An Open Letter On Anti-Asian Racism & Christian Nationalism

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What is Against Christian Xenophobia and the Open Letter On Anti-Asian Racism and Christian Nationalism?

Against Christian Xenophobia is the official URL for the Open Letter on Anti-Asian Racism and Christian Nationalism, because is pretty much begging to be ignored. Also, it describes the broader spirit of this letter. While it focuses on anti-Asian racism, Asians are simply the latest targets of sanctified hostility towards the stranger (xenos) in America.

The Open Letter itself is a call to combat one particular manifestation of sanctified hatred of the xenos, the hostility towards Chinese people, and by extension, Asians, in this putatively "Christian" nation.

Who wrote the letter?

The letter was written by me, with input from a few close friends. The initial list of signatories includes ordinary Asian-American Christians who agree with the purpose and methods of the letter.

What is Christian Nationalism?

I’ll let the good people at Christians Against Christian Nationalism speak for me here: “Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”

Asians whose countries of origin were liberated by nationalist movements might balk at the idea that Christian nationalism denotes a sinister ideology. If Christianity is good, and nationalism is good, isn't Christian nationalism twice as good? What this misses, however, is the fact that even the best versions of nationalism have historically entailed prioritizing the interests of one particular state over the global community, however strategically or temporarily. Today, "nationalism" in an American context especially means promulgating falsehoods about America's "Christian" provenance and favoring self-identified Christians over other religious groups. Neither specious foundation myths nor flagrant favoritism are consistent with the Bible's treatment of nationality, which is ultimately a contingent category superseded in the New Jerusalem.

What is the letter composed of? It's really long.

I sympathize! Here's the rundown of the letter. (A TL;DR version is also available on the "Sign The Open Letter" page.)

Part I issues a statement of purpose. It outlines why focusing on anti-Asian racism is necessary, why tracing it back to Christian nationalist politicians and their associated churches is necessary, what Christian nationalism is, why hostility towards “the Chinese” translates into hostility towards Asians in general, and the general response that historic Christian theology has to xenophobia, racism, and the impulse of organized religion to placate the powerful.

Part II includes a list of prominent politicians in America who have used and defended Sinophobic rhetoric this past year. Because these politicians all identify with some branch of Christianity, the list includes the churches that they belong to or are associated with. As the open letter states, “In the absence of forceful rebuke, the prejudice they exhibit not only catalyzes hate crimes, but also further tarnishes the reputation of the Christian faith.”

On that note, Part II includes: detailed descriptions of each politicians’ religious and racist rhetoric; their relationship to particular churches; that churches’ leadership; and the prevalence of anti-Asian hate crimes in the state with which each politician is associated. There are 14 politicians listed. The open letter makes clear that this is just a selection of major politicians encouraging animus against Asian Americans.

Part III involves an analysis of the information collected in Part II. It unpacks why these politicians and their churches illustrate the degree to which Sinophobia is linked to a militantly nationalistic version of Christianity today. It explains why explicitly prejudiced rhetoric must be condemned alongside legislation, insinuations, and double standards that may not initially sound “racist.” It unpacks the consequences of anti-Asian racism, for Asians in America, Asians abroad, and Americans suffering during the pandemic. Finally, it explains why the churches that remain passive in the face of their most prominent members’ racism deserve as much attention to the politicians themselves.

Part IV issues demands. It outlines why a consistent and authentic Christian faith requires repentance. It then calls for:

a) public repentance and a plan for making things right from all named politicians

b) in the event that they don’t repent, publicly announced action on the part of their church leaders to call them to repentance

c) institution of disciplinary measures, up to and including excommunication, if the members refuse to heed their leaders

d) a statement from each associated church explaining how racism could be allowed to flourish unchecked in their houses of worship, as well as steps they will take to undo the harm

e) in the event that neither politicians nor churches take sufficient action, withdrawal of material support on the part of those church’s members

f) in the event that neither politicians nor churches take sufficient action, the denominations/dioceses to which they belong investigate and, if necessary, expel the church from fellowship.

The letter makes clear that these demands are in place even if/when politicians leave office, as in the cases of recently unseated Arizona senator Martha McSally.

