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Same-Sex Marriage, Korean Christians, and the Challenge of Democratic Engagement


The contest over gay rights (e.g., same-sex marriage) dramatizes the clash between increasingly nonwhite (“majority-world”), religious conservatives and mostly white, progressives. It renews longstanding debate about the compatibility of religious conservatism and liberal, pluralistic democracy. A study of one influential group, Korean Christians, shows that the younger, western-educated generation generally combines religious conservatism and political liberalism; they are much more likely to espouse liberal-democratic principles and to participate in the larger, plural society than the older, immigrant generation. However, the polarizing politics of gay rights partly reverses the generational pattern: the historically insular, first generation participate more in mainstream politics, while some western-educated, second-generation Korean Christians become intolerant and isolated from elite-educated circles. Ideological minorities self-segregate themselves in the face of hostile, energized majorities, whether progressives in Korean Christian circles or conservatives in secular, educated ones. Public deliberation on same-sex marriage depends on whether it becomes viewed like the clear-cut issue of interracial marriage or the more ambiguous one of abortion.

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  1. 1.

    In this paper, religiously conservative refers to unwavering attachment to core, longstanding beliefs, such as the divinity of Jesus, the authority of the Prophet Mohammad, or the Book of Mormons. Conservative Christians, Jews and Moslems also tend to uphold traditional, heterosexual views of marriage and family.

  2. 2.

    Egan and Sherrill (2009) report that 58 % of African Americans and 59 % of Latino/Hispanic voters supported Prop 8, compared with 49 % of whites and 48 % of Asians. 70 % of weekly church attenders supported Prop 8, compared to 30 % of “hardly ever” attenders. The July 2010 Field Poll, which oversampled Asian voters, reports that 70% of Korean Americans disapproved of same-sex marriage, followed by Vietnamese Americans (64% disapproval) and Chinese Americans (54% disapprove.)

  3. 3.

  4. 4.

    In South Korea, during the period of rapid industrialization in the 1970s and 1980s, the number of Protestants increased from 1 million to more than 8 million, faster than in any other country. Protestants and Catholics account for 8.6 million and 5.1 million members, respectively, together making up 31% of South Korea’s population.

  5. 5.

    The world’s largest Christian congregation is the 750,000 member, Yoido Full Gospel Church. For an overview of Korean Christianity, see Jeffreys 2007; Lampman 2007; Park 2003.

  6. 6.

    Korean Diaspora 2011 website,

  7. 7.

    Leading KA churches, esp. in So-Cal, are offshoots of “mother” churches in Seoul, including Sarang, Yongnak, and Onnuri. Most KA churches share interpersonal and institutional ties with those in the homeland.

  8. 8.

    Organizations include Sarang Community Church (largest KA megachurch with 11,000 members), Korean Churches for Community Development (leading KA faith-based, service organization), JAMA-DCLA conference in Anaheim, CA (2006), and Korean Christian Diaspora conference in Seoul, Korea (2011)

  9. 9.

    Claiming certain philosophical teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, the Yi dynasty developed a well-defined hierarchy of social groups: the king is superior to the subjects, the older to the younger, the upper literati class (yangban) to the lower class, and man (husband) to woman (wife). Korea scholar David I. Steinberg (1989) notes, “Age is equated with superiority, and age and higher authority are evidence of greater moral virtue, with the highest such virtue residing with the ruler” (93).

  10. 10.

    Conger and McGraw (2008) extensively interviewed over 50 religiously conservative activists in the USA. The authors conclude that “political mobilization and integration into institutions of deliberation and electoral contestation actually works to make [religious conservatives] better citizens, at least with respect to one important virtue, political autonomy…. Religious conservative activists can make for good citizens, fellow participants in the project of constructing a common political order that is durable, decent, and democratic” (253).

  11. 11.

    In response to the pro-Gaza flotilla, Howard Jacobson of CNN wrote: “Human beings are seldom more dangerous than when they are sentimentally overcome by the goodness of their own intentions” (quoted in Catapano 2011).

  12. 12.

    Brooks (2000: 47) writes: “Today [racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic] beliefs automatically banish a person from educated circles.”

  13. 13.

    “Soulforce Visits Gordon College,” (accessed January 29, 2009).

  14. 14.

    Author unnamed, “Rick Perry Backs New York Gay Marriage, Citing States’ Rights.” 2011. International Business Times, July 25.

Further Reading

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  7. Gibbs, N. 2008. “Why Have Abortion Rates Fallen?” Time, January 21.

  8. Healy, P. D. 2005. “Senator Clinton Speaks of ‘Common Ground’ on Abortion,” New York Times, January 24.

  9. Jeffreys, D. 2007. “South Korea turns against ‘arrogant’ Christian hostages,” The Independent, August 4.

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Correspondence to Joe Phillips.

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Yi, J., Phillips, J. & Sung, SD. Same-Sex Marriage, Korean Christians, and the Challenge of Democratic Engagement. Soc 51, 415–422 (2014).

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  • Proposition 8
  • Same sex marriage
  • Korean
  • Asian
  • Christian
  • Evangelical
  • Immigration
  • Generation