Korean Americans, along with Asian Americans, voted overwhelmingly for Obama this past election. KA voters have in the past leaned toward the GOP, but Elaine Howard Ecklund’s important book, Korean American Evangelicals, provides a vital explanation for this shift.
Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life by Elaine Howard Ecklund, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, viii+211p.
Elaine Howard Ecklund’s study of Korean American evangelicals represents a significant contribution to the scholarship on ethnicity and religion in the United States. Based on interviews and surveys carried out at two churches in a small city on the east coast, Ecklund’s findings about the religious commitments of second-generation Korean Americans are certain to take many readers by surprise.
Evangelical Protestantism has achieved astonishing success in South Korea over the past century, while Korean Americans have become recognized in the United States as one of the most successful immigrant groups. The church has been a center of social life and a provider of vital services for the first generation of Korean immigrants, but what has it meant for the second generation, who have grown up in the United States and have had to contend with expectations from their parents that conflict with the values of mainstream American society? How does the practice of religion change as Korean Americans become more integrated into American ways?
The answers that Ecklund gives are quite fascinating. She makes the vital point, easily forgotten in the age of identity politics, that religion can be a means of transcending one’s ethnic identity and one’s cultural roots. Moreover, newcomers to a diverse society can act in ways to build bridges between groups that did not exist before. Indeed, the spiritual tendencies that she sees as becoming dominant among second-generation Korean Americans create a sense of cohesion among them, even as they distance themselves from their elders and become more open to influences from American society. But Ecklund emphasizes that religion for Korean Americans leads them to become critical of mainstream society as well, so that they create instead a new, third space between the culture of their parents and the dominant culture of white America.
The two churches that are the focus of Ecklund’s study are given the names “Grace” and “Manna.” The congregation of Grace is made up of second-generation Korean Americans, while Manna is a multiethnic church with a significant number of Korean American members. Grace grew out of the English language ministry of a first-generation church that invited a second-generation Korean American seminary student to organize a separate service for young people. Manna, by contrast, is a multiethnic church founded by the merging of a Chinese American congregation and a Korean American congregation. The membership of Manna includes a wide range of Asian Americans — Cambodians, Indians, Vietnamese, and Filipino in addition to Koreans and Chinese, but a quarter of the church is made up of whites, blacks, and Latinos. The membership of both churches is composed primarily of young professionals and post-secondary students.
While Grace serves a predominantly Korean American congregation, Manna has made the deliberate choice to become a multiethnic congregation. Ecklund notes that this choice came about not from demographic changes or from a shift in denominational priorities. Rather, the pastors leading the merged congregations decided that building a multiethnic church was a “calling from God” (p. 41). Ecklund argues that multiethnic congregations like Manna enable their members to “negotiate” multiple and malleable identities” and “connect an appreciation of ethnic diversity to religious morality” (p. 143). The members of Manna church uphold diversity and inclusion as key values of Christianity, leading them to criticize and oppose discrimination and exclusion in American society at large. The goal of many second-generation Korean American evangelicals is not to assimilate into the dominant white culture, nor is it to retreat into their own heritage either. Rather, what their faith enables them to do is to maintain a critical distance from the hegemonic mainstream while overcoming the limitations of a narrow ethnic perspective. Such a possibility often goes overlooked the standard academic accounts of ethnic or racial identity formation, and Ecklund provides a much-needed corrective to the narrow understanding of identity politics that still prevails in many scholarly circles.
Ecklund’s study opens up a dynamic perspective on Korean American life. Religion brings second-generation Korean Americans into close contact with the members of other ethnic and racial groups, including the white majority. Through the civic engagement encouraged by the churches, Korean Americans, in Ecklund’s view, will take on an important role in building bridges between evangelicals of all backgrounds. Her study of Grace church also illuminates the divides that have arisen between first and second generation Korean Americans. The second-generation Korean Americans at Grace take issue with what they see as the tendency of the older generation to view the church in culturally narrow terms. Instead, they seek to distinguish themselves from their elders by moving more strongly in the direction of a purer Christianity, one that is less conditioned by cultural factors. Also, the second-generation Korean Americans in her study, although most of them fit the image of the affluent and successful model minority, increasingly take the view that wealth is not earned but is a blessing from God. The members of Grace church and other congregations thereby challenge the ideals of material success that have played such a strong role in the lives of those who emigrated from Korea.
Korean American Evangelicals raises the point that Korean Americans in multiethnic congregations are more likely to look to African American churches as models for civic engagement, but Ecklund does not develop this intriguing point with adequate detail. Her study observes that individualism is a crucial element in the civic engagement of Korean American evangelicals, but the opposition Ecklund draws between individualism and social justice requires more precision and clarity. These are crucial questions which one hopes she and others will explore in the future. As it stands, Korean American Evangelicals is an important work that deserves wide readership not only among specialists in Asian American culture but also among those interested in understanding the increasing prominence of religious faith, especially its potential for renewing community life, in multiethnic and pluralistic societies.
(This review appeared in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Korean Religions).