Sounds pretty involved and intense! Can’t we just say that anti-Asian racism is bad and Christians should condemn it, without naming names and starting an inquisition?

General statements about racism in the church are valuable. This project would not even have occurred to me were it not for the work of the AACC and its statement on anti-Asian racism. However, if we want to generate sustained attention to the major actors responsible for the problem, we need to get specific. Such sustained attention is absolutely critical if change is to take place.

This is particularly true when it comes to people in positions of power. To risk overusing a well-worn phrase and inspiration for a major comic book property, “Who watches the watchmen?” The “watchmen” in question are politicians who, according to expert analysis, are driving up stigmatization of Asian-Americans. Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab, observes that it’s politicians, not rank-and-file nationalists, who are whipping up fear and hatred: "The thing that we can prove pretty consistently is that [politicians] are the main amplifiers [of anti-Chinese rhetoric] . . . That is what drives stigmatization.”

These “watchmen” basically act as if they’re accountable to only one body: the Republican party and the limited base that it supposedly represents. The only other theoretical institutional authority to which these “watchmen” submit is the church. In their silence, these churches are wrecking the already damaged reputation of Christianity in America. The only theoretical authority to which they submit is the larger denomination, diocese, or synod in which they claim membership.

Simply put, if we want to see material change, we have to name names and make specific demands. This has been a core principle of modern activism since Martin Luther King Jr. declared in “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” King, a minister from Atlanta, was responding to locals who were complaining about “outsiders coming in” from out of state and meddling in their business. To these complaints, King replies that sitting back in Atlanta and abstractly critiquing segregation simply would not have offered injustice the opposition it requires. He then goes on to unpack his position at length, precisely because he knows that his position will elicit a range of counterarguments. Similarly, the open letter is long and detailed because it must include substance to head off charges of hasty accusations.

Also, anyone worried that we’re starting a new Inquisition or Salem witch trial needs to remember the dynamics of power in play. We’re not wielding the threat of state violence or legal action here! We’re asking for basic public accountability in light of the fact that racist rhetoric is not only sinful in and of itself, but also produces great harm to real people.

Come on. Saying “Chinese virus” is gross, but it’s not like Ted Cruz or Kevin McCarthy is putting a gun to anyone’s head. The perpetrators of hate crimes are the only ones responsible for violence and cruelty.

History teaches us that this isn’t true. The road to the Holocaust was paved with centuries of anti-Semitic rhetoric, largely couched in theological terms. Specifically, the heresy of Jewish deicide, attributing guilt to all Jews for the death of Christ, had to run rampant before Hitler and his cronies decided to translate it into action.

The researchers at Stop AAPI Hate have come back with unambiguous evidence: racist rhetoric has led to an exponential increase in racist actions. Mental illness or anger about personal hardship may be necessary conditions in any given hate crime, but they are insufficient ones. For psychosis and anger to translate into verbal or physical assault, they have to be catalyzed by some sense that targeting this person, these people, will alleviate my misery. Think about what happens when an angry, unstable person is immersed in right wing rhetoric that is constantly telling them to blame China. This happens.

Why does the letter focus on Christianity? I care about stopping anti-Asian hatred, but I’m not necessarily Christian. I also don't think Sinophobia is reducible to a religious motivation.

As the letter argues, Sinophobia today has become inextricable from Christian nationalism. To a person, all the politicians named in the document identify as Christian. Not only do they all use the same anti-Chinese rhetoric, and try to get the same anti-Chinese bills passed, they all also invoke God and Jesus all the time. While they do not say so explicitly, the combination of their constant references to “Communist China” and their displays of piety indicate that they are clamoring for nothing short of a holy war with the foremost “secular Marxist” nation in the world. (See the “China Hawk” section for an explanation of why China isn’t Marxist; see here for an explanation of why China isn’t “godless” or “secular.”)

This racialized belligerence should be inexcusable for anyone who identifies as a Christian in America. However, it is particularly disturbing to Asian Americans who consider themselves followers of Christ. We are not only harassed on the basis of our race, but we also find our religion mobilized to launder that very harassment. Furthermore, we see that our religion is being used to terrify our loved ones who do not identify as Christians: the rise in attacks on Buddhist temples during COVID-19, at least one of which involved spraypainting “JESUS” onto the side of a temple, makes a mockery of our faith.

