An Open Letter On Anti-Asian Racism & Christian Nationalism


Through their public statements, demonstrations of piety, and coordinated legislative activities, the above politicians identify themselves as part of the Christian nationalist movement. To quote the statement by Christians Against Christian Nationalism, invective about China is simply the latest form of "a distortion of the Gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy." Perry and Whitehead, who co-wrote the book Taking America Back For God, 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. In stressing that this social identity "is not inherently connected to the tenets of the religious tradition whose name it bears," Perry reminds us that anti-Asian xenophobia is not an inevitable theological outcome. Rather, it has taken root because religious institutions have repeatedly declined to counter Christian nationalism's rise. Pressure from "high net worth" donors, whether explicit or implicit, undoubtedly influences this demurral. However, in many cases, the refusal to challenge likely originates in the sincere ideology of pastors themselves. Whatever the case, Sinophobia now defines many of America's holy warriors.

It might be argued that the above list of politicians conflates explicitly racist smears with proposed bills or theories that, on the surface, may not seem overtly prejudiced. Certainly, the scope of Sen. Blackburn’s Dec. 3 tweet stands out, not least because it elides the fact that Christianity in China precedes its American counterpart by almost a millennium. However, according to Stop AAPI Hate, 30.5% of all hate incidents reported between March 19 and August 5 included mentions of “anti-Chinese rhetoric.” This rhetoric is inextricable from baseless conspiracy theories that cast China as “sending” the coronavirus overseas, stereotypes about “disgusting” Chinese culture expressed by Sens. Cornyn and McSally, and labels that racialize the disease, such as "Wuhan virus," "Chinese virus," and "China virus." Indeed, accusations that China has "murdered" thousands or millions of people recall the anti-Semitic heresy of Jewish deicide, the inculpation of all Jews for Christ's death, which paved the way for the Holocaust.

Furthermore, bills and polemics that seek to “hold China accountable” for American suffering erase the multiple state actors responsible for the pandemic. Whatever valid criticisms one may have of the PRC government's response, blaming “China” while remaining silent on the egregious flaws in the Trump administration’s response—indeed, while ignoring the recent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes—creates an inescapably racist double standard. Foreign” Chinese malefactors (who may be among “us”) alone are responsible; the almost uniformly white politicians presiding over America’s skyrocketing transmission rates, and who may have known about the severity of the virus since November 2019, are absolved of blame.

In short, these less obvious expressions of racism repackage “Yellow Peril” fears for the 21st century, according to which Chinese people represent a homogenous threat to American prosperity and basic health. These fears originate in 19th century paranoia about the Chinese population of the world outnumbering its white denizens. The “SECURE CAMPUS Act,” the “COVID-19 Accountability Act," and the "Protecting America from Spies Act" exemplify the Yellow Peril’s blanket suspicion of Chinese people as potential agents of a despotic foreign power. More recently, emerging conspiracy theories that cast Black Lives Matter as a front for the Chinese Communist Party display the extent to which such Sinophobic obsessions can easily translate into anti-Black racism.

What is the cost of resurrecting the Yellow Peril? As described above, the prejudices articulated by these representatives of Christ have clearly propelled the numerous attacks on Asian Americans documented since the pandemic's beginning. The sudden spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in America has attracted international attention, with a recent UN report decrying “rhetoric from the president and other government leadership” as a major factor in this escalation. One of the more horrific hate incidents involves the stabbing of three members of a Burmese American family, including a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, in Midland, TX on March 14. The perpetrator said he attacked the family because he thought they were “Chinese and infecting people with coronavirus.” This case illustrates why anti-Chinese rhetoric does not simply affect Chinese people. Rather, it encourages animus towards all people who, in the eyes of potential assailants, may appear Chinese. This animus does not end at our nation's borders, either: the outsized influence of the American Right on the world, and on Canada in particular, means that right-wing populists in other countries are taking cues from our leaders' anti-Asian vitriol. We dread a Sinophobic version of the Quebec City mosque shooting, perpetrated by a local Trump supporter. Indonesia's history of anti-Chinese violence also sets a disturbing precedent.

Furthermore, unlike racist pundits and influencers, politicians have the power to shape policy and legislation that affects the lives of real people, both within and outside America. International students baselessly suspected of espionage, families composed of Chinese Americans and their mainland relatives, immigrants undergoing USCIS' exhaustive naturalization process, and Asians who have never set foot in the States all bear the brunt of laws, not just assaults. Indeed, the named officials in this letter often attack the PRC government's real incursions into Hong Kong's sovereignty, while recklessly adopting sanctions that, in the long run, will increase Hong Kongers' suffering. In their capacity as policy makers, these Christian nationalists thus cynically toggle amongst discriminatory domestic laws, "redbaiting" appeals to Hong Kong's freedom, and legislation that serves only to antagonize Beijing and further immiserate already oppressed Chinese minorities abroad. We are unnerved by the way their biases might affect the growing bipartisan consensus supporting a more aggressive confrontation with China, a consensus that seems poised to continue, though perhaps in less theatrical fashion, under the Biden administration.

Regardless of their putative aims, then, the total effect of these politicians' words and actions amounts to disregard for Asian lives. The cumulative impact of their slurs and legislation will reverberate long after they leave office. Their attitude is especially outrageous in light of the fact that income inequality is rising most rapidly amongst Asian Americans, with approximately 2 million citizens of Asian descent living below the poverty line. (We also note that Chinese New Yorkers have had the highest COVID death rates of all ethnic groups in the city.) Low-income Asians must, on top of grinding hardship exacerbated by the party to which the named politicians all belong, endure taunts of "China virus" or worse. The politicians contributing to their misery remind us less of Christ than of Pontius Pilate, who stripped the homeless Nazarene of his very garments before abandoning him to xenophobic violence (John 19:1-24). In the words of Isaiah 10:1-2, "Woe to those who pass unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless."

Followers of the Prince of Peace should be appalled by the extent to which these elected officials, through a combination of carelessness and deliberate hostility, embolden harm both against their own constituents and against Chinese overseas. Just as distressing, however, is the near-total silence of the churches responsible for the spiritual formation of these highly visible congregants. We believe that Christ’s words in Matthew 7:16, “by their fruits you shall know them,” applies to groups of people as well as individuals. In that light, the congregations that support these politicians have a responsibility to account for the poisonous fruit that festers in their pews. Arguments that the relationship between a given congregant and their home church is a “private matter” overlook the severity of damage wrought by these churches’ most public members. In other words, they underestimate the blatant hypocrisy of claiming to combat racism while permitting racist behavior.

This hypocrisy fulfills the prophecy of Martin Luther King Jr., who declared in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” “If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” One wonders what King would say about the twenty-first century, when many pastors attract progressive tithe-givers with talk of "racial reconciliation" while enjoying the largesse of bigoted-but-wealthy donors. Should those donors derive their own wealth from fearmongering that obstructs real solutions to our medical and economic crisis, the pastors who receive their offerings profit from the pain of both targeted Asian Americans and COVID-19 victims in general. To call this a betrayal of the early church's "sacrificial spirit" would be a grotesque understatement.

Sadly, we find it unlikely that the shepherds who fit this description will heed Martin Luther King Jr., who was himself accused of Communist sympathies in his time. Perhaps they will instead heed the Apostle James, who says to "well resourced" oppressors, "You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter" (James 5:5).