[Series III] Evangelical Christians and Electoral Behavior since 1987

Evangelical Christians and Electoral Behavior since 1987

Written By HONG, Young-Gi (Ph.D.)
The Senior Pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.


What has been the electoral behavior of evangelical Christians in Korea?  Politicians have to pay attention to that because a huge segment of the voters are evangelicals or sympathetic to the evangelical point of view (Martin, 1999: 39). Since the success of people uprising in 1987, electoral democracy has been established.  Evangelical voters are not a unified bloc, of course, and their patterns of voting are complex and hard to characterize.  However, we can identify three main streams.  But before we discuss these, we need to look at the results of the 1987 presidential election, with reference to Christians, specifically.

After Roh’s June 29th democratic declaration, the street demonstrations decreased strikingly.  As the December presidential elections approached Korean politics gravitated more and more toward party politics and electoral competition.  Serious friction developed between the two leaders of the opposition party, both long-term campaigners for democracy, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.  The friction may have arisen because of policy differences — DJ Kim was more progressive and YS Kim more conservative – but though the two would not say so publicly, much of the disagreement was over which should stand as the opposition party candidate.

Movement groups in civil society, although not central to the election, were split into three camps each advocating a different electoral strategy.  The progressive camp within Korean Protestantism, similarly, was divided.  In addition, the Korean Evangelical Fellowship (KEF) and many other conservative churches insisted that the church should not support any particular candidate, holding that the church should not get involved in partisan politics.

The first camp supported Kim Dae-jung, as the more progressive (or left) candidate, forming a People’s Movement Coalition for Democracy and Reunification (PMCDR).  Many student organizations, including the Korean Students Christian Fellowship (KSCF), a famous organization of the Christian student movement, also held this view.  Some progressive Minjung theologians and some evangelical pastors participated in this camp; for example, Ham Suk-hon and Moon Ik-hwan became the resident advisor of the PMCDR.  Some 59 Protestant pastors, such as Kim Yong-bok, Kang Ku-chul, and Yi Man-sin, and 12 Catholic priests, such as Ki Chun and Che Jung-Ku were members of the PMCDR executive committee. (CISJD: 1988).  Ahn Byung-moo, a famous Minjung theologian, actively supported movement for Kim Dae-jung.  Many prominent persons and democratic activists supported Kim Dae-Jung’s candidacy; 5,639 people lent their names to the PMCDR effort.  Groups supporting Kim Dae-Jung included 15 groups affiliated with the PMCDR, 21 groups (7 of them specifically Protestant groups) in the Korean Women Groups Coalition, 7 labor movement groups, the National University Students Federation, which served as an umbrella group for other student groups, and other movement groups for democratization.  (Supporters included 223 Buddhist monks and 202 Catholic priests).

The second camp called for resumption of talks between the two Kims and insisted that the two should settle on a single candidate through negotiations.  This camp argued that the important issue was not the progressiveness but the “electability” of a candidate.  (Kim, Sun-hyuk, 2000: 97)  This camp argued that the critical issue was not the progressiveness but the “electability” of a candidate:  the most essential thing was to defeat Roh Tae-woo.  Many people all walks of life thought this way, including professors, pastors, monks, social activists, journalists, writers, and people of law circles, and some student groups and the Seoul Labor Movement Coalition.  The Fellowship of Christian Youth took this position.  20 Protestant pastors, including many key leaders in the KNCC (e.g. Park Hyung-kyu, Oh Chung-il, Kim Dong-wan, In Myung-jin), actively participated in this movement.  18 Catholic priests, such as Chung Ho-kyung, Park Chang-sin, and Ham Se-ung, also joined as key leaders in this movement.

The third camp, composed of many labor unions and radical student groups, deeply distrusted political society and proposed to have an independent “people’s candidate”.  However, the second and third camps merged later and pushed for a grand compromise between the two Kims on who would run as the sole opposition candidate.  Despite such efforts by movement groups, and many Christians, the two Kims did not agree on a single opposition candidate, and both ran.  Simple mathematics showed that if one Kim ran and the other Kim supported him, they could have decisively defeated Roh.  But instead, they split the large opposition vote, and Roh Tae-woo won the race, while taking hardly more than a third of the total votes cast – just 36.6 percent!  (See Table 3.)



The grand coalition that had brought about the victory of democratic transition had fallen apart in the presidential elections!


