Conference: Freedom of (and from) Religion | University of California, Santa Barbara

From April 30 to May 2, 2015, I attended the ‘Freedom of (and from) Religion’ Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Hosted by the UCSB Religious Studies Department alongside their Virgil Cordano Catholic Studies Program, this conference was part of their conference series on religion and law. There was a stellar lineup of speakers, including Winnifred Sullivan (Indiana University), among other junior scholars as well. Ann Taves, who was our GORABS Annual Lecturer in 2013, played a representative faculty role for UCSB Religious Studies and Catholic Studies.

My paper, which took a different spin (a more legal one) from the iteration I gave at the AAAS earlier in the month, was titled ‘The Passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: Perry v. Schwarzenegger and the Question of Religious Privacy.’ Here’s the abstract:

Some religious activists claim that their public actions against same-sex marriage should not only be publicly accommodated, but understood as fundamentally private. Instead of philosophizing on the actual legitimacy of this claim, I examine why its proponents argue that it is legitimate. My case study centers on Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam in the federal court case Perry v. Schwarzennegger, which ensued after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Called as a hostile witness, Tam – an official grassroots proponent of Proposition 8 – argued that his privacy had been violated when his private emails were introduced as evidence that he had imposed his private religious animus against gays and lesbians onto the public sphere. That the court discredited the Proposition 8 proponents based on this evidence suggested to Tam and his colleagues that the judiciary was in the sway of the private interests of sexual minorities. A closer examination of the Perry transcript shows that this privacy emphasis framed the interests of sexual minorities as competing with those of religious communities. I argue that Tam’s privacy claim was part of an attempt to fashion a legal consensus where public action on either side of Proposition 8 was fundamentally about defending private communities. In this way, the Proposition 8 proponents defended actions such as Tam’s by claiming that he had not so much sought public accommodation for his views, but the victory of his private interests over against competing ones. Claims to religious freedom may not thus only be requests for public accommodation; they may well be political tools to refashion American society as solely composed of competing interests vested in private communities.

I enjoyed the chance to be at UCSB and to interact with the conference participants and the UCSB faculty. As this signals an interest that I have developed in geographies of religion and law from since my PhD, I hope this is the first of many encounters to come.

Ethika Politika: Hong Kong Catholicism interviews with Artur Rosman

It has occurred to me after I posted on the Missio entry that I have not yet put on this blog my work on the Catholic moral theology venue, Ethika Politika, courtesy of Artur Rosman. I’ve spoken to evangelicals, but I should say that I spend an equal amount of time with Catholics. Rosman interviewed me for a three-part series on the role of Catholicism in the Hong Kong protests. It seems to have also gotten the attention of UCA News, which bills itself as ‘Asia’s most trusted independent Catholic news source.’

The first post is titled ‘Hong Kong’s Moment of Zen‘ and deals with the protesters’ aims and whether religion has been deployed in protest. The ‘Zen,’ of course, refers to Joseph Cardinal Zen, the outspoken retired Bishop of Hong Kong who was with the student protesters from the beginning of their strike. As you will see in this first post, I tried to give a complicated view of the Umbrella Movement:

It depends on what you mean by the “protesters.” There are several different groups involved in this occupation, such as student groups like Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students and democracy groups from across the political spectrum like the more moderate Occupy Central for Love and Peace and the more radical Civic Passion, as well as individual citizens who aren’t associated with a group. There are also pan-democratic legislators who have joined in the protests. No one claims to be the single leader of this movement, and anyone who does is readily rebuffed.

The second post deals with the ‘Catholic Umbrella in Hong Kong‘ and examines how the Catholic Church has carefully engaged with the protests through the mode of ‘passive compliance‘:

My reading of passive compliance is that it’s taken straight out of the playbook of Zen’s predecessor, John Baptist Cardinal Wu. When Wu became bishop in the 1970s, the diocese was allied with the colonial British government in the provision of schools, hospitals, and charities. However, as the 1997 handover drew near, Wu penned a pastoral letter in 1989 called “March Into the Bright Decade.” The central contention of the letter was that even though the 1997 handover would divide Catholics ideologically between supporters of and protesters against the Chinese regime, the Church should focus on parish formation, developing grounded Catholic communities that could resist division. Passive compliance is taken straight out of Wu’s playbook because it’s the practice of balancing out the ideological divisions within the Church vis-à-vis the state regime.

