Few Americans know that Asian Americans voted largely in favor of Obama when he ran against McCain in 2008. Little is known about how Asian Americans vote because most studies that evaluate vote choice and turnout are conducted in one or two languages and are usually not large enough to identify the diversity of political opinion in Asian America. But a recent survey, the 2012 Pew Asian American Survey, focuses specifically on Asian Americans’ political and religious views and the results are rather surprising.
Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group and now make up the largest group of immigrants in the United States. Their numbers are changing the U.S. religious landscape as a result. Christians make up the largest Asian American religious group (42 percent according to the Pew survey) and Pew’s and other recent surveys suggest that about 15-20 percent of all Asian Americans consider themselves born again or evangelical Christians. By some measures, Asian American evangelicals are even more religiously devout than their white evangelical counterparts. For example, Asian Americans attend religious services more often than their white counterparts and they are more likely to believe that theirs is the one true faith leading to eternal life (72 percent of Asian American evangelicals versus 49 percent of white evangelicals).
But Asian Americans are also changing the political face of evangelical Christianity. The same is true for Hispanic evangelicals. Both groups show distinct political preferences from their White and Black evangelical counterparts. In some respects, Asian American evangelicals appear ready to join the coalition of theologically conservative Christians. The Pew survey shows that the only Asian American religious group that favors discouraging homosexuality in society is Asian American evangelicals, a similar percentage as their white counterparts (65 percent and 63 percent). Further, a majority of Asian American evangelical Christians (64 percent) favor making abortion illegal in “all or most” cases.
At first glance, Asian American evangelical Christians appear to be ripe for the GOP’s picking in terms of their party identification and political ideology, also. While 32 percent of Asian American registered voters as a whole identify as Republican or lean in that direction, 56 percent of Asian American evangelicals do so. While 24 percent of Asian Americans as a whole identify as ideologically conservative, 45 percent of Asian American evangelicals do so. But compare these figures to those of white evangelical Christians. As the Pew survey reports fully 70 percent of registered white evangelicals identify with the Republican Party and 61 percent identify as ideologically conservative.
Even more striking, when asked about the role of government in U.S. society, fully 51 percent of Asian American evangelicals claimed to support a bigger government offering more social services than a smaller government providing fewer services. Only 20 percent of white evangelicals feel the same way about big government. In fact, with the exception of Hindus, a majority of every religious group in Asian America supports a bigger government that provides more social services.
Perhaps the most important finding is that while Asian Americans lean Democratic overall, not even a majority of evangelical Asian Americans (45 percent) report voting for McCain over Obama in 2008. About the same proportion claim to have voted for Obama or a third-party candidate. Indeed what both parties should note is that a large portion of Asian Americans in most every religious affiliation fit squarely in the middle of the political spectrum compared to the general public. About 16 percent claim this position while only 6% of the general public does.
What factors might explain this exceptional political orientation? One unique feature of Asian America is general high rates of educational attainment. Scholars have pointed out that immigration patterns from Asia over the past 30 years range from the political refugee to the Microsoft engineer with a PhD in hand. A large stream of immigrants arrive because of employee recruitment or to obtain a college or graduate education in America (our institutions remain highly revered in many parts of Asia). What is interesting then is to observe educational differences across Asian American religious groups. While 9 percent of white evangelicals have a post-bachelor degree, at least 20 percent of their Asian American counterparts hold the same. This may be one explanation: to the extent that educational attainment is linked with more Democratic preferences, Asian Americans, including those that affiliate with evangelical Christianity, pull away from the Republican Party.
Another explanation might be experience. Most Asian Americans, regardless of religion, are immigrants (about 59 percent overall and up to 74 percent for the adult population according to recent reports). As such, many adult immigrants’ understanding of the role of government is shaped in part by their experiences in their home country and their aspirations for this new country. Their understanding of the role of government is shaped in part by their experiences of what governments do in their country of origin and what the US government can do. Higher support of this sort might mean that Asian Americans view American government services favorably in general and especially so if they grew up under other government regimes in their countries of origin.
All told, when we account for high levels of educational attainment and different experiences with other national governments along with the ideals held by many immigrants in their new lives in America, we see that immigrants will certainly complicate the relationship between the GOP and evangelical Christians. And even those who fall into traditional categories do not squarely fit the mold set by their white religious peers. While certain constituents will likely turn out to favor GOP candidates, a sizable portion of Asian Americans remain resolutely in the middle of our political spectrum. The GOP may need to question their reliance on Evangelicals if the Asian American believers are any indication of changes to come in the religious landscape.