It's true that xenophobia in general issues from a variety of causes. Resentment derived from economic hardship, scientific-sounding appeals to "human biodiversity," and plain fear of anyone who doesn't look Anglo-Saxon all fuel antipathy towards "the Chinese." Stopping Sinophobia will surely necessitate more than bringing religion into the equation. However, it cannot necessitate less than that. Whatever the personal reasons politicians have for stirring up hatred, religion is what they use to justify their fearmongering.

Furthermore, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, the sociologists who have popularized the term “Christian Nationalism,” found in recent studies that "Christian nationalist views were . . . a striking predictor of affinity for xenophobic or racist arguments," as well as a predictor for "finding nothing racist about calling COVID-19 the 'China Virus.'" Perry argues that this correlation stems from the fact that Christian nationalism is a "social identity" rooted in a concern for defining "who is an American," largely in terms of whiteness and fealty to conservativism.

How do you combat the spread of this social identity? One way is to point out just how far it is from the spiritual and existential identity of Christ and the mystical body of Christ-followers celebrated in the New Testament. It’s one thing for people outside the church to point out the hypocrisy; the Evangelical persecution complex means that pastors and politicians can just write off such critiques as “the world” attacking God’s kingdom. It’s much harder for them to rely on that excuse when the critique is being leveled by their co-religionists.

That said, while the letter is written primarily in the voice of Asian American Christians, it is intended to be signed by anyone who is concerned about Sinophobic Christian Nationalism: Asian Christians in other countries, Asians of another or no faith, and believing, non-believing, and agnostic allies of all creeds and races.

This feels too much like cancel culture. What happened to civil discourse? I’m tired of woke mobs feeding the outrage machine.

Here I’m going to risk ruffling some feathers (if they haven’t been ruffled already). It’s true that there is a lot of toxicity online. Hopefully, you’ll see from the open letter (and from this very post) that this project does not involve insults, slander, or needless mockery. However, “cancel culture” is largely an illusion. When people use this term, it can mean anything from Harvey Weinstein going to jail, to Aziz Ansari taking some time off in between comedy specials. Popular use of the term “cancel” usually signifies “sustained criticism that may or may not result in a famous person switching jobs or briefly eluding the public eye.”

Yes, there have been cases of people who were wrongfully dismissed when emotions exceeded evidence. However, the whole reason this letter is as detailed as it is is because I am trying to avoid that accusation. All the claims made in the letter are based on tweets, bills, and interviews in the public record. The consequent demands are specific and conditional: if X does not do this, then we ask for Y.

The truth is that our situation is dire. Even if the Biden presidency results in a more generous stimulus bill, a $2000 check for each American is still not enough. COVID cases are skyrocketing, with a vaccine likely unavailable to the general public till well into 2021. World leaders inch closer and closer towards armed conflict. Instead of rectifying this situation, the politicians named in the letter waste their time (and our taxpayer money) on xenophobic theater, introducing bills that have no chance of getting passed solely to show their base how patriotic they are. For all the accusations of “virtue signaling” against “the woke Left,” Christian conservative politicians are obsessed with signaling their fealty to God and country. Yet the spectre of the “woke mob” is invariably deployed only when a progressive or left-leaning group of people expresses indignation over a display of prejudice or state-sponsored violence.

We have to get over our discomfort with confrontation simply because we prefer not to have our lives treated like gambling chips in a casino. We can be civil without being complicit through silence.

Look, the truth is, I’m a China hawk. I don’t like hate crimes, and I’d never call it the “Wuhan flu,” but the virus started in China and the CCP covered it up. These politicians are just trying to stand up for Americans and for anyone oppressed by the Communist regime.

Then why do they say absolutely nothing about the Trump administration’s deliberate attempts to infect the population with coronavirus? Why do they urge people to “stand for Hong Kong,” then turn around and block Temporary Protected Status for Hong Kongers fleeing persecution? Why do they decry the persecution of Uighurs, then zip their lips about Trump’s explicit approval of Xi Jinping’s detention camps?

