In September, a delegation of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) officials will travel to Seoul, South Korea, to celebrate with the Presbyterian Church of Korea the 100th anniversary of the General Assembly of the Korean church. The invitation to participate in that centennial celebration illustrates the long history of connection between Presbyterians in Korea and in the United States — a connection that’s one shining thread in a much larger tapestry of Asian religious history.
Today, the Korean Presbyterian Church is larger than the PC(USA), the American church which helped birth it. Korean Presbyterians send missionaries around the world. Many Korean Presbyterian churches in the U.S. are growing — and in some cases encountering the challenges of ministering to new generations, the children and grandchildren of Korean immigrants, whose cultural and life experiences may be very different from those of their elders.
A just-released survey of the religious faith of Asian-Americans, called “A Mosaic of Faiths” and produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that as the population of Asian-Americans rises, they are increasingly contributing to the religious diversity of the United States.
The largest number of those surveyed, amounting to 42 percent, identify themselves as Christian, with 14 percent calling themselves Buddhist, 10 percent Hindu, 4 percent Muslim and 1 percent Sikh. Another 26 percent, claim no religious affiliation at all. (That compares with 19 percent of the overall U.S. adult population who report no religious affiliation).
The number of Asian-Americans in the U.S. also is rising. In 1965, Asian-Americans comprised less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. By 2011, there were 18.2 million Asian-Americans in the country, about 5.8 percent of the nation’s population. Taken together, Buddhists and Hindus now make up the same percentage of the U.S. population as do Jews — about 2 percent.
Their religious diversity also reflects the variety of homelands from which these people or their parents or ancestors came.
Most Filipinos in the U.S. are Catholic, for example, while most Koreans are Protestant. About half of Indian-Americans are Hindu; about half of Chinese-Americans say they have no religious affiliation. A plurality of Vietnamese-Americans are Buddhist, while Japanese-Americans are a mix of Christians, Buddhists and the unaffiliated.
“When it comes to religion, Asian-Americans are really a study in contrast, with religious groups that are running the gamut from highly committed to highly secular,” said Cary Funk of the Pew Forum, a senior researcher on the project.
During a conference call with reporters, Funk said the diversity of faiths among Asians in the U.S. constitutes a striking difference between Asian-Americans and the U.S. general public.
“So four-in-ten Asian Americans, or 42 percent, are Christians,” she said. “That compares with three-quarters among the general public. What that means is a majority of Asian-Americans belong either to some other faith or have no religious affiliation.”
In some cases, the religious preferences of Asian-Americans match up fairly closely with their countries of origin, but in other cases, not so much. The percentage of Christians among Chinese-Americans, Indian-Americans and Korean-Americans, for example, is greater than the percentage of Christians in China, India or South Korea.
The Pew Research Center conducted the telephone survey of 3,500 Asian-American adults between Jan. 3 and March 27, 2012, using English and seven other languages. Among other key findings of the study:
» Asian-American Christian evangelicals rank among the most religious groups in the United States.
» Asian-Americans who are evangelical Protestants go to church more regularly than do white Christian evangelicals (76 percent of Asian-American evangelicals report weekly church attendance versus 64 percent of white evangelicals).
» Nearly three-fourths of Asian-American evangelicals (72 percent) say their religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life, while white evangelical Protestants are much more divided, with 49 percent making the same claim for their faith and 47 percent saying many religions can lead to eternal life.
» The level of religious commitment among Asian-Americans with no religious affiliation was even lower than those of non-affiliated adults in the U.S. in general — with 76 percent of unaffiliated Asian-Americans saying religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives, compared with 58 percent among unaffiliated U.S. adults as a whole.
Some of the findings may reflect differences in the ways people of various religions practice their faith. The Pew report states that measures such as asking people if they believe in God or how often they pray may not take into account the way religion is expressed in faiths outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Two-thirds of Buddhists (67 percent) surveyed believe in ancestral spirits, while three-quarters (78 percent) of Hindus keep a shrine in their homes and 95 percent of Indian-American Hindus say they celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Like those of other Americans, the religious views and practices of Asian-Americans seem to be somewhat in flux. About three-fourths of Asian-American Buddhists (76 percent) and Asian-American Hindus (73 percent) celebrate Christmas — although it’s not clear whether, for them, it’s principally a religious or a cultural celebration. Just over half (54 percent) of Asian-Americans who were raised Buddhist remain Buddhist today, but more than four in 10 have made shifts — with 17 percent converting to Christianity and 27 percent dropping their affiliation with any particular faith.
“When it comes to religious switching, Asian-Americans are becoming as American as anybody,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, speaking during the conference call. Among all American adults, about half have switched their religious affiliation at least once, and most have switched more than once. Lugo described this as typical of “the great American religious marketplace.”