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Journal of Asian American Studies 8.1 (2005) 1-21
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Asian American Community Participation and Religion:
Civic "Model Minorities?"
Elaine Howard Ecklund 1
Jerry Z. Park
Asian Americans Contribute to Diversity
Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing non-white U.S. racial groups,2 and they often have a public image as "model minorities," inherently predisposed to achieve educational and economic success.3 Scholars have largely dispelled the model minority image. Yet, many Asian Americans, although certainly not all, do achieve high education and income.4 For other groups of Americans, civic participation tends to increase as education and income increase. 5 In this context, asking the extent to which Asian Americans participate in American civic life is important for understanding both the future of American civil society and the future of Asian America.
Since religion is one of the main institutions that foster wider American civic life, particularly participation in local communities, we examine the intersection between religion and local community volunteerism for Asian Americans. It is also important to understand the relationship between religion and civic participation for Asian Americans because they are responsible for much of the recent increase in U.S. religious diversity,6 and religion remains centrally important in the Asian American community.7 Some scholarship has pointed to a religious version of Asian Americans as the model minority, an image which might promote a more significant link between religion and civic participation for Asian Americans when compared to other groups.8 We ask to what extent religion cultivates [End Page 1] civic participation among Asian Americans, and by extension a civic version of the model minority image. We specifically compare the influence of three variables—gender, class, and ethnicity—to that of religion in regard to their impact on civic participation. In addition, we compare civic participation between Asian American Protestants, Catholics, and adherents of traditionally Eastern religions. We find that increases in class resources, such as educational attainment and higher income levels, do not necessarily increase the likelihood that Asian Americans will volunteer in their communities, thus dispelling the potential image that Asian Americans might be a civic model minority. Further, Asian American Filipinos and Chinese Americans, our two comparison groups, are no more likely to volunteer than other Asian Americans, which might indicate that race is a more significant predictor of community volunteerism than ethnicity. And although religious affiliation appears to foster Asian American civic participation in general, Asian American members of traditionally Eastern religions volunteer no more than do the non-affiliated. These findings suggest that future studies should incorporate a more religiously diverse view of Asian America in their examinations of the connections between religion and civic life.
Religion, Civic Participation, and the Model Minority Image
Asian Americans are an ideal population among whom to study civic participation. They are a fast-growing and politically defined U.S. racial group.9 From 1990 to 2000, Asian America experienced between a 48 and a 72 percent rate of growth and reached a total estimated number of between 10.2 million and 11.9 million.10 Asian Americans form a diverse population, including both the native-born and immigrants. Yet, census reports tell us that the largest percentage of Asian Americans are first- or second-generation immigrants. According to the 2000 census, from 1990 to 2000 Asian immigrants comprised 31 percent of overall immigration, making them one of the two largest groups of the new immigration.11
Asian Americans are also the most religiously diverse group of new immigrants, and have expanded, in particular, the U.S. presence of Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism.12 The largest groups of Asian American immigrants, however, are members of a Christian religious tradition and [End Page 2] are increasing the ethnic diversity of American Christianity.13 Scholars have barely begun to examine this group for its significance to the study of religion and civic participation.
Most studies of religion in Asian America focus on the indigenous social benefits that religion provides.14 For example, religion gives Asian...