The answer is simple: they have, and encourage, a double standard. Chinese Communists, who may be secretly operating within "our" midst, are solely responsible; the almost uniformly white politicians who have downplayed and exacerbated America’s abysmal transmission rates get off scot free. There is a simple word for a double standard like this, even if it does not include terms like “Chinese Virus” or references to bat soup. The word is “racism.”

To be clear, this letter is not an apologia for the People’s Republic of China. Those jonesing for Uighur denialism or justification of the Hong Kong security law will need to look elsewhere. It’s worth observing, though, the reason why the Chinese government has violated human rights. It’s not because modern China is authentically “Communist,” any more than the Christian Identity movement is authentically “Christian.” For all intents and purposes, modern China is a capitalist country. Party leaders proclaim devotion to Communism in exactly the same way that Christian conservatives proclaim devotion to Jesus. And just like the latter’s pious rhetoric covers over greed and cruelty, talk of serving “the people” in China papers over contempt for the working class, persecution of minorities, and a system that gives the rich and powerful even more wealth and power.

Moreover, while it’s true that local Chinese officials hid the extent of the virus from leaders in Beijing, American intelligence knew about the severity of the virus as early as November 2019. The intelligence report warned that the virus could be “a cataclysmic event.” Whatever mistakes or ethical failures took place in China, the fact remains that the American government could have mounted a response closer to that of Taiwan, New Zealand, or most African countries. For a host of (bad) reasons, it didn’t mount that response. Instead of apologizing for this situation, the politicians named in the letter all scapegoat China. Meanwhile, Americans starve, can’t pay rent, get sick without health insurance, and imbibe a stream of lies about Asians and Chinese people.

In calling for repentance from American politicians, we are not “defending” the PRC government’s abuse of power. We would observe, though, that any criticisms of PRC propaganda, coverups, hypocrisy, and contempt for human life would, applied consistently, also indict Christian conservative politicians in America.

Aren't we meddling in private affairs by demanding a specific course of action from churches and their leaders? How pastors respond to their congregants is a matter over which they should have jurisdiction.

While the Protestant tradition in particular has historically emphasized the prerogative of each denomination or ecclesial body to manage its own affairs, that prerogative is not absolute. When the Apostle Paul writes, "If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it," he does not limit the scope of his remarks to one local church. To the contrary, his words remind us that the suffering of a Korean Presbyterian in Missouri should be the concern of a white Baptist in California. In solidarity with the former's suffering, this letter insists on the attention of the latter.

Furthermore, recent scandals related to sexual abuse, uncovered after years of silence, highlight the dangers of presuming that any given organization will honor the larger body of Christ with accountability. If the broader public is justified in calling for the resignation of prominent pastors who have endangered children, we are justified in calling for public repentance and appropriate institutional responses to behavior that endangers Asian lives.

Indeed, not only Christians, but also non-Christians are justified in expecting no less from representatives of the church. To fail to advocate for our Buddhist neighbors, who have been literally terrorized by the name of Jesus, is to send the message that God does not care about their pain. It is better to risk "meddling" than to risk widespread and irreversible injury to the reputation of our faith.

Finally, while I do not wish to center the needs of the privileged, this intervention is also an act of love towards those enchained by their own wealth and prejudice. Power is a prison of its own. It is in the spirit of Isaiah 61:1 that we call for freedom from complacency and passivity.

Calling out pastors is ineffective, because Christian nationalism is most prevalent amongst non-churchgoers.

It's true that studies have found a correlation between Christian nationalism and infrequent or non-church attendance. A recent LSU study of the 2016 election found that, amongst non-churchgoers, "nearly 90 percent of those who strongly agreed with Christian nationalist statements" voted for Trump, whereas "Trump support did not have the same dramatic swing across different levels of Christian nationalist sentiment" for regular churchgoers. In other words, the vast majority of non-church attending Christian nationalists voted for Trump; for church attendees, support for Trump was distributed more evenly amongst those who supported Christian nationalist statements and those who didn't. Perry and Whitehead concur that "religious commitment (or at least church attendance) seems to promote greater acceptance of ethnic "others" (115), diminishing the influence of nativist ideology.