The third post examines the ‘Theopolitical Chess Game in Hong Kong and China‘ and advances political scientist Beatrice Leung’s framework of Sino-Vatican relations as a geopoltical concern:

Here we see the heart of what passive compliance is about. Cardinal Zen developed ‘passive compliance’ ostensibly because he did not want to officially endorse or oppose the Hong Kong Government’s Election Committee. But what precluded active compliance was that fact that the Hong Kong Government, despite being in a ‘one country, two systems’ framework, was effectively under Chinese sovereignty, a state that persecuted unregistered religious minorities like the Falun Gong and the underground Catholic Church.

I’m thankful to Artur Rosman for these excellent interview questions, through which I got a sense of the kinds of questions a Catholic public would have for this, especially Catholics who think about political theology. I’m also very grateful to the Catholics with whom I got to engage through my field work in 2012, including Joseph Cardinal Zen. As with my engagements with academia proper, the public news, and evangelicals, Catholics are an audience with whom I have enjoyed engaging in conversation (see here and here). I’m glad that I’ve been on the record on this issue – indeed, ABC News and Ethics Report has also picked up on this conversation – and I’m thankful that this public discourse around Catholicism and Hong Kong is shaping publications that I hope to submit soon. In short, I’m thankful to be engaged with this audience, and I hope that this too is a conversation that is only beginning.

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.

Drinks with Dominicans: Catholic-Anglican ecumenism

On Tuesday, 22 April 2014, the monthly Drinks with Dominicans event will be held as usual at Blue Star Pub and Cafe in Seattle. As a ministry of Blessed Sacrament Church (a Catholic parish run by the Dominican order in Seattle’s U-District), the event usually brings together a sizeable group of young adults ages 21-35 for drinks with Dominican friars. It’s a bit like Theology on Tap, except that they bring in speakers, not bishops, to talk about special topics. For example, this January, Cosmos the in Lost’s Artur Rosman spoke on the Catholic imagination.

I’m delighted to announce that I am tomorrow’s speaker.

I’ll be talking about Catholic-Anglican ecumenism. It feels right, given my latest work for Logos Anglican, and it gives me an opportunity to air out in an informal setting some of my thoughts about Catholic-Anglican relations.

Some things to look forward to:

  • Why is the Anglican Communion such a mess?
  • Who runs the Anglican Communion anyway?
  • What does the word ‘Anglican’ even refer to?
  • Was Anglicanism really started by a king who wanted a divorce?
  • Is there any hope for Anglicans and Catholics to walk together?
  • Why does Justin think that Harry Potter is an Anglican?
  • Why does a geographer get to say anything about ecumenism in the first place?

All this, and a bit more, tomorrow at drinks at Dominicans. All are welcome. The event starts at 7:30. I’ll probably be there early because I want to eat well first.

“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.

Postdoctoral Update, March 2014

It has been two months since my SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington has started, and I think now is a good time to publicly take stock of the work that I’ve done so far and then look ahead into the future.


A major part of the first three months of this postdoctoral fellowship (January to March) has been, is, and will be devoted to teaching my course, JSIS C 254, on American religion. Depending on who is speaking, friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed this course tell me that I am perhaps the most fortunate and/or blessed of new teachers: the students participate without my prompting, seek me out during office hours, and genuinely care about the material. We have successfully journeyed through the development of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant consensus in early American religion and explored the rise of a liberal consensus in twentieth-century America. We have also just recently completed a unit on the politics of race in American religion and are now starting a final unit on American fundamentalism.