3.1   Religion and Electoral Behavior in 1987 and 1992

We don’t have the empirical data to sort out clearly how religion affected voting in these presidential elections:  the institutes that did careful election surveys unfortunately failed to include a religion variable.  In fact, data about religion is missing in virtually all mass-sample questionnaires about people’s voting, which itself clearly shows a tendency on the part of scholars to downplay the influence of religion on politics.  However, we get some insight through interviews and elite surveys.

Despite researchers’ odd failure to pay attention, many other people did consider religious influence on politics, and especially on voting, at the time.  In the presidential election in 1987, So Ui-hyun, the general president of Chogyechong, the most influential sect in Korean Buddhism, publicly supported for Roh Tae-woo, who was a Buddhist.  The Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice – which had played a key role in the Catholic Church during the democratization movement and had exposed the military regime’s wrongdoing in the torture death of Park Chong-chul in January, 1987, and the regimes lies in covering the facts up – came out with a public announcement of support for Kim Dae-jung.  It argued that Kim Dae-jung was the most prepared candidate, but it that religious factors may have influenced its support for Kim Dae-jung, a devout Catholic Christian.

What about evangelicals Christians’ positions?  A 1988 survey by Om Sung-chul (1989) based on a nationwide random sample of 452 Protestants showed that most rated Kim Young-sam higher than other presidential candidates (Roh Tae-woo, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Jong-phil).  People in important church positions (pastors and elders), were still more likely to prefer Kim Young-sam to other candidates.  76.2 per cent of the respondents (n=437) said they would prefer a Christian president to non-Christian president.  A survey by the Christian Institute for Justice and Development (1987b) showed a triumphalistic orientation among Korean Christians:  75.2 per cent of Christian pastors (n=787) and 89.6 per cent of laity (n=1,783) thought that Korea should be a Christian nation.

In 1990, a Institute for Modern Society survey asked about political party preferences of clergy and those with religious vocations in major religions, both at that time and, retrospectively, in 1988.  (See Table 4).  In the 1988 National Assembly elections, most Protestant pastors favored the Democratic Party (Kim Young-sam, 55.7%); most Buddhist monks favored the Democracy and Justice Party (Roh Tae-woo, 58.2%); and a marked plurality, though not a majority, of Catholic priests favored the Peace Democracy Party (Kim Dae-jung, 43.8%).  After the three-party merger in 1990, Protestant pastors had shifted their preference from opposition political parties to the newly reconstituted (merged) ruling party (Ryu, Sung-min, 1990: 57-59), perhaps because Kim Young-sam had now become part of that party.



The 1992 presidential election was quite different from the 1987 election.  There were no military candidates, and no Buddhist candidates.  In the 1992 election, Buddhists generally were fell into two camps (Kang, In-chul, 2000b: 165): the first camp objected to supporting a Christian as President; another camp took the view that there was no alternative but to support Kim Young-sam, the candidate of the ruling party.  Buddhists, at least in their formal organizations, have shown a propensity to support the pro-ruling party, and this seemed to have influenced Buddhist opinion leaders in this context.

Progressive Christians were divided:  some supported Kim Dae-jung and some supported Kim Young-sam).  The key members in the KNCC, such as Oh Chung-il, Kim Dong-wan, and Kim Sang-kun, and progressive Protestant churches organized the Christian Coalition for Producing Democratic Government (CCPDG) in 1992.  They aimed at the change of regime through the presidential election.  The majority of progressive churches objected to the ruling Democratic Liberal Party, which was perceived by them as the extension of military regime.  This meant that they did not support Kim Young-sam, who was the candidate of the ruling party.  The CCPDG also criticized the People’s Party (whose candidate, Chung Ju-young, was the chairman of Hyundai), as a one-man autocracy, as a chaebol (business conglomerate) Party.  One may reasonably gather that the CCPDG supported Kim Dae-jung implicitly.  For many progressive Christians what mattered was not the candidate’s religion but his ideology and political commitments.

An analysis based on many interviews (e.g. Interviews #1 and 6) showed that many Christians with influence in the Church actively supported of Kim Young-sam.  Most evangelical Christian leaders spoke in favor of Kim Young-sam, influenced in large measure by the fact that he was a Protestant elder.  Kim belonged to the Chung Hyun church, a Presbyterian Hap-tong mega-church with a membership of 16,000, and while that church’s founder, Rev. Kim Chang-in did not officially support Kim Young-sam, but some elders in the church (evidently with the Chief Pastor’s blessing) did organize support for him. (Interview # 11)  Some evangelical and progressive pastors, such as pastor In Myung-jin and elder Han Yong-sang, actively led an organized election movement for him also.  (Interview # 4)  Paik Hwa-jong, an editor-in-chief of Kook Min Daily Newspaper, told me that when he wrote an editorial column of criticizing Kim Young-sam, many Protestants called him up to protest.  (Interview # 2)  The National Association of Protestant Elders supported Kim Young-sam.  (Interview # 3)