Based on these findings, one might argue that focusing on pastors and churches is ineffective for combatting Christian nationalism, since Christian nationalists largely do not attend church. Several complications, however, undermine this conclusion.

First, while non-churchgoing Christian nationalists explicitly support nativist politicians, those very same politicians overwhelmingly do attend church, or at least profess to. Having an active relationship to a church is central to these politicians' brands, since, in Sen. Tom Cotton's words, they pride themselves on living their faith "every single day." As such, they have built their careers on the presumption that their pastors will not challenge them or try to dissociate themselves. Doing so would make it more difficult for such politicians to establish their religious credentials for voters who, in the words of sociologists Samuel Stroope and Heather Rackin, "use religious ideas to draw and impose boundaries around national identity.”

Second, while Perry and Whitehead affirm that "Christian nationalism and religiosity often influence American political views in the exact opposite directions," they also note that "those Americans who most strongly espouse Christian nationalist beliefs also tend to be the most religious as measured by activities like church attendance, prayer, and Scripture reading" (115). In other words, fewer Christian nationalists may attend church than non-Christian nationalists; however, the most fervent and outspoken of Christian nationalists (19.8% of all surveyed Americans, dubbed "Ambassadors" by Whitehead and Perry) are more likely to attend church regularly and read the Bible on a regular basis. As Whitehead and Perry write in Taking America Back for God, "There is a clear linear trend towards more religious activity among those who fully support Christian nationalism" (37). Also, these nationalists might very well see no conflict between espousing empathy for ethnic "others" while supporting, or at least declining to resist, policies that exclude and endanger those very same minorities. For that reason, what pastors say about racism does matter when it comes to congregants under the sway of a Sen. Cotton.

Third, the situation is fluid. Just because religious commitments currently pressure Americans away from Christian nationalism does not mean that this will always be the case. Indeed, the Stroope and Rackin paper only indicates that one expression of Christian nationalist politics—voting for Trump—is strongly tied to infrequent church attendance. The same churchgoing Christian nationalists who declined to vote for Trump might still be drawn to more theologically fluent politicians like Sen. Josh Hawley. The emergence of the denomination Patriot Church this year alone suggests that "Ambassadors" are indeed organizing and creating their own explicitly nationalist institutions. How successful they are at drawing members from more mainstream Evangelical churches depends, in part, on the example set by the latter's leaders. Richard Seymour, author of The Twittering Machine, warns, "It would be devastatingly stupid, complacent beyond belief, to expect US democracy to remain sufficiently stable in the coming years to deny this incipient fascism more opportunities to congeal, and grow." We must be proactive in challenging the networks of power and silence that allow such growth to take place.

Finally, regardless of the statistical consequences of pastors remaining silent or looking the other way, their passivity simply perverts the very essence of the Gospel. Instead of the good news that racial hierarchies have been overturned, these pastors send the message that the Gospel permits such hierarchies to remain in place, as long as one expresses rhetorical sympathy for racial equality. In short, they send the message that general pieties, not specific challenges to specific injustices, are what matter. It is no surprise if interest in Christianity amongst a disillusioned populace should correpondingly plummet.

Jesus did not come to promote merely general piety that selectively overlooks the transgressions of wealthy donors. As such, we must lovingly but firmly insist that these pastors abandon their diluted evangelion once and for all.

What happens if one of the politicians or churches issues a statement?

I’ll start a section of the eventual site dedicated to updates and, when appropriate, acknowledgements of substantive change. The text of the letter will not be altered, to respect the signatories. However, pages for politicians will link to corresponding updates.

I’m concerned about my privacy, but I want to sign the letter.

No problem. The list of signatories will include this addendum: “Some signatories have preferred not to give full identifying information. We include their names to amplify their voices nonetheless. All the names on this list belong to real people.” If you prefer not to give full identifying information, the form will prompt you for your email and/or your full name. This information will NOT be made public. It’s just to confirm that everyone signing is real, and preemptively head off charges of fraud.

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