I will do a more comprehensive reflection on the course when it is completed in late March. What I want to do here is to sketch the ways that teaching this course has shaped my research. As I’ve stated in previous posts, the two objectives of my postdoctoral fellowship are 1) to develop my doctoral research into publications and 2) to embark on new postdoctoral research on younger generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christians.

Much of what I’ve done over the last two months has helped me to clarify what exactly my research is about and what philosophical and theoretical trajectories I find myself engaging as I prepare for a round of empirical work for my postdoctoral project.

First, I am seeing much more clearly that my work on Asia-Pacific and Asian American Christians ties in intimately with what might be called the liberal tradition. As I’ve said before, liberalism is not the opposite of conservatism. It is instead a philosophical and theoretical tradition that emphasizes the formation of public overlapping consensuses while upholding both rational argument and self-interest. I developed an interest in how liberal ideologies become geographies during my doctoral research on Cantonese Protestants and my argument that they were upholding a theological form of secularity. I realize increasingly that the implication is that while conservative Cantonese Protestants decry the liberalism of mainline Protestants and secular civil society, they themselves have emphasized to me (rightly so!) that they themselves should be considered ‘liberal’ as well for their focus on rationality and self-interest.

In other words, I am clarifying the centrality of interrogating the liberal tradition in my ongoing research agenda. My teaching in American religion has clarified for me the trajectory of how an American consensus was formed and the contributions of Protestant theology to the formation of a liberal tradition in America, one that has come to tentatively also include Catholics and Jews, as Will Herberg would say. On the same token, my recent readings in Asian American studies have also emphasized the connections among religion, racial formations, and liberalism. In the forthcoming issue of Amerasia Journal (40, vol. 1), I reviewed Ellen Wu’s phenomenal history of Chinese and Japanese American collaborations in the making of the model minority stereotype, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority Myth. (This review will get its own post when it is out.) The major theme that I picked up in Wu’s history emphasized how American liberal ideologies produced a politics of assimilation, repeatedly framing issues in Chinese and Japanese Americans around integration issues. While Wu doesn’t talk much about religion, her book, combined with my own teaching on liberalism in American religion, brought clarity as I authored the encyclopedia entry on ‘Christianity’ for the SAGE/AAAS Asian American Society Encyclopedia, which I am pleased to announce has been accepted by the editors. My entry focuses on how both Protestant and Catholic threads in Asian American Christianity revolved around the question of assimilation for Asian Americans and that this is why the place of Christianity in Asian American communities is often so contested. Finally, the work around the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church has helped me to see the centrality of liberal ideologies in Asian American evangelical communities and has made me wonder openly about how such liberalism has managed to produce a ‘private consensus’ in American religion.

To the end of exploring the connections between liberalism and Asian American religion more thoroughly, I have a set of publications on which I am actively working that will be sent out over the course of this year. These articles, as well as a possible book manuscript, will develop my doctoral work on Cantonese Protestants and my postdoctoral work on younger generation Asian North American Christians around these theoretical formulations. This is possible because as a geographer, I am no stranger to dealing with what might be called grounded liberalisms. Indeed, when David Harvey published Social Justice and the City in 1973, he meant it to be a philosophical intervention that revealed the grounding of moral philosophies in concrete urban spaces, and he spends much of the book dealing with the insufficiencies of Rawlsian liberalism in urban geography, so much that he has to propose a Marxist way forward. By the time that David Livingstone wrote The Geographical Tradition in 1993, the notion that philosophy and theory were integral to any geographical research project was already the common consensus in the discipline. I’ll be using the resources from my home discipline, then, to address these philosophical concerns in publications that I will submit this year.

