Usually neglected, Asian-American Christian voters may play a key position within the Georgia Senate runoff election
Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock (R) and Jon Ossoff (L) clash their elbows during a It's Time to Vote drive-in rally on December 28, 2020 in Stonecrest, Georgia.
Jessica McGowan | Getty Images
When Helen Ho founded Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta in 2010, she made public relations a central part of the organization's civic engagement.
Growing up in Korean-American churches in South Carolina and Georgia, she understood the importance of religious groups to Asian Americans and Pacific islanders.
"When I was growing up, the Church was literally the only nonprofit that my parents gave money to," said Ho, former executive director of the Georgia bipartisan advocacy group.
In American politics, the best-known blocs of religious voters historically have been Christians: white Evangelical voters, who were largely a Republican stronghold, and black Protestant voters, who mostly joined the Democrats.
Religious Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders or AAPIs in Georgia and across the country are not a monolith. Their beliefs include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditions. Amid a black and white political and religious divide, Asian American Christian communities represent untapped voter networks for political parties.
In the Georgia Senate runoff election, Democrats increased the reach of AAPI voters overall in hopes of resuming the high turnout that helped turn the state blue in November. Reigning GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler will run a runoff against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock on January 5th to decide which party controls the Senate.
Faith was at the top of the runoff elections. Warnock is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. Ossoff talks about his Jewish upbringing on the campaign. Perdue is a Methodist and Loeffler is a Catholic; The two have addressed conservative Christian voters.
But candidates on both sides of the aisle have largely overlooked the role of religion in Asian-American voters, who could help determine an election that will fall within razor-thin lines.
Belief among Asian Americans
Asian American voters made up only about 3% of the total electorate in Georgia in 2019, but a historic surge in AAPI voters helped lead President-elect Joe Biden to victory in the state, according to Democratic data firm TargetSmart.
A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that a large number of Asian Americans in the US, approximately 42%, identify as Christians. Among the Koreans, the proportion of Christians rises to 71% and among the Filipino Americans to 89%.
Churches provide community centers and support networks for Asian Americans. Faith institutions are embedded in the growing AAPI communities in Georgia, and especially in the Atlanta metropolitan area, said Helen Jin Kim, professor of religious history at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, who also partners with local faith leaders and Asian-American advocacy groups.
"These church common rooms are really important when it comes to voting behavior, but they are often overlooked," Kim said. "AAPIs are part of a diverse group of religious communities and it is important to be able to connect with these spaces too."
James Woo, communications manager and Korean outreach director for Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said AAPI churches are "the go-to place for us to share news with a wider community" about impartial voter registration and voting efforts.
"Particularly for Asian immigrants and first-generation refugees who may not be part of the mainstream or English-language press, they can get information about their society either through their faith group or through their home language press," Ho said.
During the 2018 midterm elections, Ho helped organize an early election campaign between Korean-American churches in the Atlanta area, inspired by the tradition of black churches in the south.
However, there was less contact with AAPI communities from political groups through a religious appeal.
Ivanka Trump and Senators Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA) wave to the crowd at a campaign rally on December 21, 2020 in Milton, Georgia.
Elijah Nouvelage | Getty Images
Unlike other groups of Christian voters, Asian-American Christians have not consolidated under either party, said Janelle Wong, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and author of "Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change."
This is in contrast to the political affiliations of white Protestant voters and black Protestant voters. Prior to the 2020 presidential election, 78% of white registered voters supported GOP President Donald Trump, while 90% of black registered voters supported Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, the Pew Research Center found.
Wong's research found that AAPI Christian voters are more conservative than Asian Americans, who do not identify as evangelical but are more liberal than their white evangelical counterparts. Asian-American evangelicals often join the Republican Party on some social issues such as abortion, but the Democrats on issues such as immigration, health care, and race.
Political and social views also vary between different communities because the Asian-American identity encompasses a wide range of races, cultures, and experiences.
"For Democrats, in a way, there's more thematic focus, but there's not a lot of mobilization," said Wong. "Until recently, there hasn't been the same concentrated effort among Democrats for Asian Americans with religious backgrounds or Asian Americans as a whole."
The Georgia Senate is expiring
The Perdue Campaign, Warnock Campaign and the Georgia Democratic Party did not respond to CNBC's requests for comments to contact Asian American Christian communities. The Loeffler campaign referred CNBC to the Georgia GOP, which provided a press release on their updated Asia-Pacific-American advisory board but did not provide details on how to contact AAPI Christian communities.
The Ossoff campaign said it hosted dozens of AAPI faith events during the year, including targeted contacts with Ismaili communities, visits to mosques, and virtual events and meetings with AAPI faith leaders.
Cam Ashling, Osoff's constituency director for AAPI, "has made engaging AAPI voters in Georgia a key part of the campaign to mobilize AAPI voters across the state," the campaign said.
Ashling hosted a call with Korean-American pastors in Augusta and, according to the campaign, partnered with a coalition called AAPI Christians for Biden.
AAPI Christians for Biden said it had scheduled a December 17 press conference with Korean-American pastors from Atlanta to support the Democratic Senate candidates ahead of the runoff elections. According to one of the organizers, the Ossoff campaign said it could not participate while on a bus tour and showed an interest in doing something in the near future.
The Warnock campaign worked with the coalition ahead of the scheduled press conference, the organizers said, but the event failed the day before. The Warnock campaign announced in an email that there was a planning conflict.
Rev. Byeong Han, a pastor with the Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, was one of the speakers scheduled for the press conference. There are certain restrictions on the partisan activity of churches in order to maintain their tax exemption status. However, these restrictions do not apply to impartiality or religious leaders acting in their personal capacity.
Han said that some of his fellow pastors in Korean and Asian-American ministries may be concerned about discussing politics, but he strongly believes that civic engagement is important for AAPI Christians.
"Ever since I came to this church, I've been encouraging my ward to do their voter registration and vote," Han said. "I usually tell my members that this is not about politics. This is about the rights and responsibilities of citizens."
Han hopes that more Asian American Christian communities will continue to participate in the political process.
"Asian Americans are very important in this election and beyond," Han said. "So let's step up, don't step back."