[Series VI] Dynamism and Dilemmas in Evangelical Contributions to the Democratization of Korea

Dynamism and Dilemmas in Evangelical Contributions
to the Democratization of Korea

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


Korea is one of the few countries that are known to have consistently improved civil liberties and political democracy since making a transition to democracy.  In Korean democratization following factors are closely related to democratic transition and development: (1) networks (external and internal); (2) economic growth; (3) political leadership; and (4) civil society.  This confirms some characteristics of democratization that Curtis (1997) presented from the experience of the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan in East Asia.  It may be argued that Christianity has contributed to the democratization of South Korea in various ways.  However, the contribution is quite complex and any single explanation is never sufficient.  I have tried to suggest here that the role of the evangelical Christians has been strengthened and coupled with the effective network, building of civil associations, the development of the middle class, and political vision of some Christian politicians, such as Kim Young Sam.  It should be noted that evangelical participation in Korean democratization was been conspicuous especially after 1987.

The democratic ideal is a paradox: Robert Dahl (1997: 74) recognizes that there is an inevitable gap ‘between democratic ideals and democratic realities’.  Although democracy has been introduced to Korea, scholars differ as to whether the Korean democracy has been consolidated.  Some scholars (e.g. Im Hyug-baeg, 2000), taking a “maximalist” position, hold that Korean democracy is not yet been consolidated.  They emphasize that democracy encompasses much more than elections, and democratic consolidation involves establishing a responsive, accountable, civilian political regime which has full control over the military, guarantees civil rights, and presides over a Tocquevillian social democratization as well (Diamond and Kim, 2000: 4).  Other scholars (e.g. Kim, Byung-kook, 2000) utilize a “minimalist” definition of democracy which sees the holding of a fair, free, and competitive elections as the essence of democracy.  The issue of consolidation depends on how to interpret the concept and which kind of position one takes.  However, it may be suggested that Korea is, on any view, still on the road to the consolidation.  Surveys conducted by Gallup Korea (1994, 1996, and 1997) reveal that while the support for democracy-in-principle among the Korean people is quite widely shared, support for democracy has not been broadened, deepened, and stabilized (Shin, 1998: 28).

This chapter focuses on the role of evangelicals in the development of democracy.  The political consciousness of Korean evangelicals was awakened by various factors:  progressive Christians' active democratization movement, re-illumination of evangelical theology through contact with evangelicals internationally (e.g. the Laussane Covenant), a sense of institutional threat, and growth of middle class members within the churches

In my view, the great contribution of evangelicals has been their active involvement in civil society movements.  The role of evangelicals in this movement will be increasingly important in the future.  The survey of Korean Christians in 1992 showed that while many evangelicals were critical of the way electoral politics and political parties were conducted, they were favorably disposed toward Christian social movements (Paik, 1994: 77).  Especially, moderate Christian social groups were highly regarded by evangelicals.  These moderate Christian social movements, compatible with the critical conservatism of Korean Christians, may be the most effective way to contribute to further Korean democratization.

It remains for evangelicals to widen the basis of democratic involvement, and to increase the scope of participation.  Especially, it is important to increase participation, and involve ordinary people from all walks of life.  However this must be done carefully, for civil society can play a negative role in democracy as well as a positive one.  (Rudolf, 2000).  Accordingly, the capacity of evangelicals to contribute to democratization in the public square of civil society depends upon their own character – their moral and religious depth.

What, then, are the tasks that face Korean evangelicals in developing democracy in Korea?


6.1   Korean Evangelicalism’s Democratic Tasks, and Their Implications

First, this paper suggested that network (and coalition) is one of the effective routes to the development of democracy.  The network within Christians and also with other groups played a positive role in the democratic transition.  This also implies that evangelicals' internal schisms may impede their further contribution to democratization of Korea.

After the democratic transition in 1987, the gap between the progressive churches and evangelical churches has narrowed.  Discussion about unity among the Protestant churches has begun to develop.  (Choson Newspaper, 11 Nov 1994).  However, given the fragmentation of evangelicals in the modern Korean church, it may be hard for evangelicals to be united on social and political issues in the near future.  Some evangelical leaders, dismayed by splits and disagreements in the churches, worry that evangelical Christian bodies may become more polarized and lose their influence upon the social and political development of the future Korea.  (Interview # 2)  This is a common problem in the Third World evangelicalism.  Further fragmentation within the evangelical circle might weaken civil society.

