Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“The Gendered Politics of the Korean Protestant Right: Hegemonic Masculinity”

An hour-long teleconference with

Nami Kim

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

1 PM – 2 PM ET

Mary E. Hunt: We welcome you to the seventh 2018 WATER teleconference on July 11, 2018 with Professor Nami Kim of Spelman College.

Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. Nami and her book, The Gendered Politics of the Korean Protestant Right: Hegemonic Masculinity all represent our effort to engage in activist scholarship, scholarly activism with the goal of furthering social justice. Given the focus on the Korean Peninsula and the U.S. President’s antics around the world, right now in Europe, it is terribly important that we inform ourselves about Korean culture.

Let me introduce our speaker who, I am happy to say, is no stranger to WATER. In fact, the short piece that we read for today was a presentation that Nami made to the WATER-sponsored Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network at the American Academy of Religion meeting in a memorable session that you can watch here.

Nami Kim is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at Spelman College. Her research interests meet at the intersections of feminist theology, feminist theory, Asian and Asian Pacific North American religious/theological studies, transnational studies, and world Christianity.

She did her undergraduate and first graduate degrees at Ewha Women’s University, a Methodist faculty in Seoul. Then she did an M.Div. at Candler School of Theology of Emory University, and a Th.D., Harvard University Divinity School.

Nami co-chairs the Women and Religion Section of the American Academy of Religion (2011-present) and serves on the Board of Advisors, Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM, 2009-Present) which is a wonderful organization that fosters women’s scholarship and leadership. We serve together on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion ( 2009-Present) and she is on the Advisory Board of the Feminism in Religion Forum (FiR), (2005-Present) among her many and varied forms of service to the profession.

Dr. Kim is the co-editor with W. Anne Joh of Critical Theology against U.S. Militarism in Asia: Decolonization and Deimperialization (Palgrave, 2016) which is a collection that “provides analyses of the interrelated issues concerning the relationship between Christianity and the United States’ imperialist militarism in the Asia Pacific.”

Her book that we will consider today is The Gendered Politics of the Korean Protestant Right: Hegemonic Masculinity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), a critical feminist analysis of the Korean Protestant Right’s gendered politics. Nami looks at Father School (an evangelical men’s manhood and fatherhood restoration movement), the anti-LGBT movement, and Islamophobia/anti-Muslim racism that represent the Protestant Right’s distinct yet interrelated ways of engaging the contested hegemonic masculinity in Korean society.

Given both the state of global conflicts and the extent to which hegemonic masculinity is a problem well beyond the Korean Peninsula, it is with great expectation that I welcome and thank my colleague Professor Nami Kim for joining us today.

Nami Kim: Thank you so much, Mary, for your generous introduction. I would like to thank you, Diann, and the WATER Staff (Hannah, Janaya, Charlotte) for creating this opportunity where I can share my work. I do appreciate it. First of all, I would like to say a few things about my geographical location because it will provide some ideas about how my book idea was initially conceived.

I was born and grew up in South Korea during military dictatorships and came to the U.S. to continue my education. Instead of going back to Korea after finishing my doctoral work more than a decade ago, I became an immigrant living in Atlanta, Georgia, and teaching at a historically black women’s college. Atlanta was the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and now, the area has grown into a metropolitan city. This metropolitan city’s demographic change has been noticeable, as there are about 260,000 new immigrants from South Korea, India, and Mexico, among others, in less than ten years. There are more than 120,000 Koreans living in Atlanta. If we include undocumented Koreans and other ethnic groups, the number of Asian immigrants will increase. It is also reported that there are about 200 Korean Protestant churches in Atlanta and its suburban areas. Interestingly, the third most spoken language in the state of Georgia is Korean, following English and Spanish.