Rev. Cho Yong-gi, the senior pastor of the largest local congregation, the Yoido Full Gospel Church (with a membership, today, of 750,000) remarked, in a service held to congratulate the president of the Christian Revival Federation upon his inauguration, that in the future Christianity should rise above in Korean politics.  To this end, he argued, Christians should be congressmen and an elder should be president.  (Cho’s speech, 18 October, 2000)  A number of candidates for the National Assembly elections visited the church.  Cho Yong-gi sometimes signalled his preference for particular candidates.  These candidates were usually those who attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church or at the least evangelical Christians.  Though Cho was not explicit about his support for Kim Young Sam in the presidential election of 1992, that support – given perhaps because Kim Young-sam was a Protestant Christian and an elder – was clear enough to Yoido church members,.

Korean political leaders tend to use their religion to market themselves.  Some scholars take the view that during the 1992 campaign for the presidency, Kim Young-sam politicized his religion (e.g. Interview # 5).  Kim used to say: “I will let Christians hymns to be sung instead of Buddhist hymns if I get into the Blue House”.  Kim’s blatant appeal to Christians manifested a kind of corporatism which we sometimes see in other countries also.  (Interview # 5)  Most other religious groups, of course, did not care for this.  Some conservative Christians liked it; others strongly disapproved of this kind of thing.

Evangelicals are courted by politicians, because of their numerical strength.  Since they make up nearly twenty percent of the Korean population – and have for a couple of decades now – evangelicals are a very important market for politicians.  For instance, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest local congregation in the world, staged a prayer rally in Chamsil main stadium on 19 October 2001.  This was a prayer meeting for the world in crisis (about a month after September 11th) and for Korean society and the church.  About 120,000 people attended the meeting, which was neatly organized with two services and diverse events.  About 100 major church leaders joined the prayer meeting.  But for our purposes, the most interesting feature was that President Kim Dae-jung, who was participating in the APEC summit at the time, sent a video message asking for intercessory prayer for the nation and for his leadership.  Many politicians were in attendance, which shows how the church exerts a great influence on politics.  In fact, almost all major political leaders participated:  Han Kwang-Ok, the representative of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), Lee Hoi-chang, the president of the Grand National Party (GNP) – now the “opposition party” after DJ Kim’s election, but historically the dominant party that came from the merger in 1999 –, Kim Jong-phil, the president of the United Liberal Democrat Party (ULDP), and Nam Kung-jin, the minister of Culture and Tourism Ministry, and more than 20 MPs.  Korean political parties cannot overlook the power of the Yoido Full Gospel Church because of its vast membership, and politicians of all stripes were conscious of the parliamentary by-elections slated for October 25 in three districts.

The norm for political participation by the evangelical churches in Korea should be that of establishing a voice which, while also articulating legitimate, appropriate institutional interests, has as its main focus raising concern for justice and for moral principles.  But because religion can influence political support, political elites try to cultivate religious groups.  The institution of local autonomy and elections for local officials may well have strengthened this kind of political usefulness of religious organizations in Korea.  This is unfortunate, as political leaders trying to mobilize support of religious groups for political ends generate religious conflict and disputes, in the same fruitless ways that regional rivalries have done in Korea in the past.


3.2   Regionalism and Korean Elections

In Korean politics, regionalism seems affect voting far more strongly than religion.  Although we don’t have empirical survey data that shows evangelical Christians’ voting responded more to regional affiliations rather than to religious ones, there are some data which strongly suggests this.  Motives for choosing a candidate are complex and intertwined, of course:  it is inherently difficult to discern which factors exerts the strongest influence on voting, and how the factors interact.

Based on interviews, at the time of the 1992 Presidential election, most Christians – like most people of every kind – in the southwestern Honam, or Cholla, region of Korea supported Kim Dae-jung, who comes from that region, regardless of their religion.  Kim Dae-jung took 95 percent of the vote in his home province of South Cholla in the Honam region.  Christians who belonged to the Presbyterian Kaehyuk (Reform) churches based in Honam province mostly voted for Kim Dae-jung (Interview # 13), just like others from the area.  This was true not just in the Honam area, or as regards DJ Kim, but across the board.