On the other hand, greater unity among the Churches could provide great benefits to the entire society.  Rev. Soh Kyung-suk (2001) argues that if Christian civic groups, denominations, and institutions cooperate closely, Christian social movements will develop greatly, and that such networking will strengthen the positive social influence of Korean evangelicalism.  (He also argues that this will, in turn, strengthen the effectiveness of evangelism.)  Yi Man-youl (1989) argues that convergence between the conservative and progressive circles, and among evangelical churches themselves, could create new ways to address Korean social, national problems.  Evangelical Christians need to be cautioned against allowing institutional interests or “group egotisms” (Interview # 2) to compromise or blur a clear religious vision of a democratic society (cf. Oh, Kyung-hwan, 1990).  Rather than falling into factionalism, which leads to fruitless power contests ; Korean evangelicals should learn to respect, and cooperate with, one another to promote their shared moral and religious vision for the benefit of the society as a whole.

Second, this paper implies that civil society movement is one of the most effective ways for Korean evangelicals to participate in politics for the time being.  Korean evangelicals have played an important role in leading civil society movement in the 1990s.  Prof.  Son Bong-ho (2002) takes the view that Christians’ participation in civil society movement is the most appropriate way of social movement because Korean society is religiously pluralistic society.  He thinks Christian social movements are most effective when people see that evangelical Christians are working for justice and for the common good.

However, some in Korea, and even among civil society activists, have cautiously raised doubts recently about the overall impact of Korean civil movements.  Critics say that Korean civil movement groups tend to be politicized and financially not transparent.  Some civil groups are simply seeking particularistic interests; some have tendencies toward a demagogic populism.  (Interview # 18)  Korean evangelicals need to know more about the right ways to conduct civil society activities.  (Interview # 20)



While all the institutional elements of democratic governance (e.g.  elections, an independent legislature, a freer press and civil society) are in place in Korea, prevailing attitudes toward power and authority tell another story.  For individulas and institutions alike, to share or to delegate power (and hence prestige) in the zero-sum game is seemingly to lose it (Steinberg, 1998: 82).  In this setting, power becomes absolutely significant and tends to become personalized, which breeds fractionalism.


Diamond (1994: 13-15) notes some caveats concerning the democratic functions of civil society.  He takes the view that there is a need for limits on the autonomy of civil groups.  Civil society must be autonomous from the state, but not alienated from it; it must be watchful, but respectful of state authority.  Huntington, reviving an old theme of his, also recently discussed a weakening of state authority as a possible problem that could accompany democratization.  “By weakening state authority … democratization also brings into question authority in general and can promote an amoral, laissez-faire, or “anything goes” atmosphere (1997a: 7).  Recently, some interest groups criticizing the government, have been seeking their own vested interests.  This is why civil society needs to learn how to encompass pluralism and diversity, as Diamond (1994: 6) suggested.

In order for evangelicals to contribute to the development of democracy, an understanding of social pluralism will be needed – a mindset based on an understanding of dissent, tolerance, and reciprocity.  (Sartori, 1997)  Active embrace of the value of pluralism goes far beyond mere “social differentiation”, the existence of various social groups with diverse characters and goals.  The presence of many evangelical civil groups does not by itself ensure such a “pluralistic” approach.  Many Korean evangelicals have not thought through ideas of social pluralism, partly due to confusion with theological advocates of “religious pluralism” who favor abandoning or reducing the truth claims of Christianity, a very different matter.  There is a need to develop a healthy evangelical civil society movement, and create evangelical institutions committed to the expansion of democracy.

Third, this paper implies that solidifying democratic values is critically important to the consolidation of democracy, and evangelicals have much to do here within their own house.  Democratization involves more than embracing democratic norms and reform measures in national politics.  In addition, individuals and groups must unlearn age-old norms and practices of authoritarianism and particularism in daily life, which impede democratization (Shin, 1999: 254).  Yet after more than a decade of electoral democracy, most Koreans are neither deeply committed to the fundamentals of democratic rule nor fully disengaged from authoritarian habits.  (Shin, 1998: 30).  The democratic consciousness of evangelicals needs to mature.  In national politics evangelicals often understand democracy superficially, succumbing to factors such as regionalism.  But political and social democratization in Korea also ought to challenge the church itself to operate more democratically.  However, the development of democracy in the church lags far behind. (Interview # 17)  Many evangelical leaders retain a strongly authoritarian church leadership structure.  Thus Evangelicals need to reform undemocratic internal church structures.

This brings up the significance of civic culture.  Democracy is not a matter of institutional change only, but depends on socialization in a civic culture:  values of pluralism and equality, public spirit which subordinates private egotisms, orderly self-restraint, and positive participation by autonomous associations.  In Korea civic culture has been eroded by family egotism and conservative authoritarianism (Kim, Ho-gi, 1997: 243).  That conservative authoritarianism still operates in the evangelical churches.  Democracy lies in the hearts of men and women, that is in learning democratic culture, not in legal documents alone.  (Pae, 1992: 167).  Thus evangelicals need to develop civic culture in line with the spirit of evangelical Christian faith.  This in turn requires recognition that our best values are subject to corruption, and need institutional safeguards to secure trustworthy performance in public arenas.  (Wuthnow, 1996: 70)  Simply being Christian is not, by itself, a guarantee of civility.  Christian participation in politics, like that of other groups, needs appropriate safeguards.

