The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The White Christian understanding of the U.S. has a global history

Missionaries spread the idea of Christianity accounting for American success throughout the world.

A group of anti-gay activists protests a parade during a Pride event in support of LGBTQ rights in Seoul on July 16. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/ Getty Images)
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During the 23rd Seoul Queer Culture Festival in July, thousands of attendees waved rainbow flags and cheered on glamorous drag queens while surrounded on all sides by unscalable fences. These barriers were intended to prevent possible conflicts between attendees of the festival and those protesting it, a group largely consisting of Korean Christians. During a worship service held on the other side of the fence, protesters sang “Stand Up for Jesus” and mourned for their nation, which they perceive to be confronting divine punishment “like Sodom.” Holding banners with messages like “Return to Jesus” and “No Antidiscrimination Law,” the protesters readied themselves for what many of them were calling their “spiritual battle” against homosexuality.

Amid the dissonant voices, one symbol appeared on both sides of the fence: the U.S. flag.

In the hands of the festival attendees, U.S. flags represented liberal America, an ally of LGBTQ communities. Philip Goldberg, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Korea, gave a speech during the festival and referred to his participation as part of “the strong commitment of the United States to ending discrimination, wherever it occurs, and to ensuring that everyone is treated with respect and humanity.”

In the hands of the protesters, however, American flags took on a different meaning. The protesters’ embrace of militaristic language, calling themselves “people of faith under attack,” and their doomsday warnings against a “dying South Korea” echoed talking points from a thoroughly 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 today’s White-Christian-centered narrative of the United States requires considering its long history as a global phenomenon.

The global 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 heathens” and create a global Christian family while furthering their country’s military, cultural and economic influence. For Koreans who struggled with corruption at the local and national levels of government, missionaries from America who provided social services appeared 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 striking counterpoint to life under increasing Japanese control. Japan’s power in the region was growing 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 both their country and religion by participating in State Shinto, a religious and national ritual system that included shrine worship practices. The idea that they could worship freely as Christians in the United States made America seem especially appealing.

The first Korean Methodist bishop, the Rev. Ryang Ju-sam, who was pastor of the San Francisco Korean Methodist Church from 1906, when he immigrated to the United States, believed that Christianity was the basis for the intellectually and materially “advanced” United States. In the Korean Evangel, a monthly magazine broadly shared among Korean immigrants, Ryang wrote that “the Bible governs this prosperous America … and the constitution was faithfully enacted through the inspiration of the Bible.”

Believing Protestant Christianity was deeply connected to America’s national stability and the contentment of its citizens, Ryang highlighted U.S. presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and William Howard Taft as faith leaders who “solemnly committed [their] official obligations in front of God.”

Ryang’s conception of Christian America was particularly rooted in ideas of Whiteness tied 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 instance, the “Oriental race” was the second-tier race below the White race, “the most clever, diligent, and brave among all the races in the world,” but above the “Black and Red humans.”

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

This White-Christian-centered narrative of American success worked in multiple ways at the turn-of-the-20th-century. It enhanced an idealized vision of what a powerful nation looked like, in which Christianity was the foundation for nation-building. For many Korean Christians, U.S. imperial power was largely represented by Christian missionaries. The Japanese imperial power, on the other hand, was non-Christian and tied to the violence Koreans experienced in their daily lives. Simultaneously, many viewed the White American brand of Christianity as the “true” form of Christianity, evidenced by American prosperity and the country’s globally recognized power.

This was how many Koreans interpreted the messages brought by missionaries to their country. At a time of encroaching Japanese imperialism, the White-Christian-centered narrative of America offered these Koreans an avenue for national and individual survival.

In the United States, however, many Korean immigrants found that their purportedly privileged status as “Christians” did not protect them from racial antagonism. In the early-20th century, Californians sought to make their state White and to prevent it from being “Mongolianized, Orientalized, or Mongrelized,” as noted in a 1906 Oakland Tribune editorial. Many nativist groups, including the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, supported the segregation of “Asiatic” students in schools. Their antagonism gradually expanded to policy, from California’s Alien Land Laws of 1913 to the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924.

Korean immigrants’ experience of racial hostility in the United States pushed many of them 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 in the Korean War of the early 1950s and the military bases the United States held in Korea afterward. Along with growing numbers of Americans adopting Korean War orphans through Christian organizations, these events solidified the idea of a White-Christian-centered America for another group of Korean Christians.

Many Korean Christians, including the protesters at this summer’s festival, still hold onto that narrative of America. While Goldberg’s public support for LGBTQ communities in Korea resulted in fewer protesters holding U.S. flags than in the previous years, many protesters also reaffirmed their belief in a “true Christianity” predicated on conventional and biblical Protestant Christian values. As Choi Kyung-sik, a journalist in Kukmin Ilbo, argued, the Biden administration, led by a Catholic president, was rupturing the Puritan founding principles of America. Another Korean Christian coalition including Anti-Homosexuality Christian Solidarity firmly maintained in its open statement, “America should return to the Bible, not violating its forefathers’ inheritance of Christian faith.”

The pernicious effects of the myth of a White-Christian-centered America are becoming obvious within the United States, from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, to Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Instagram posts. This ideology, however, has long transcended U.S. borders and has traveled to countries like South Korea, whose history is inextricably tied with 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.