In fact, Korean politics has been dominated by region-based parties that attract the strong support in each region.  The mobilization of votes based on regionalism showed a similar pattern in the three elections for MPs in 1988, 1992, and 1996 (Moon, Yong-jik, 1996).  By far the strongest basis on which political parties attracted votes was not class, gender, religion, or even ideology, but regional affiliation.

There are various explanations of regionalism of Korean politics.  Some scholars (e.g. Kim Yong-hak, 1989) argue that it is due to the disproportionate growth strategy of the state in the process of rapid industrialization since the 1960s which brought about disproportionate development between regions, which offered the structural factors for region conflict.  Others think that that structural background doesn’t sufficiently explain how region conflict has become linked to support for particular political parties.  Some (e.g. Park Chan-wook, 1996) noted the election strategy of politicians actively exploited regional conflict to mobilize support. Chang Hun (1997: 265-267) has evidence which traces this process in the development of democracy since 1987.

Table 5 shows the strong influence of regionalism on the voting in the presidential elections of 1987 and 1992.  To understand the table, one must understand that “nam” and “buk” are “south” and “north”, so that Kim Young-sam’s origins in Kyungnam Province meant that he would be regarded as the local favorite from both Kyungbuk and Kyungnam Province, except when Roh, from Kyungbuk, ran.



To understand the phenomenon of regionalism in politics, one should understand that the Cholla (Honam)-Kyungsang (Kyungsang includes Kyungbuk and Kyungnam) rivalry is very old and very deep – dating perhaps as far back as the unification of the Peninsula in the 7th century – and that all Presidents and most high level leaders in Korea came from the Kyungsan region – and indeed a particular high-school in that region – prior to the election of Kim Dae-jung.  At work, for instance in government offices, typically there are mutual support and social associations based on family provincial origin.  Moreover, it is not uncommon for parents from Cholla, or Kyung-san, to be opposed to their children marrying the children of people from the other province, or even associating too much with them at University, even when both families have lived in Seoul for years, or even generations.  People from the Cholla region believe that over the past 40 years the Kyungsan region – from which ruling groups mainly came – has been strongly favored in industrial projects; and that Cholla – which certainly has been relatively an economic backwater – has been neglected or even deliberately discriminated against.

Until the June 29th Declaration in 1987 diverse forces from the middle class to the industrial laborers participated in pro-democracy protests.  However, after the Declaration the negotiations and dialogues with the old, militarily installed, regime were conducted by political elites with moderate position.  The concrete contents of negotiations with the military regime and elites over democratization was confined to steps toward (incomplete) procedural democracy, and securing some rights of political assembly for progressive force (e.g. an end to the banning of political activities of labor unions, etc.), and did not include development of progressive political parties.  Political activists’ attempts to participate in negotiations were unsuccessful and the discussion of democracy was narrowly focussed.  Opposition parties and ruling (military) parties competed for the presidency exploiting regional loyalties, based on candidates’ regions of origin.  The competition between two ideologically similar parties (Kim Young-sam’s Unification Democracy Party and Kim Dae-jung’s Peace Democracy Party  may also have contributed to regionalism’s gaining such an important part in the elections.


3.3   Predominant Evangelical Orientation in the Elections

We find that the majority of Korean evangelical Christians adhere to a very cautious and moderate political stance.  Paik’s (1994) 1992 survey of Korean Protestant Christians’ political consciousness, with 2000 respondents,, the consciousness of Korean Protestants about political and social reality showed this orientation which he dubbed “critical conservatism”.  “Critical conservatism” here refers to a dissatisfaction with existing political realities (e.g. politicians and the political system), coupled with a disinclination for radical political change.  Paik also showed that the level of political participation of Korean Christians was very low.  On the whole it was shown that Korean Christians tend to vote in terms of person rather than political party or policy.  This tendency that was widespread across the country, was stronger among men than among women, and among those with  higher education than among the less educated.  This clearly showed that Korean Christians were prone – as, to be fair, Koreans in general are – to demagoguery (for instance, being influenced by religious or regional loyalties) rather than choosing candidates on the basis of policy differences or effectiveness in securing actual, useful political results.  In Korea, parties are little more than symbols around which candidates can rally their supporters. They remain the weakest link in the democratic process, standing for nothing aside from the ex cathedra pronouncements of their leaders (Steinberg, 1998: 80).  Evangelicals are no exception to this wider phenomenon. Although some group of evangelical Christians have actively worked for fair elections (see 5.2 below), many evangelicals display a tendency to vote personalisticly in elections, as many Koreans do, rather than on a broader, more institutionalizable, basis.

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