Columbia Journalism Review: Beware labeling Pope Francis a liberal

Columbia Journalism Review‘s Chris Ip has done a major service for the American public sphere with his report on Pope Francis. Interviewing John Allen, Jr., Inés San Martin, and yours truly, he has put together an article that criticizes the way that American journalists have been reporting on the Vatican, while also remaining sympathetic to the particular tendencies of the American public.

Here’s what I told him:

The media’s tendency to make all religious statements political comes from the heart of American political culture. The US media interprets the pope according to an “American protestant narrative,” where religion is read in terms of what it means for politics, said Justin Tse, a University of Washington scholar on religion and public life. “The question people are asking is, ‘Is the Catholic Church promoting or inhibiting democracy?’” said Tse. “It’s a good question, but when that’s the only question on the table, then you start to twist narratives to fit the agenda.”

You’ll see that I’ve drawn from figures like Tocqueville, Bellah, Marty, Wuthnow, Warner, and Wellman to construct that answer.

I’m very thankful to Chris for taking the time to write such a fine report. I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a much longer and very fruitful conversation.

The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC | Society for the Scientific Study of Religion | Indianapolis 2014

Congregation in front of the Christ Church of China, Vancouver, B.C., 1955 | Creator: Leong Ding Bong | Source: UBC Library Digital Archives

I am pleased to be presenting a paper at this current Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis during this weekend of 31 October to 2 November.

My paper is titled ‘The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC.’ It will be given at 1 PM on 31 October, in White River Ballroom B of the JW Marriott Indianapolis in a session titled ‘Religion, Policy, Doctrine.’ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores the legal implications of immigrant congregational fractures. Examining British Columbia’s 1981 precedent case Chong v. Lee, I explore how internal congregational disputes regarding both the meaning of Chineseness and the practice of baptism at Vancouver’s Christ Church of China produced the Canadian legal doctrine that religious property cannot be diverted for theological purposes that differ from the community’s founding teaching. Drawing 50 key informants interviews, I argue that the private congregational tensions often explored in ethnographies of immigrant religious communities must be re-examined for their legal implications. Not only have other Asian Canadian communities drawn on the Chong case to take their internal theological disputes to court, but Anglican parishes (including three Chinese Canadian ones) departing from the Vancouver diocese over sexuality issues engaged the precedent to insist on keeping their buildings. This paper intervenes in the sociology of religion by insisting that putatively private congregational dynamics in immigrant religious communities inevitably engage the state’s legal apparatus.

I will focus mostly on Chong as a legal precedent and will attempt once again to engage the social scientists of religion here with an argument on the constitution of congregational space. All are welcome. I look forward to a great conversation.

University of Washington: In the Shadow of Tiananmen: Democracy, Christianity, Hong Kong


On 21 October, I gave a talk at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies (full disclosure: my home department) entitled ‘In the Shadow of Tiananmen: Democracy, Christianity, Hong Kong.’

The talk was about how ‘the shadow of Tiananmen’ generates what I call ‘grounded theologies‘ in Hong Kong. My concerns were about Hong Kong, not China, in light of the Umbrella Movement. The talk was not about the Umbrella Movement per se, but was a deep 35-year history of local democratic movements in Hong Kong and Christian involvements in them.

I’m thankful for James Wellman and Loryn Paxton, who organized the talk. I’m also grateful for all the constructive comments I received and for the UW Daily‘s fairly accurate coverage of my remarks.

Bulletin for the Study of Religion: Placing Neoliberal Jesuses: Doing Public Geography with the Historical Jesus

I’m happy to announce that the Bulletin for the Study of Religion has published a piece that I recently wrote in a review forum on New Testament scholar James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism.

While most of the commentators were biblical scholars, I was asked by the Bulletin‘s editor Phil Tite to comment as a human geographer on Crossley’s book. As it happens, there has indeed been some cross-polllination between biblical studies and human geography, and I knew about this because many of my biblical studies colleagues have expressed to me that their discipline is more like a secular social science than it is theology and that the field comprises people from a variety of theological orientations. In fact, in stark contrast to the high-profile biblical studies firings that we have witnessed in the evangelical world, the mainstream of biblical scholarship would maintain that Crossley’s own theological convictions are completely moot; certainly, they influence his scholarship as any positionality would, but that’s why all scholarship circulates in discplinary conversations. For the conversation between biblical studies and human geography, there has been a five-volume series titled Constructions of Space that has attempted to use the work of human geographers like Henri Lefebvre, Lily Kong, and (honorary geographer) Kim Knott to examine how biblical authors conceptualize and make places.

Crossley’s book is different. His idea of New Testament studies is not simply the study of the New Testament as a text, but also the study of the study of the New Testament. In other words, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism doesn’t look at Jesus in the New Testament text. It examines how contemporary New Testament scholars have interpreted Jesus, and it critiques them for making Jesus a proponent of the political economic ideology that has arguably taken over the world in the last forty years, neoliberalism, i.e. the ideology that the free market must be allowed to run unhindered by government intervention and that it must be protected from violent threats, which has often led to the framing of the MIddle East as an ‘oriental’ geopolitical threat.

As a geographer, I found that Crossley and I seemed to speak the same language. The geographers (and honorary geographers) he cites are similar to the ones on my reading list — Edward Said, David Harvey, Derek Gregory, for example.

As a result, I used my essay to push Crossley to come into his own right as an honorary geographer. Crossley locates New Testament scholars as diverse as John Dominic Crossan, Bruce Malina, N.T. Wright, and even the Pope Emeritus as unintentionally tied up with neoliberal ways of thinking. However, to locate someone in a train of thought is just the beginning of a geographical study, not the end. I wanted to push Crossley to show how New Testament scholars are actually creating and contesting neoliberal political regimes and everyday practices. I don’t just want to read that the historical Jesus is a neoliberal fiction; I want to see how the historical Jesus gets put to work in constructing neoliberalism, as well as challenging it from the inside-out. Indeed, Crossley has a chapter on how one pseudonymous biblio-blogger, N.T. Wrong, consistently challenges his/her/xyr colleagues on their neoliberal assumptions, and I wanted to see how these contestations actually work them out in the production of space.

The example that I gave that illustrates this dynamic is the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). Because Crossley protests against the ‘orientalizing’ practices of neoliberalism, the work of the historical Jesus in this ex-British colony and current site of a ‘one country, two systems’ experiment would be fascinating to investigate. I gave the example of the exchange between megachurch pastor Rev. Daniel Ng Chung-man and the OCLP leader Rev. Chu Yiuming as a case where the historical Jesus became a subject of intense public political debate. I also give a shoutout to my colleagues at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, such as Sam Tsang, Freeman Huen, Nathan Ng, Vincent Lau, and Andres Tang, who have been doing excellent work in public theology in Hong Kong.

This article should be of interest to all who want to understand the contemporary significance of biblical studies in the public sphere. What remains fascinating to me is how much geography is done by biblical scholars, and I am encouraged by what seems to be an exciting trend in exploring how the work of those who study the biblical text (regardless of their theological orientation) has contributed to the making of the world today. I’d like to thank the Bulletin‘s editors Phil Tite and Arlene MacDonald for this exciting opportunity to engage, as this encounter has also shaped my scholarship insofar as I am coming to understand how important it is for me as a social scientist to keep up with my social science colleagues who work in biblical studies.

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.

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?

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.

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.


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.