Korea -- a Christian success story

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent   |   July 11, 2002 at 5:46 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 11 (UPI) -- South Korea's democratic development is one of the great success stories of the evangelical Protestantism that is rapidly growing in the developing world, an international conference in Potomac, Md., was told recently.

Korea "is one of the few countries that have consistently improved civil liberties and political democracy since the transition to democracy," wrote Young-gi Hong, who teaches organizational psychology at Hansei University in Seoul.

In his in-depth study of evangelicalism's role in the political and societal process in his country, he argued that Christians have played a significant role in this transformation. His report thus confirmed a phenomenon that was the central thread of the Potomac conference, titled, "The Bible and the Ballot Box: Evangelical Faith and Third-World Democracy."

Christians amounted to a mere 3 percent of South Korea's population in 1965 but were strongly represented among those who raised their voices for change, said David Lunsdaine, regional director for Asia of the massive research project that was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia. Lunsdaine is a professor at the Korean Development Institute in Seoul.

Today, Christians make up between 25 and 30 percent of all South Koreans. But Hong's findings showed that they participate politically and intellectually in much higher numbers than their share of the population.

In the legislature, nearly two-thirds of all deputies belong to one church or another. Of the 273 members of parliament, 108 (39.6 percent) are Protestants, chiefly of evangelical persuasion, while 69 (25.3 percent) are Catholics. Some belong to mega-congregations, such as the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which has 750,000 members and is arguably the largest in the world.

Parliamentary Prayer Breakfasts, often thought of as a quintessentially American institution, have existed in Korea since 1968. They were first organized by Protestant MPs but soon emulated by their Buddhist colleagues. The Prayer Breakfast Meeting at the National Assembly "exerts a definite Christian influence on politics," Hong reported.

Of course Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who have ruled South Korea since the Seoul's military regime was deposed in 1987 with the active support of Protestant and Catholics, are both committed Christians.

There are striking parallels between the roles of evangelicals in the political arena in Korea and in Africa, the area on which this UPI series focused in the previous two installments.

As in Africa, a theological confusion over the meaning of the apostle Paul's admonition to all Christians not to resist governing authority, which God has appointed (Romans 13:1-7), often led evangelicals at first to stay clear of politics altogether.

While mainline denominations and Catholics at first were among the leaders of the resistance against Seoul's autocratic regimes, evangelicals gradually took charge, Hong showed. In reality, though, even the "mainliners" were not liberals. "The majority of Korean Christians, in almost all churches, are evangelical," Lumsdaine explained.

Their influence goes far beyond parliamentary politics, however. It shapes civil society to a considerable extent, according to Hong. In the 1990s, Christians took a lead in creating social movements that according to Hong were a "valuable resource which contributed to the democratization of Korea."

Hong startled the Potomac conference with the news that of South Korea's 1,150 non-governmental organizations, a full 70 percent were Christian-based, by some estimates, while there are only very few Buddhist NGOs.

Theologically-based movements such as the growing Christian Ethics Movement are exerting a significant influence on Korean society. The CEM focuses on a vast smorgasbord of issues.

It campaigned against corruption and dishonesty, societal lasciviousness and consumerism on the one hand, and for civic education, fair elections and justice on the other.

"The co-founder of the CEM, Song Bong-ho argues that the universe in under the sovereign rule of God and politics ... is no exception," Hong wrote.

Hong went on, "He also thinks that the level of thinking among Christian politicians is not high. So he strongly suggests that the possibility of a more Christian politics lies in participating in a Christian civil movement which will raise consciousness."

The researcher pointed out that a tendency to squabble among each other and then split up often hampered evangelical Christians in their task of consolidating Democracy. Here again, the Korean experience parallels that of Africa.

But, he went on, "There is little evidence that religion is losing its grip in Korea," adding: "The same is true throughout the non-Western world and in the United States."

"Korea has a new opportunity to promote democracy even in the midst of turbulent times. Participation of evangelical Christianity may prove crucial in this."

He pointed to its powerful resources, which have "made evangelicals a highly valued sector within a competitive political arena." Paraphrasing Alixis de Tocqueville's remark about building democracy as "the greatest political problem of our times," Hong said:

"I believe that the strengthening of democracy is the greatest religious problem of our times."

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