Fourth, this paper implies that the development of political theology is very important in the contribution of evangelicals to democracy building.  The paper showed how evangelical Christian faith was a strong factors motivating evangelical leaders to support democracy.  As evangelical theology articulates reasons for Christian commitment to democratic ideals, conviction rooted in faith can bring about a powerful movement for democracy.  However, at the moment, there is the lack of evangelical political theology in the Korean church.  (Interview # 9)

Church intervention in politics ought to have a unique basis, shaped and motivated Christian faith, prophetically applied in specific socio-political contexts.  (Kim, Nyung, 1996: 104-107)  The Laussane covenant, introduced in the mid-1980s, provided a basis for biblically and theologically grounded political thinking; the CEM and CCEJ enhanced and energized evangelicals politics by applying such ideas in Korean context.  Prof.  Son saw that effective Christian contributions to social reform in Korea had to be rooted in the ethics of individual Christians in their daily lives; Rev. Soh tried to apply biblical principles of economic justice concretely to Korean society.

The fundamental sound and meaningful basis for Christian interpretation of society and behavior must come from sound theological understanding.  A coherent theological basis for Korean evangelical democratic politics – driven by religious conviction in support of freedom, justice, and peace, not by political preconceptions or particularistic interests – needs further development.  Minjung theology fortified progressive Christians’ thinking during the struggle for democracy under Korea’s military regimes, and contributed in some ways evangelicals’ support for democracy as well.  But Minjung theology, much esteemed in rarified progressive church circles, was an elite project – it never fit the orthodox belief and “critically conservative” political thinking of evangelicals (that is, of the vast majority of Korean Christians) – and in any case lacks the flexibility to be applicable in Korea’s new post-transition democracy.  (Interview # 12)  The Korean church needs a new theological framework to undergird its social action.

Theological thinking has a great conscious and unconscious influence on the minds of Christians.  Only a few key evangelicals have developed social and political vision from a Christian theological perspective; most evangelical Christians have no coherent, religious vision that can support consolidation of democracy in Korean society.  Some evangelical leaders are trying to elaborate evangelical theology of transformation that encompasses societal and political problems, but no coherent, well-developed, and well-accepted theological groundwork has been formulated as yet.  In any case evangelicals participation in the democratization process is largely limited to a few organizations and leaders.  In contrast to Latin America, where the growth of base-communities widens evangelical participation in democracy, the theological and practical value of democracy has not been widely instilled in the minds of Korean evangelicals.

Although some evangelicals have contributed to democracy – especially through active civic movements, there is still a need for most Christians need to wake up, and escape from the iron-cage of a religious mentality without social vision.  Korean evangelicalism still has a weakly developed social vision. (Interview # 7)  It is important for Evangelical political theology develop a theoretical framework for understanding rooted in a fundamental and substantive understanding, not just work a superficial functional understanding, of democracy.  (Interview # 7 and cf. Kim, Byung-kook, 1998)  For what matters is not just participation in democracy but the mode and quality of participation.  (Interview # 5)

Finally, this paper implies that the reform of political culture (i.e.  the institutionalization of the party politics) is very important in the consolidation of Korean democracy.  Foley and Edwards (1996: 47) argue that in understanding the role of civil society in democracy, one should emphasize political such as political associations and prevailing political understandings that govern who plays, the rules of the game, and acceptable outcomes.  In their view what roles organized groups in civil society assume depends crucially on the larger political setting.  For instance, this paper has argued that Kim Young-sam’s political reforms failed to bring about the consolidation of democracy because as party politics had not been institutionalized and did not support those reforms.

Korean political culture seems to lack what Lipset (1994) calls “the effectiveness domain of democratic culture”.«»  According to a survey in 1997, between the national and local communities, a large majority (70%) still identify more closely with the latter.  For instance, evangelicals in Korea have not transcended the serious political problem of regionalism.  Also Koreans’ participation in civil society is mainly confined to fraternal and religious associations (Steinberg, 1997).

Institution building has lagged behind engagement in democratic movements.  Specifically, many scholars suggest that democratic reforms in the political culture of political parties is one of the greatest problems of Korean democratization (e.g. Kim, Byung-kook, 1998).  Democratic development occurs when political leaders believe they have an interest in promoting it or a duty to achieve it (Huntington, 1997b: 10).  Political parties have not been transformed into adequate institutions of representative democracy:  they remain not only hierarchically organized but also regionally based.  Rev. Soh Kyung-suk, an evangelical leader in the Christian social movement, takes the view (as many other Koreans, Christian and non-Christian, popular and scholarly, do) that to reform political culture by overcoming regionalism is a critical task for Korean democracy (Interview # 12) – as many other, Christian and non-Christian, popular and scholarly, also do.  All Korean political parties have tended to nurture regionalized networks of support – although none defended this as a legitimate principle of political organization.  Even in the presidential election in 1997, Kim Dae-jung took 95 per cent of the vote in his home province.  And arguably the percentage was at least as high in Kim Young-Sam’s home province except for people from other regions who have settled there recently for economic reasons.  (That is not an issue in DJ Kim’s home province, because of its location and low level of economic development and government investment.).  Regional rivalries could perhaps even threaten the project of democratization in Korea.

