Vancouver Sun/The Search: Chinese evangelicals for Trump

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Photo: Nick Procaylo/Vancouver Sun

Well, friends, it’s hit the fan. The Vancouver Sun‘s religion and diversity columnist Douglas Todd has published a piece of mine titled ‘Law and order, stability and prosperity: Chinese evangelical Trumplicans in Metro Vancouver’ – or as they shortened it, ‘Chinese Christians for Trump’ – on his blog, The Search. The photo is one that they’ve had on file for about three years; it was taken by photographer Nick Procaylo at Richmond Public Market when Todd wrote a story about my doctoral work on Cantonese-speaking Protestants engaging Vancouver as a civil society. The post is about a certain ideology associated with voting for the United States’s Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that is circulating among – of all places – Chinese evangelicals in Vancouver.

The comments are still rolling in, and as I suspected, this little 700-word discussion piece is not only causing a discussion, but I’m probably going to get into a little bit of trouble for it too – not legally, financially, or materially, but ideologically. I used to be afraid of such trouble, but then I started reading Slavoj Žižek, and now I know that whatever trouble I get into, I will never be in as much trouble as him.

In fact, the takeaway quote from my piece is from Žižek’s recent book Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (p. 19, if you must know). Žižek has gotten into so much trouble for using the late long-time Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s catch-phrase ‘capitalism with Asian values’ to describe a more efficient, if not totalitarian capitalism that is uncoupled from a democratic civic polity, and qualify it as he might to say that it has nothing to do with ‘Asian people,’ he’s caught quite a bit of flak for it.

Some wish that I had qualified which Chinese evangelicals I was talking about when I attributed the support of Chinese evangelical Trumplicans to ‘capitalism with Asian values.’ The trouble, of course, is that I did:

  • ‘I don’t have the quantitative survey instruments to determine exactly how many Trumplicans there are among Chinese evangelicals in Metro Vancouver, but I’m pretty sure that most of them (an estimated 16% of the 400,000 or so Chinese Canadians counted in Metro Vancouver) can’t vote in the United States.’
  • ‘But what I don’t have in terms of statistics, I do have in social media posts.’
  • ‘I am told by both this woman and a financial planner in Richmond – and others still, for that matter…’
  • ‘Of course, such comments indicate that these Chinese evangelicals come from a particular class of people with wealth to protect (raising questions, of course, about whether there’s room in the religion for Chinese people who don’t have wealth to protect). But for this particular class of ethnic Chinese migrants, stability was why they moved to Canada in the first place. (They wanted to get) away from, say, the possible political upheavals of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, or the strangely personal dialectical politics of the market socialist mainland.’

In other words, the contingent of Chinese evangelicals propagating this pro-Trump material is by and large a wealthy class of persons that fled from Hong Kong or China in order to protect the stability of their capital from specific geopolitical processes. What I am saying is that these networks of ideological propagation are specifically Chinese evangelical because they tend to be run by such persons in association with an evangelical Protestant ideology (but often dissociated from the church, because they’d never want the church to get involved in politics).

Because I researched Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with Vancouver’s civil society, I have been part of the public that these ideological informational networks address for quite some time. An interesting turn over the course of my research has been a slow transfer of this material from email lists to social media platforms, especially Facebook. It is surprising how much of this material is sourced from conservative United States sites; I wrote about Trump, but I could have gone much deeper into their opposition to Black Lives Matter and their sharing of material meant to defame Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

When Douglas Todd and I spoke with each other about this phenomenon, it became clear that this was a fascinating turn for a network of people that had historically participated in Vancouver‘s civil society and were generally concerned about Canadian politics. Indeed, I have written and spoken quite a bit before about how I think that all of this participation on the Right is an investment on the part of Cantonese evangelicals into becoming Canadian. But what was striking to Todd and me was that the concern from this population was really about Trump in an election in which they could not participate in any meaningful material way.

Todd suggested that I write a short piece exploring this ideological phenomenon. What you see on his blog is what he got.

I’d like to thank Douglas Todd for this opportunity. I also want to thank my friends in Metro Vancouver for helping me keep my ear to the ground. Last but not least, I want to thank the various Chinese evangelical Trumplicans who have voiced their ideological takes on Facebook; it is because of them that this piece was written.

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Guest lecturing in Steven Hu’s UCSB class

I had the privilege of guest-teaching in my friend and colleague Steven Hu‘s class on ‘Global Christianity and the Public Sphere’ at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Skype is such a powerful tool, and I’m glad that we can learn from each other across universities through this medium. It’s also always fantastic to be able to interact in such direct ways with the goings-on of UCSB’s brilliant religious studies department, the academic home of many crypto-geographers of religion (including Ann Taves, who gave the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Annual Lecture at the national geography conference in 2013).

