesis (and my B.A. [Hons.] as well, and it will probably make it into my PhD), and I have a whole chapter there detailing my theological orientation at the time. (I also have a positionality chapter in my PhD.) As those who have read the grounded theologies piece will know, my theological leanings are heavily shaped by the new critical re-assessments of the secularization thesis at the nexus of theology and religious studies, a reformulation of concepts like ‘theology,’ ‘religion,’ and the ‘secular’ in ways that on the one hand promise to transcend the culture wars of our time and on the other have potential to demonstrate that ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ are veiled theological concepts themselves. I’m not saying that my views would be diametrically opposed to Todd’s, but I am saying that our theoretical and philosophical approaches are probably fairly divergent. That said, with the exception of the blow-up around Todd’s 2011 piece, he has followed the Chinese Christian story very closely since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, covering stories such as the Chinese New Year celebrations at Oak Ridge Mall in the early 1990s, Bill Chu’s work with First Nations since the late 1990s, shifting immigrant voting patterns in the 2000s, Chinese Christian involvement in the Anglican Communion’s woes since synods in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the activism around Tenth Avenue Alliance Church’s challenge to the city’s requirement for them to obtain a social services permit to feed the homeless from 2007 to 2008. In other words, I’m a bit flattered that my PhD work is the latest episode in Douglas Todd’s long career of covering Chinese Christians, and I was delighted and honoured to converse with him, especially because I knew that we would have a fun conversation given our theoretical differences. (It is hard to have conversations with those who are exactly the same as oneself.)

Now for the piece itself: I am generally pleased by how the article panned out (if you must know, ‘generally pleased’ in academic-speak is generally high praise). The headline of the piece is ‘Metro Vancouver’s Chinese Christians wrestle with morality of homosexuality,’ and the new tagline just posted reads, ‘Community has been in the forefront of opposition to gay rights, but it’s not a unanimous stand.’ As I’d point out to the editors, while the title is catchy and will certainly lead to the article being more read to my dully titled blog posts, the article is not only about homosexuality, nor is my thesis work, and Todd understands that and tries to signal that as well. After all, my thesis work is about ‘the public sphere,’ not only about sexuality issues, although it is true that sexuality issues are fascinating theoretical cases for studies of the public sphere as they challenge public-private boundaries. To that end, I hope that the small, yet necessarily incomplete, picture we painted in the article of the Chinese Christians does not make it sound like they are only concerned about sexuality issues, but about a broad range of topics that generally surround how they negotiate the boundaries between public and private spheres.

As for the content of the comments, here is a brief word for the methodologically curious. The Vancouver research is based on 50 key informant semi-structured interviews with either Cantonese-speaking Christians or those who have worked closely with them, and they are supplemented by three focus groups among Cantonese-speaking Protestants whom I met in Burnaby, Coquitlam, and Richmond. As my project is limited to ‘Cantonese,’ I did not expound on the Mandarin-speaking Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) in Vancouver, although my MA project touched on how Cantonese-speaking congregations deal with their Mandarin-speaking newcomers and neighbours (and a comment from that work made its way into the article). As this is a qualitative project, my approach was to ask key informants to share their stories and to put together the picture of their public engagements from their responses; I think of them as people who can shed insider knowledge on various churches, organizations, and networks from whose information a general portrait of their public activities can be extracted. Each of the statements in the article is defensible from the data; in fact, reading through the piece, I think immediately of key quotes from the data that come to mind. I am especially happy that Todd went to the nuance of talking about the balance of ‘rights,’ as this was one of the core issues in the Vancouver site.

The tagline ‘Community has been in the forefront of opposition to gay rights, but it’s not a unanimous stand,’ is admittedly a bit cheeky, but I see how the editors might get that impression from the piece itself. For my part, my reading of the situation is that there is no one ‘Chinese community’ as a monolithic body. Instead, respondents often spoke of the Chinese population in Vancouver as a ‘pot of scattered sand’ (一盆散沙) and of their frustrations that it was difficult to mobilize people for any sort of political action, even when it came to the sexuality issues. Moreover, some were upset that their second generation did not hold to their strong views on sexual normativity, be it for biblical reasons or for essentialized cultural reasons. Breaking down this conversation, what I found was that the fissures among Chinese Christians became extremely important for telling the story, especially to counteract the narrative in the press that a unified ‘Chinese community’ with well-defined ‘Chinese community leaders’ were able to mobilize effective ethnic political action. Quite the contrary: I found that there were debates about what was religious and what was secular, what was public and what was private, how children should be educated and what parents should do about it, who their leaders were and why they should be (or should not be) acknowledged, etc. While some also complained to me that this disunity lacked a sort of harmony, my sense was that these internal deliberations were themselves the stuff of democracy. In other words, bringing out these internal complexities and conversations is a way of demonstrating that Chinese Canadians are actively grappling with how to be democratic citizens, hardly the picture of a community that is uninterested in ‘integration.’