Second, I am finally coming to admit that while I have billed my research as focusing on Protestants, the truth is that both my doctoral and post-doctoral research is as ecumenical as it is evangelical, for Roman Catholics are inextricable from the Protestant story. It is thus more fair to say that I research Asia-Pacific and Asian American Christians for the simple fact that I have always included both Protestants and Catholics in my story, just as I have always sought to integrate liberal, liberationist, and evangelical voices in both my research and in my networks. In my doctoral research, I found that Catholicism was more integral to my Protestant story than I had anticipated. My research in the San Francisco Bay Area suggested that the push by some mainline Cantonese Protestants to pursue social justice as an ecumenical effort in fact stemmed from the success of the very successful ministry of the Paulist Fathers at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown. While Chinese American Catholics and Protestants went quite separate ways after the 1970s in North America, that was precisely the time that they were being drawn together in Hong Kong. Democracy movements as from the Golden Jubilee Incident in the 1970s, the Tiananmen Incident in 1989, and the post-1997 protests for universal suffrage, migrant and labour rights, and religious freedom were all ecumenical efforts. Such ecumenism is calling me to revisit my data for the presence of Catholics throughout my research in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong. Indeed, I included research interviews with Catholics in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong; at what was perhaps one of the highest points of my research, I was allowed to interview Joseph Cardinal Zen twice in Hong Kong! As it is, my research has never been exclusive to Protestants. Catholics show up in my dissertation. They need to be explicit in my research.

I see the theological interests that can be derived from this empirical research as closely connected with the philosophical concerns that come from my discussion of liberalism. As I showed in my grounded theologies piece in Progress in Human Geography, theological thinkers (both Protestant and Catholic, and beyond the purview of Christianity, by all means!) can be read as honorary geographers because they are primarily interested in how theologies can be grounded in space. My postdoctoral research is causing me to revisit a variety of Protestant and Catholic thinkers from across the theological and ideological spectra to erect a theoretical framework that is fair to the empirical findings.

What you can expect, then, is that there will be a series of publications around my more ecumenical findings from my doctoral project, as well as a commitment to discovering ecumenical collaborations and contestations in my postdoctoral work. I suspect that most of my readers think that I focus exclusively on Asian American conservatives. They would not be wrong to think that social conservatism and the grounded theologies of family values politics takes up a significant chunk of my research agenda, but I expect that they will be surprised as I start publishing on ecumenical partnerships and progressive democratic movements this year. In addition, my emphasis on my research focusing on both Catholics and Protestants will mean that there may be some Catholic publication surprises in the works as well, including some publications targeted for Catholic Studies audiences.

Third, I am discovering that I need to publicly acknowledge my debts to what Cornel West calls ‘the black prophetic tradition.’ By the black prophetic tradition, I refer to a tradition of liberation critique and performative praxis that African American communities have contributed to the public rethinking of racialization in the public sphere. In many ways, these are personal debts that I have discussed when I have written about my personal history, especially my family’s ties to the African American patriarch, the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. However, I have seldom discussed how much I have long been influenced by the work of James Baldwin (since high school!), so much to the point that I am in fact teaching Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in American religion as a book that brings together the poles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the black prophetic tradition, much as the academic corpus of James Cone does. In addition, with the emergence of theologians of race like Brian Bantum, J. Kameron Carter, and Willie Jennings, it is much easier to theorize connections between secularization and the geographical politics of race in modernity.

My thinking on race and religion again ties back with my ecumenical interests and my concerns with liberalism. If grounded liberalisms and theologies contribute to placemaking, then in the same ways do racialization and the myriad struggles for racial justice also produce geographies. These spaces have been documented by geographers, and I plan to emphasize that more strongly in my work. Again, this realization about the centrality of race to my work will show up in publications, both in theoretical contributions in my reading of key texts on race in a geographical way as well as in empirical explorations of how my doctoral and postdoctoral projects highlight ongoing problems of orientalization, including self-orientalization.


All this is to say that my plate is quite full, and I am quite happy about that. I will be presenting some of this emerging work at various conferences this year, and I will use this blog, as usual, to make announcements about those. Publications are also in the works, as well as teaching syllabi. I look forward to the work ahead of me during this postdoctoral fellowship, and I hope that my colleagues, my readers, and indeed the various publics to which my work may have relevance will find my scholarship helpful and constructive.