Friday, December 9th, 2011
Reading Peggy Bendroth’s discussion of the Christian Right’s involvement in U.S. politics has prompted me to think about evangelicals’ involvement in contemporary South Korean politics. Evangelicals have always been involved in the politics of South Korea—i.e., the Republic of Korea—ever since the state was founded in August 1948.
Three of the nine South Korean presidents have been evangelicals—Syngman Rhee (1948–1960), Kim Young Sam (1993-1998), and Lee Myung Bak (2008-2012), the current president. And in the past couple of decades Protestants, mostly evangelicals, have usually constituted about forty percent of the members of the National Assembly, the highest legislative body in the country—this in a country where Christians constitute 29.1 percent of the population, 10.9 percent of whom are Catholics and 18.2 of whom are Protestants, again mostly evangelical.
Given such a record, it is no surprise that politically-minded evangelicals are abuzz with activity this year, for looming large in their mind is the 2012 election year, in which the country will choose a new president and vote on most of the seats in the National Assembly. Among these evangelicals, a minority has caused a stir by forming political parties that are specifically identified as Christian.
The stir arose because most Korean evangelicals think it is bad taste to have the word “Christian” in the name of a political party: they prefer Christians to engage in politics by working in established parties. A minority of evangelicals, however, have seen otherwise. They avow that South Korean politics and society have become so corrupt and leftist that nothing less than an explicitly Christian political party will make any difference—and they believe there are a great many people in the pews who share their views.
Their contention was put to test in the 2004 National Assembly election, for which the first explicitly Christian (i.e., evangelical) party was formed. The Korean Christian Party (han’guk kidoktang) was formed with the blessing of prominent church leaders such as Cho Yonggi and Kim Chun-gon. But despite high hopes, the party flopped, winning only 1.1 percent of the vote: not enough to elect even a single candidate to the National Assembly.
The Korean Christian Party failed to overcome the evangelicals’ aversion to explicitly mixing religion and politics. This precedent, however, has not deterred the diehard advocates. Thus far this year, two Christian (evangelical) political parties are gearing up for next year’s election: another party named Korean Christian Party (han’guk kidoktang), different from the one that suffered defeat in 2004, and a party that was born of the joining two separate parties—The Party for Practicing Christian Love (Kidok sarang silch’ŏn’dang) and The Christian Democratic Freedom Party (Kidok minju jayudang)—the joining having taken place December 6, the party has not yet settled on a name.
These advocates have been making rounds in churches, espousing their cause, not shying away from engaging in debate with critics such as Son Bong-ho and Yi Mahn-yol, both highly respected evangelicals who have fiercely argued for the mainstream view, that evangelicals should first try to get their own houses in order before trying to fix society, that explicitly Christian political parties will only besmirch the good name of the faith, which is already under attack for insalubrious goings-on in many of the churches, and that forming such parties will invite religious discord, as it will likely galvanize, for example, Buddhists to form their own explicitly political party. The year 2012 will be an interesting year for those observing how evangelicals and politics intermesh—on both side of the big pond.
The figures are from the 2005 national census conducted by the South Korean government. The census indicated that 22.8 percent of South Koreans identified themselves as Buddhists.