Two weeks after the historic Capitol riots, Joe Biden’s inauguration finally removed Donald Trump from office.
For Asian Americans like myself, subject this past year to a torrent of physical and verbal abuse, the sight of Biden’s Korean-American secret service agent seemed to augur change. Perhaps we might begin to rest secure in our status as “real” Americans, emblematized in a highly visible member of Biden’s security team.
Those paying attention, however, know otherwise.
Have seen this individual over the last few days. But I have no idea who it is? Anyone know? pic.twitter.com/hJwI2SwSLT
— JovanHuttonPulitzer ™ #JovanHuttonPulitzer (@JovanHPulitzer) January 20, 2021
Biden always have a Chinese Guy with him or behind him check out CCP pic.twitter.com/2Y64nZVDr0
— Afzal Niaz M.D (@DrAfzalNiaz) January 20, 2021
The Chinese are already right next to Biden just as he exited President Trump’s limousine. One of his secret service agents/Chinese handlers stood next to him making sure he didn’t get out of line.
— Trump2024 (@ForTrump) January 20, 2021
Rumblings of a racist conspiracy theory about a man seen at the inauguration being Biden's "Chinese handler." The man is David Cho, a Korean-American Secret Service agent who will apparently head up the President's team. pic.twitter.com/BoUwPGzf5w
— Jacob Silver (@DataJacob) January 20, 2021
I've seen a bunch of racist posts claiming that Korean-American Secret Service agent David Cho, on Biden's detail, is actually his "CCP handler". I don't think the people saying this are joking: many of them mean it.
— Arieh Kovler (@ariehkovler) January 20, 2021
Almost immediately, racist conspiracy theories began misidentifying Agent David Cho as Biden’s “CCP handler.” Tellingly, the accounts that accused Cho vocalized support for outspoken evangelical Mike Pompeo’s presidential bid in 2024, retweeted pro-Trump pastor Greg Locke, or coupled self-descriptions like “Catholic American” with warnings for immigrants to “assimilate and be productive” in their bios.
Anti-Chinese mania is now central to Christian nationalism. Neither is poised to dissipate, despite the new president’s optimism that racist zealots like Pompeo, Sen. Josh Hawley, and Sen. Ted Cruz are on the verge of either repentance or being ousted by a critical percentage of their base.
The ongoing pairing of Christian devotion with post-Trump paranoia about President “Bejing Biden,” neatly encapsulated by the above timelines, should shock precisely no one. Christian nationalists, who number at least half of surveyed Americans, believe that America’s exceptional blessings depend on policing spiritual, geopolitical, and racial boundaries. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, authors of the book Taking America Back for God, found in a recent study that Christian nationalism was usually a “top predictor” of whether a person “find[s] nothing racist about calling COVID-19 the ‘China Virus.’” Searching Twitter for the phrase “Godless China” or “Godless Communist China” yields an ever-updating string of unironically bigoted results.
Indeed, it was precisely because of such virulent religiosity, which exploits my faith to launder attacks on my ethnicity, that I began writing an open letter on anti-Asian racism and Christian nationalism in early December. The letter has now amassed over 300 signatures from theologians, pastors, and Asian Americans who have simply had enough.
Crucially, it focuses on politicians, not the rank-and-file zealots displayed above. As the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab has found, the latter’s vitriol can be definitively traced back to the former’s rhetoric. To cite one example, researcher Max Rizzuto notes that Rep. Paul Gosar singlehandedly birthed the terms “Wuhan virus,” “Wuhan coronavirus,” “China virus,” and “Chinese virus,” all of which were practically absent from Twitter prior to Gosar’s “Wuhan Virus” tweet on March 8. Lab director Graham Brookie observes, “The thing that we can prove pretty consistently is that [politicians] are the main amplifiers [of anti-Chinese rhetoric].”