In other words, I’m fairly happy about the level of complexity with which Todd is willing to grapple. As I said, I’m often told that journalists do not have the patience for academic ramblings (that is to say, our closely argued theses), and I’m grateful that Todd was willing to take the time to wrestle with the nuances.

And that brings me finally to a word about public academia. My sense is that journalists and academics both perform a remarkable service to democratic deliberations because they seek to inform the public forum. My hope is that this piece can be taken as a sort of model for how the two sectors can engage each other (or perhaps, how journalists can ask pointed questions to academics to get the quotes they need!), as journalists and academics are not the same, but we can certainly complement each other. In fact, we need each other. Where we academics perform the service of close argument and teaching students and readers to do the same, journalists have a sort of immediacy in their dissemination that is also a profound public service; they are fast and direct, where we are slow and cautious, and I think that’s where we strike an excellent balance when we work together. This experience has been a good first lesson for me in interacting with a very patient journalist who is actually willing to hear my complex thoughts and to represent them with careful nuance and skill; I suspect that some in the future will be less patient with me. I also appreciate how Todd demonstrates in this article how one can represent someone from a different philosophical bent studying people who are very different from himself and come out with this level of insight.

So thank you, Doug, and I certainly hope that this piece will feed nuance and complexity into an ongoing public conversation that seriously needs that level of depth to be able to grapple with the difficult issues so skillfully articulated in this article.

Introducing: Religion. Ethnicity. Wired.

I am pleased to announce that I’ve started a public blog. It’s called Religion. Ethnicity. Wired.

Religion. Ethnicity. Wired. is where I’ll be blogging about current events in light of what I work on in geographies of religion, ethnicities, migrations, politics, and Pacific cities. I explicitly apply the grounded theologies axis of analysis wherever possible to some of the things I discuss. As you’ll see, the issues there are broader than the Cantonese-speaking Protestant Christians on which I’m actively writing in my doctoral dissertation. It’s a chance for readers to be able to see the breadth of what my seemingly narrow doctoral topic can actually encompass.

It’s also an exercise in public academia. On the blog, I routinely articulate how I think academia should be conceptualized as a public good. While academics are often perceived as impractical theoreticians pontificating from their revolving chairs, I make the case every so often on the blog that academics are interested in contributing the knowledge of their fields to an ongoing public democratic discussion, one that often results in concrete policy implications. This is not to say that academics pitch policy solutions–more often than not, we refrain from doing that–but this means that academics have a vital contribution to make to the public sphere that should not be overlooked by either the public or the university. In my posts, then, I try to be explicit about precisely where the academic contributions lie in the issues I’m raising.

So do follow me, and find me on Facebook and Twitter. And (I can’t resist this tagline) remember, if you stalk this page long enough, religion and ethnicity will wire you like coffee too.

Asia-Pacific Worlds in Motion V: Migration Beyond Borders (St. John’s College, UBC)

I am currently at a graduate student conference called Asia-Pacific Worlds in Motion V: Migration Beyond Borders at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) St. John’s College. This is a conference co-organized by graduate students at UBC and the National University of Singapore started by my friend and colleague Mark Lawrence Santiago in 2008.  I was a co-organizer of its third iteration (Mobile Identities) in 2010, also at St. John’s College, and I play a marginal alumnus role on this year’s committee, though I’ve been appointed the point person on site for the conference (although the credit for organizing really goes to largely to the co-chairs, Lachlan Barber and Kara Shin).

I presented in a panel this afternoon on Migrant Families and Youth, along with my fellow co-panelists from UBC’s Educational Studies program, Yao Xiao and Ee-Seul Yoon, as well as our discussant, education and family scholar Dr. Mona Gleason. Yao presented on ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: educational narratives of migrant families in urban China,’ and Ee-Seul spoke on ‘Border anxiety in migrant youths’ phenomenology of secondary school choice in Vancouver.’ My presentation was titled Re-working Family Values: ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ approaches to family and religion in Hong Kong. Here’s the abstract:

In its contemporary usage, the term ‘family values’ has come to evoke strong feelings, usually along the lines of sexuality.  The term has usually been employed by religious groups, and those who dub themselves ‘pro-family values’ might argue that the term encompasses more than sexuality and should translate more broadly into public policies that encourage more healthy family psychology, thus discouraging gambling, drug abuse, and pornography while encouraging best parental practices.  In this paper, I will explore a neglected dimension of ‘family values’ by examining Protestant and Catholic approaches to the ‘right of abode’ in Hong Kong.  A key policy issue under contestation in Hong Kong is the rights of those entering Hong Kong to reside there, especially with regards to temporary foreign domestic workers and pregnant women from the People’s Republic of China entering Hong Kong to give birth.  The Protestant and Catholic approaches to this migration issue are strikingly different.  While evangelical Protestant leaders have concentrated on the sexual and psychological dimensions of family values, they view these migrations as undocumented, and thus illegal.  However, a coalition of Catholics and progressive Protestants who are said to be more liberal on sexual issues approach the issue precisely as one of family values, for to deny the right of abode would divide families.  I draw on 43 key informant interviews with both Protestant and Catholic leaders, in Hong Kong, 5 focus groups with Protestant Christians, and documentary evidence to triangulate the oral data.  This paper thus introduces the term ‘family values’ into a discussion of transnational families and migration policy and argues that ideologies of family must be more carefully examined in Asia-Pacific migration studies, as they have direct relevance to migration policy.

As a panel, we are very grateful to Mona for responding about the ways each of our papers explored how families constitute the nation-state by making the personal political, with the state and families themselves constructing all sorts of borders to conceptualize the family.

We also had a fantastic keynote talk this morning from my friend and co-author Dr. Johanna Waters on ‘Education Beyond Borders? some implications of contemporary educational migrations,’ in which she examined the stories of failure emerging from international education as well as its domestication through extension campuses in post-colonial sites. Tomorrow morning, Dr. Eric Thompson will speak on Singapore perspectives on migration research: a review.

This conference is always an excellent space for conversation because of the interdisciplinarity of the participants, and what I have experienced so far has been very productive. I’m very excited about the next two days.

Posting with Jim Wellman on Niebuhr and Obama

My friend and supervisor for next year’s post-doctoral fellowship, Jim Wellman, and I collaborated on a post for his Patheos blog on American religion. It’s titled ‘Drones, Mr. Niebuhr, and President Obama.

As we watched Barack Obama justify drone warfare as a just war policy yesterday, we were struck by how many allusions there were to the work of mainline Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Wellman is arguably one of the current top authorities on Niebuhr, and generously, he took on some of my comments in his blog, including some work on Christian pacifism that responds to Niebuhr. If you have not seen Obama’s speech, do watch it here:

I see these comments as continuous with my work in geographies of religion, a field that I have theorized as not only as a subfield within cultural geographies (as it is more popularly conceived), but as an analytical axis by which political, economic, and cultural geographies can be interpreted. As I argued in my piece on ‘grounded theologies,’ geographers who use religion and secularization must reveal modern geographies to be theologically constituted, as the ‘secular’ can also be read (as per the Immanent Frame) as a theological orientation. Obama’s speech on security, counterterrorism, and geopolitics is a prime example. While it is ostensibly non-religious and non-theological, that he uses Niebuhr’s ‘proximate justice’ theory to argue that drone warfare is a form of just war policy suggests that he is in fact doing theology through public policy. Wellman and I argue that whatever you think of Obama, you really have to contend with Obama’s theological framework if you want to seriously engage him in democratic conversation and debate.

The implication here is that religious and theological literacy is a primary task for any ‘secular’ discipline. While there are hard secularists who may scoff at this notion, that even those parties lay claim to something called ‘secular’ is to say something about ‘religion’ or ‘theology’; if those statements are said ignorantly, it does a disfavour to everyone in the public forum. This is why I feel so happy that I’ll be working with Wellman. Recently, he had me sit in a seminar class that he’s teaching on American megachurches, where we conversed with non-geography students with arguably one of the most important books to come out in geographies of religion, Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. As we covered a lot of ground exploring how Wilford conceptualizes Saddleback Church’s usage of space as a cultural geographer, I couldn’t help but be cheered that a discipline like human geography–one that has been conceptualized as uncritically secular until very recently–was contributing to public religious literacy in the form of these students grappling with this geography text. I think this signals good times ahead for geographies of religion, if I might be so presumptuous.

Working with Wellman will allow me to sharpen some of my own theological and religious reading, especially in American mainline Protestant theology, which will supplement what I currently know about geographies of evangelicalism and the critical crypto-Catholic conversation on secularization in theology and religious studies. This in turn will help refine what I have to say about Asian American, Asian Canadian, and Asia-Pacific religions. All of this is not a deviation from my work in geographies of religion and grounded theologies. It’s an extension and refinement, as all of this stuff is very spatially oriented and thus very geographical.

Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity. I look forward to the fun times ahead.