Korean-American Religions

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Korean-American Religions

As the millennium turned, nearly a million Americans had Korean ancestors. This makes Korean Americans the third-largest Asian-American group after Chinese and Filipinos. Many Korean Americans are Buddhists; more are Christians. In both cases, Korean-American religion is inflected with a marked degree of ethnic nationalism.

The first Koreans who came to U.S. territory did so between 1902 and 1905, when approximately seven thousand laborers came to work on Hawaiian plantations. Within just a few years they had begun to spread out across the North American continent. They formed Christian churches early, first in Honolulu (1903) and Los Angeles (1904), and then across the United States. Racial bars to Asian immigration kept the number of Korean Americans tiny for two generations. Large-scale immigration from Korea did not come until after the 1965 immigration act removed the tight, racially motivated national origins quotas. Soon more than twenty thousand Koreans were coming to America each year, most of them relatively well-educated members of the middle class.

Christianity is more common among Korean Americans than in any other Asian-American ethnic group. That stems partly from Korea's history under Japanese colonialism. In many Asian countries, Christianity was long identified with European and American colonialism. But in Korea the colonizing power was Japan. Christian missionaries, particularly Protestants, showed themselves willing to identify with the Korean people to the point that some were imprisoned by the Japanese. Their resistance to foreign aggression against Korea won the hearts of many Koreans, who became converts to Christianity. Today, about 70 percent of Korean Americans are Christians. The majority of them are mainline Protestants of a somewhat evangelical bent.

One finds many expressions of Korean nationalism in Korean-American religion. The pre–World War II Korean nationalist movement was built mainly not in Korea but in the diaspora, and churches were among the primary places for meeting and planning. In recent decades, dozens of charismatic pastors have emerged in Korea or in Korean communities in America. Many have spread the notion of special revelation by God to Korean Christians such as themselves, a sense of special destiny to spread their version of the gospel.

Beginning with the first generation in Hawaii, Korean-American Christian churches have been centers for community organizing, and Korean-American communities have been led by the pastors. Churches have been agents for the preservation of Korean culture, through language classes, through the use of the Korean language in services, through maintaining Korean festivals, and through ever reiterating the importance of the family. Some would say that Korean-American churches have been instruments for the perpetuation of patriarchy in the diasporic population.

One remarkable development in Christianity has been the growth, since the 1970s, of a pan–Asian-American religious identity. This has paralleled the Asian-American movement in politics and education, wherein formerly distinct Asian peoples such as Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Japanese have banded together under an umbrella identity to pursue common political goals. In religion this has given rise to pan–Asian-American churches, ministers from one Asian ethnic group leading churches of another ethnic group, writings on Asian-American rather than ethnically distinct theologies, and so forth.

Yet this Asian-American lumping has worked differently for Korean Americans than for the other Asian-American groups. Korean ethnic identity has been less fully subsumed than, say, Chinese or Japanese identity under the Asian-American rubric. If one reads a book or hears a speech on "Asian-American theology" by a Chinese American or a Japanese American, one will witness blended characteristics and qualities in the theology—some Chinese references, some Japanese, some American. If one reads or hears a similarly labeled book or speech by a Korean American, one will almost surely see Korean ethnic imperatives and cultural characteristics written onto the entire Asian-American group. For example, one noted theologian locates the heart of an Asian-American theology in han suffering, a distinctly Korean cultural expression. This would make little sense to most Chinese or Japanese Americans and can hardly be said to stand for all of Asian Americans. This expanding of Korean concepts to stand for all Asian Americans may be related to that nationalistic sense of mission, of the essentialness for others of Koreanness writ large, that undergirds much Korean-American spirituality.

As Korean America enters its second adult generation since the 1965 immigration law, some trends are clear. Members of the one-and-a-half generation (those born in Korea but raised in the United States) and the second generation are less tied to the all-Korean churches and other ethnically segregated institutions than are their parents. Yet by far the majority still are Protestants. Scarcely a major college campus lacks a Korean Christian club, and many chapters of such evangelical parachurch organizations as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ have come to be dominated by Koreans and other Asian Americans.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Buddhism; Charismatic Movement; Chinese-American Religions; Conversion; Evangelical Christianity; Japanese-American Religions; Practice; Religious Communities; Sociology of Religion.


Kim, Jung Ha. Bridge-Makers and Cross-Bearers: Korean-American Women and the Church. 1997.

Matsuoka, Fumitaka. Out of Silence: Emerging Themes in Asian American Churches. 1995.

Park, Andrew Sung. Racial Conflict and Healing: An Asian-American Theological Perspective. 1996.

Prebish, Charles S., and Kenneth K. Tanaka, eds. The Faces of Buddhism in America. 1998.

Yep, Jeanette, et al. Following Jesus without Dishonoring Your Parents. 1998.

Yoo, David. Racial Spirits: Religion and Race in Asian American Communities. 1999.

Paul Spickard

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