White Christian understanding of the United States has a global history

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During the 23rd Seoul Queer Culture Festival in July, thousands of attendees waved rainbow flags and cheered glamorous drag queens while surrounded on all sides by non-scalable fences. These barriers were intended to prevent possible conflicts between festival attendees and those protesting, a group made up largely of Korean Christians. During a worship service held on the other side of the fence, protesters sang “Stand up for Jesus” and wept for their nation, which they see facing divine punishment “like Sodom”. Holding banners with messages like “Return to Jesus” and “No anti-discrimination law”, protesters prepared for what many called their “spiritual battle” against homosexuality.

Amid the dissonant voices, a symbol appeared on both sides of the fence: the American flag.

In the hands of festival-goers, American flags represented liberal America, an ally of the LGBTQ communities. Philip Goldberg, the new U.S. Ambassador to Korea, delivered a speech at the festival and spoke of his participation as part of “America’s firm commitment to ending discrimination wherever it occurs.” produce, and to ensure that everyone is treated with respect”. and humanity.

In the hands of protesters, however, American flags took on a different meaning. The protesters’ adoption of militaristic language, calling themselves a “people of faith under attack,” and their apocalyptic warnings of a “dying South Korea” echoed the talking points of a deeply American Christian nationalist movement.

While these Korean Christian protesters share parallels with American Christian nationalists, this event in South Korea betrays a much longer history. In fact, understanding the current narrative of the United States, centered on white Christians, requires considering its long history as a global phenomenon.

The worldwide expansion of American evangelism contributed to Koreans’ association of Christianity with the United States and white supremacy. In the late 19th century, waves of American missionaries settled in Korea as part of a larger movement of American imperial expansionism through philanthropic missions. They aimed to extend salvation to “uncivilized Gentiles” and create a worldwide Christian family while strengthening their country’s military, cultural, and economic influence. For Koreans struggling with corruption at the local and national levels of government, American missionaries providing social services seemed to offer a solution.

Many missionaries also described to Koreans the freedom to practice Christianity in America as protected by the U.S. Constitution, a stark counterpoint to life under increasing Japanese control. Japan’s power in the region grew after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Wielding enormous military influence in East Asia, the Japanese government forced Korean Christians to turn against their country and their religion by participating in State Shinto, a religious and national ritual system that included worship practices in the shrines. The idea that they could freely worship as Christians in the United States made America particularly attractive.

Korea’s first Methodist bishop, Rev. Ryang Ju-sam, who pastored the Korean Methodist Church in San Francisco from 1906 when he immigrated to the United States, believed that Christianity was the basis of the Intellectually and materially “advanced” United Church. States. In the Korean Evangel, a monthly magazine widely circulated among Korean immigrants, Ryang wrote that “the Bible rules this prosperous America…and the constitution has been faithfully enacted through the inspiration of the Bible.”

Believing that Protestant Christianity was deeply tied to America’s national stability and the contentment of its citizens, Ryang presented American presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and William Howard Taft as religious leaders who “solemnly [their] official obligations before God.

Ryang’s conception of Christian America was particularly rooted in ideas of whiteness linked to popular discussions of eugenics and social Darwinism in the late 19th century. In an 1897 issue of the Korean newspaper Tongnip sinmun, Korean writers illustrated distinct hierarchies of each racial type. For example, the “Oriental race” was the second-rank race below the white race, “the most intelligent, most diligent and courageous of all the races of the world”, but above “black and red”.

When the global “civilizing project” approached a Korea struggling for survival, often in competition with neighboring countries, these ideas gained followers. Intellectuals like Ryang believed that if Koreans embraced Christianity, it would better endow them with the morality and knowledge necessary to overcome this perceived inferiority. As a Korean scholar Vladimir Tikhonov (Park No-ja) notes that Koreans’ belief in achieving superiority by “nourishing” beyond “nature” has provided a form of hope.

This narrative of American success centered on white Christians worked in myriad ways at the turn of the 20th century. This reinforced an idealized view of what a mighty nation looked like, in which Christianity was the foundation of nation building. For many Korean Christians, American imperial power was largely represented by Christian missionaries. Japanese imperial power, on the other hand, was not Christian and was tied to the violence that Koreans experienced in their daily lives. Simultaneously, many viewed America’s white label Christianity as the “true” form of Christianity, as evidenced by America’s prosperity and the country’s globally recognized power.

This is how many Koreans interpreted the messages brought by the missionaries to their country. At a time when Japanese imperialism was encroaching, America’s white Christian-centric narrative offered these Koreans a path to national and individual survival.

In the United States, however, many Korean immigrants found that their supposedly privileged status as “Christians” did not protect them from racial antagonism. In the early 20th century, Californians sought to make their state white and keep it from being “Mongolianized, Orientalized, or Mestizo,” as a 1906 Oakland Tribune noted. editorial. Many nativist groups, including the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, supported the segregation of “Asian” students in schools. Their antagonism gradually extended to politics, from the California Foreign Lands Acts of 1913 to the US Immigration Act of 1924.

Korean immigrants’ experience of racial hostility to the United States caused many to reject the idea of ​​Christianity as an American principle. Nevertheless, the myth of the United States as a white rescuer persisted through American intervention and occupation during the Korean War of the early 1950s and the military bases the United States held in Korea thereafter. Along with the growing number of Americans adopting Korean War orphans through Christian organizations, these events reinforced the idea of ​​a white Christian-centric America for another group of Korean Christians.

Many Korean Christians, including protesters at this summer’s festival, still cling to this narrative of America. While Goldberg’s public support for LGBTQ communities in Korea has resulted in fewer protesters holding American flags than in previous years, many protesters have also reaffirmed their belief in “true Christianity” grounded in conventional and biblical Protestant Christian values. As Kukmin Ilbo reporter Choi Kyung-sik argued, the Biden administration, led by a Catholic president, was breaking America’s puritanical founding principles. Another Korean Christian coalition, including Anti-Homosexuality Christian Solidarity, strongly argued in its open statement, “America should return to the Bible, without violating the heritage of the Christian faith of its ancestors.

The pernicious effects of the myth of an America centered on white Christians are becoming evident in the United States, from the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wadeto the republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene Instagram Posts. This ideology, however, has long transcended American borders and traveled to countries like South Korea, whose history is inextricably linked to white American Christianity. The resurgence of Christian nationalism now threatens American democracy and human rights. Understanding this story in a global context only magnifies its power.

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