If politicians like Gosar catalyze Sinophobia, their image as Christian warriors sanctifies it. Often, the link between piety and prejudice is explicit, as when Sen. Tom Cotton combines reference to “the China virus” with the benediction, “God bless our brave docs and nurses.” Elsewhere, however, the link is subterranean, though no less insidious. Gosar, for example, is a self-described “proud Catholic” whose parish is not publicly known, and whose anti-Chinese racism has no explicitly religious component. His diocese, however, has apparently seen no reason to impose discipline for his choice to brandish the term “Wuhan Virus” on his website. The absence of any public chastisement enables him to cast himself as a faithful son of the Church, bigotry included. Such framing is sure to burnish his credentials with the swelling Catholic right.
Meanwhile, Sen. Marsha Blackburn is an “active member” of Nashville’s Christ Presbyterian in Nashville. Her Dec. 3 tweet smearing China with “5,000 years of cheating and stealing” was ‘liked’ thousands of times. She has also attempted a “Stop COVID” act that charges China with unleashing a “biological weapon” on America. Such blatant racism has elicited no comment from Christ Presbyterian’s leadership, despite their public relationship with Blackburn. The church, whose association with Blackburn allows the latter to frame herself as a relatable mother of faith, features a “mercy and justice” statement on its website, declaring its intent to help “the poor, immigrants and refugees, [and] ethnic and other minorities.”
The disparity between Christ Presbyterian’s stated goals and their functional support for a prominent racist is sadly typical of many politicians’ home churches. Whether in tweets that herald “the anti-racist power of the ancient gospel,” or “prayer roundtables” for “racial reconciliation,” these ministries fluently practice the language of racial justice, while the instigators of racial injustice in their pews operate unopposed. The open letter thus demands accountability not only from Christian nationalist politicians, but also from the pastors and religious institutions with which they cultivate their brands.
Without organized resistance to “sanctified Sinophobia,” we can expect a continuation of the wave of violence and animosity that has mounted over the past year. As noted by Dr. Russell Jeung, one of Stop AAPI Hate’s co-founders and a vocal supporter of the open letter, religiosity has inflected at least 3 known incidents of anti-Asian hate. Like the anonymous vandalizers who spray-painted “JESUS” on a Buddhist statue in Los Angeles, these harassers merely applied the theology that Gosar, Blackburn, and the 12 other politicians named in the letter explicitly or implicitly affirm. The anti-Buddhist vandal only illustrates how these soldiers for Christ blaspheme both Christian and non-Christian religion alike.
Yet invective against “godless Communist China” does not simply harm Asian-American communities. The inextricability of anti-Asian, anti-Black, and anti-Jewish sentiment is displayed in conspiracy theorizing that posits Black Lives Matter as a front for the Chinese Communist Party, or George Soros as a collaborator with the coronavirus’ creators in Wuhan. Meanwhile, those who tore up Sen. Jeff Merkley’s scroll of Chinese calligraphy, while declaring “We don’t want Chinese bullshit,” underscore the fact that Trump’s abortive insurrection hinged on claims that the CCP orchestrated Biden’s victory.
Once again, the holy warriors who invoked Jesus’ name and denounced “communists” in the Senate chamber were only taking cues from their politicians. Gosar, Blackburn, and a host of other politicians identified in the letter also fueled cries of election fraud, with Gosar reportedly playing a role in planning the riots. Inevitably, their sanctified Sinophobia and contempt for democracy merged in their followers’ imaginations; attempted sedition, during which rioters paraded signs such as “CCP wants world domination,” was the inevitable result.
At the beginning of a new administration, the God-fearing conspiracy theorizers targeting Biden’s “CCP Handler” remind us that sanctified Sinophobia will continue to catalyze the right’s hostility to democracy. While Christian nationalists hold most minorities in contempt, “the Chinese”―and, by extension, Asians in general―have come to play a kind of puppetmaster role in the white supremacist imaginary, fueling attacks not only on Asians, but also on Black and Jewish Americans. It’s therefore in a spirit of solidarity that I invite Asians of all creeds, and allies of all backgrounds, to sign the open letter. For Agent David Cho, drawing fire is part of the job description. The rest of us, however, will have to learn how to ensure that white supremacist Christians do not simply stand by, but also stand down.