Of late some evangelical groups are trying to reform political culture by prayer.  For example, Christian Embassy, a mission organization for political and economic leaders founded by some evangelical leaders in 1999, started an intercessory prayer movement for the congressmen (Kookmin daily newspaper, 17 July 2001).  These evangelicals believe that praying for political leaders is significant, which is one of the ways for evangelicals to participate in the democratization movement.  This can be important, if sincere prayers are directed toward national unity and the fostering of just, democratic institutions.

For a new democracy like the one in Korea to endure and mature, citizens and officials, should be freed from the particularistic identities that are inconsistent with the obligations of democratic citizenship (March & Olsen, 1995: 39).  This is a duty especially for evangelical Christians, since the Bible teaches that one should “love one’ neighbor as oneself” (Matt 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, Rom.13:9, Gal.  5:14, Jas 2:8) – treating them justly and caring for their welfare “without partiality” (Rom 2:11, Eph 6:9, Jas 2:1-9, I Peter 1:17, etc.) – and that one should, like Jesus, “seek not only one’s own interests, but also the interests of others.”(Phil 2:4)  For the most part Koreans remain tightly bound by particularistic loyalties and networks of “specific reciprocity” to their own groups or organizations in a way that is inconsistent with the public good (Shin, 1999: 257).

Korean evangelicals should contribute to the democratization of political culture.  One of the ways Christians might do this would be to build healthy Christian institutions in accordance with democratic norms and values and in which cultural identities and diversities are nurtured (cf. Han, 1995).  Another way might be to cultivate political leaders with evangelical vision – but without corporatistic or triumphalistic orientation.  For instance, in my view it would not be proper to create a Christian political party (Interview # 6), as that might create religious conflicts.  Instead, evangelical politicians need to embody the truth and implications of the cross – operating humbly for others, and pursuing a life of self-sacrifice for the common good.  Chang Young-dal, a Protestant congressman told me sadly that in political practice Christian politicians often behave no better than their non-Christian counterparts.  In his view the power of evangelicals to play a transformative, positive role in politics lies in learning the spirit of the cross.


6.2. Evangelical Pilgrimage for the Consolidation of Democracy

Korea now has a new opportunity to promote democracy even in the midst of turbulent times.  Participation of evangelical Christians may prove crucial in this new opportunity.  Although Christians show strong democratic orientation (Om, 1989), a gap still exists between democratic orientation and practice because of negative cultural and historical legacies.  Christianity should provide a moral basis for the consolidation of democracy.  The social influence and authority of the church emanates from its moral vision and commitment to upholding of truth and work for the good of society, and all its members.  While there is a gap between religious beliefs and religious practices, this paper argues that a well-articulated religious faith itself may serve as a powerful motivating force in overcoming that gap, and provide a coherent, reasoned ideological basis for social change.

Responsible, faith-inspired political participation will remain an unavoidable issue for Korean evangelicals.  There is little evidence that religion is losing its grip in Korea.  (The same is true throughout non-Western world, and in the United States as well).  The theories of those who expected to find increasing secularization, and predicted the demise of religious influence in the politics, have not found much confirmation.  (Scott, 1995: 31)  Instead, as Fukuyama (1999) points out, religiously inspired cultural change remains a live option in many parts of the world.  Christianity helped inspire democratic movements against authoritarian regimes in modern Korea.  The future of democracy in Korea may, similarly, be greatly affected by the extent to which evangelicals – the vast majority of Korean Christians – awake to their prophetic role in establishing a good and just political order.  For evangelicals, social and political commitment is a matter of theological identity, not just of miscellaneous political predilections.  The powerful resources that evangelical Christianity has within Korean society make evangelicals a highly valued sector within a competitive political arena.  The critical political issue for Korean evangelical churches, then, is how they mobilize their immense resources in accord with a well-worked-out theology of politics and social change.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1956[1835]: 133) admonished us more than 160 years ago to approach the establishment of democracy as “the greatest political problem of our times”.  For Korean evangelicals, I believe that the strengthening of democracy is “the greatest religious problem of our times”, for evangelicals approach social and political issues from their religious conviction about the Christian gospel and its wider implications.  Democracy building is a long but worthwhile pilgrimage for evangelical Christians.






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