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I learned a lot from Steve’s students, mostly from seeing in what they were and were not interested. Steve assigned my article on the Hong Kong democracy movement and wanted me to talk about geographies of ‘grounded theologies‘ and Hong Kong. We decided to do this in more of an interview style, with Steve asking me questions about what geography is, what Hong Kong is, and what the Umbrella Movement is. I did my standard run-down of the political system in Hong Kong, its legacy of colonization, and how to make an ideological map – all of my favourite things! We also got to talk about the different ways that Catholics and Protestants label themselves vis-à-vis the term ‘Christian,’ which is one of Steve’s favourite things, and I got to tell the class about how the colloquial Cantonese term ‘talking Jesus’ is not about evangelism – it’s about a long-winded person going on and on about meaningless things (not unlike certain points of some of my meandering answers to Steve’s questions). We also talked about some of the unexpected Byzantine practices in the Umbrella Movement because finding ways to always include the Orthodox in geographies dominated by Western Christianity is how I roll.

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Oh yes, that Syndicate forum.

 

At the end of the interview-lecture, I got to ask my own questions, and I’m so grateful to Steve for providing this time because that’s where I learned the most, as that’s when we got to talk about the students’ favourite things. I asked them whether they were personally interested in Hong Kong, and that’s where things got interesting. They told me that they were interested in comparing protest movements and that the most interesting bits of the interview-lecture were the parts about how these protest movements, far from being solely focused on the secular and the material, were laced with religion. They especially connected when I held up my copy of Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy and said that one of Schneider’s central arguments is that Occupy Wall Street generated new theologies. They also liked it when – as Steve talked about connections with the Polish Solidarity Movement – I held up my Black Madonna of Częstochowa prayer card (which they seemed to know a lot about – good job, Steve!!). And yet, I also got to respond to another student’s questions about the church’s collaboration and confrontation with the government through the lens of capital – sometimes (I said) capital will determine whether the church will kiss the state’s ass (#sorrynotsorry); after all, as I’m coming to argue, capital has amazing power to do theology – it may even be a god (or, as one of the greatest theologians of our generation, Ms Lauryn Hill, says, ‘it’s funny how money change a situation‘). That seemed to connect well with the students as well, although I could sense that there was some nervousness about the political implications of church-state-civil society separation and collaboration in protest movements. Lastly, I got to learn way more about Steve’s own research on New Calvinist urban ideologies in Shanghai, which I think for the class was a great ‘fishbowl’ moment (Steve and I being the two fish) where scholarly collegiality was put on display.

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Q. Wait, what does this have to do with Hong Kong? A. EVERYTHING.

All this is to say – thank you, Steve, for a great Skype class session. Your class has given me some things to think about, and reflecting on it will be great for keeping my scholarly focus as I keep moving forward. When you read this, please thank them for me, and by all means forward this post to them as a token of my gratitude.

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Photo taken by Steve! Thanks for having me!

Seattle Pacific University: Guest Lectures, Asian American Ministry Program Church Leaders Class with Soong-Chan Rah

I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be giving some guest lectures in Soong-Chan Rah’s ‘Church Leaders Class‘ at Seattle Pacific University’s new Asian American Ministry Program (AAMP). The course is being held on two weekends in February and March 2016: Rah kicked off the course during the February 5-6 session (which I did not attend, but I heard went extremely well), and I will be joining the March 4-5 session. I’m especially thankful to the AAMP’s director Billy Vo for making this happen.

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This is a very interesting endeavour because Rah and I probably come at the question of Asian American ministry from very different disciplinary and philosophical perspectives. Rah lays out his framework very clearly in his books like The Next EvangelicalismMany Colors, and his commentary on Lamentations Prophetic Lament. From what I understand of this work, he uses a sociological understanding of culture – think Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann on ‘plausibility structures’ and ‘externalization’ – and understands his work on Asian American theology as coming out from an immigrant church experience, especially a Korean American one. My understanding is that the first session was devoted to explicating this framework under the banner of a ‘theology of culture’ and ‘contextual theology,’ showing that all theology is done within a sociological, cultural context.

I’m coming in as a dialogue partner who is trained as a human geographer as well as in Asian American studies. My plan – which may get happily derailed by class discussion (which I understand to be very lively) – is to give two lectures. The first will be on what geography has to do with Asian American studies (answer: everything), and the second will try to locate the doing of evangelical theology in relation to (and perhaps even within – which will be an interestingly awkward fit) Asian American studies. I suppose this isn’t an altogether new endeavour; one sociologist who has achieved this remarkable synthesis throughout his career is Russell Jeung (San Francisco State).

Rah tells me that the class is mostly composed of theology students seeking to do some kind of Christian ministry, as well as by pastors who are actually practicing ministry. Because this is a class on race and pastoral ministry, part of my motivation for helping to teach this course is to get a sense of how to navigate my new postdoctoral research on Asian Americans and Black Lives Matter with a focus especially on Seattle. I’m looking forward to meeting the course – and of course, keeping Soong-Chan up until the wee hours of the night in discussion.