19 August 2008

Korean religious trivia

Even more Wikipedia-reading for me. And given that South Korean and Korean-American Christianity are a major influence on theocratic politicians both in South Korea and in the US, I decided to read about South Korea's religious traditions.

Buddhism is a major tradition, though considered to be more historical than current; in fact, I will be tracking down as much of it as possible during my trip.

Obviously, Christianity is a major player. Almost all Christians are Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist. Historically they have been on the forefront of social reform, from Westernization and modernization to anti-Japanese activities to struggles against fascism and support of pro-democracy and pro-labor movements. With democratization, however, Christians have become the establishment themselves, and are extremely conservative, both in South Korea and in the US. Politically, Christians have previously been identified with the likes of leftist peace activist and former President Kim Dae-Jung, himself a Roman Catholic, but now form the backbone of conservatism and claim the likes of current President Lee Myung-Bak, a Presbyterian. The rise of Christianity was made possible by not only the historical circumstances I already mentioned, but also reconciliation with the prevailing Confucian values as well as the degeneracy of the Korean Buddhists a century ago. Peace churches, such as the Quakers and the Unitarians, have found much less success; I don't count on finding a UU congregation during my stay in Seoul.

The Christians have also spawned several sects and cults within South Korea, the most successful of them being the devastatingly prolific Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon. Although the fascist dictator Park Chung-Hee was a Buddhist, his government made good use of Moon in influencing US politics, especially Republican politics, in its favor.

Confucianism is more of a philosophy and a set of values than a religion in itself, and both Buddhists and Christians subscribe to many tenets of it. In fact, the marriage of Confucianism and Christianity explains why Korean Christians are more socially conservative and backward than other Christians (and also why Christianity is finding success in Chinese-American communities, as well). Buddhists also often incorporate parts of shamanism into their practice.

Several indigenous religions, as well as Islam, also have small but significant presence.

The current problem seems to be Christian extremists vandalizing Buddhist temples and statues, which, along with the rise of Christians to establishment status (a Pew Forum report attached said that the CEOs of the ten largest corporations, as well as most National Assembly members, are Christians) and hardline tactics of Korean Christians in general, has led to anti-Christian backlash. Also, Confucian and Christian historians have pretty much wiped out all mentions of LGBT culture from Korean history, and this "prevailing custom and history" is used by South Korean courts when, say, deciding against legalization of gay marriage. (Wikipedia also has plenty of South Korean LGBT info, but I will save that for later.)

Pew Forum