The reason I mention these changing racial, ethnic demographics in Atlanta is to say that my interest in the Protestant Right did not first arise from a U.S.-based scholar observing from outside what is going on with Protestant Christianity in Korea. Rather, my concern and inquiry initially stemmed from what I have seen and experienced in the immigrant Korean community in Atlanta. Given the book title, one may think that it is only about Protestant Christianity in Korea. I think it is true in part, but my book’s discussion of Korean Protestant Christianity, more specifically what I call the Protestant Right is not limited to the Korean context because the Protestant Right has affected the Korean churches in diaspora including the U.S. as well as other evangelical churches worldwide through transnational connections and networks. So, I learned that an evangelical men’s manhood and fatherhood restoration movement called Father School, which bear some resemblance to Promise Keepers, was offered in immigrant Korean churches and other ethnic minority churches in Atlanta, as well as in other major U.S. cities. I also witnessed a very strong anti-LGBT stance and homophobia prevalent in immigrant Korean churches alongside the larger Korean immigrant community. I also observed increasing Islamophobia expressed by Korean Christians—some explicit, and others in the name of “praying for” the oppressed Muslims who do not know the gospel. So, I started asking what might be a common thread that runs through in these three seemingly unrelated phenomena? The shortest answer to this, is, the Protestant Right’s response to contested hegemonic masculinity in relation to the “others,” such as women, sexual minorities, and racial and religious minorities. And, the deep motivation for writing this book was the conviction that one way of challenging Christian Right or the Protestant Right is to continue to name, expose, and criticize it.

While there are certainly many shortcomings and limitations in my book, it does not pretend to be a general history or a complete story of the Protestant Right in South Korea. The focus of my book is also not about individual Christians who may have actively participated in the Protestant Right activities or who may agree with their agenda without openly supporting it. Instead, I am concerned with the collective efforts put forth by the Protestant Right that is a constellation of conservative Protestant churches, pastors, political leaders and groups, and Christian organizations that have formed a movement in advancing its conservative theo-political and social agendas. Throughout the book, I use the term “Protestant Right” rather than “Christian Right” in order to indicate the predominance of Protestant Christianity in the Korean context and the fundamentalist theological underpinnings of its conservative political activism.

My imagined audience is anyone who wants to critically look at the Protestant Right that has exercised (and still exercises) enormous social and political power in South Korea or those who are interested in understanding the forces behind the growing conservative forms of evangelicalism or fundamentalism in the global South, without treating them as isolated, discrete local phenomena. That anyone, unfortunately, does not include persons like my mother who rather agree with the political views of the Protestant Right. I remember a well-known feminist theologian saying that she needed to do theology that can speak to a woman like her mother—i.e. poor, uneducated, marginalized, etc. But, the late theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid said that she would be “suspicious” if her mother understood her reflections. (Controversies, 59). That is also how I feel about my work in relation to my mother and some women of her generation who would rather agree with the views and actions of the Protestant Right. I know there is a work that needs to be done in this dynamic.

The context of my research is South Korea’s post-hypermasculine developmentalism period that started in the early 1990s by ending the 30 years of military dictatorships. This period was accompanied by the liberal democracy and advent of neo-liberal economy. Its previous era is characterized by so-called the “miraculous” economic development run by the military government as well as the explosive expansion of Korean Protestant Christianity to the point that South Korea has become the Protestant Superpower in Asia. During the post-hypermasculine developmentalism period, South Korea has also become “a subimperial nation-state” in Asia. As for the Korean Protestant Christianity, it started to experience the slowdown of the domestic church growth, while engaging aggressive overseas missions. It is this context of post-hypermasculine developmentalism era during which the Protestant Right resurfaced, seeking to make inroads to larger Korean society as a discernible social and political force that cannot be ignored.

I primarily draw from Korean American sociologist Seungsook Moon’s rearticulation of the notion of hegemonic masculinity originally theorized by masculinities studies scholar R.W. Connell. There are three main components of hegemonic masculinity articulated by Moon that have been formed in the Korean context: they are the “ability to provide for the family, fulfillment of the mandatory military service, and distance from daily reproductive labor.” Hegemonic masculinity refers to what a “real” man is supposed to be like or act like in the given context.

Hegemonic masculinity enacted in the South Korean context, however, has been called into question and contested to a certain extent in new social circumstances due to various factors during the post-hypermasculine developmentalism period. For instance, the influx of migrants from other postcolonial Asian countries, the women’s movements, the LGBT rights movement, and other social, and economic policies made changes in production, power relations, and sexual relations. These changes brought crisis tendencies of a gender order generating contradictory efforts among social constituents: on the one hand, there were efforts to challenge hegemonic masculinity by a small group of progressive men and younger generation of men who challenged mandatory military service, and, on the other hand, there were attempts to reestablish hegemonic masculinity by redefining it or reasserting it in ways that can continue to maintain hierarchical gender order and relations. The Protestant Right’s efforts can be viewed as a conservative reaction to contestation over hegemonic masculinity under the changing social conditions.

For the remaining time, I’d like to provide a brief overview of the basic arguments regarding three phenomena I examined.

First of all, I looked the ways in which Father School redefines hegemonic masculinity. Father School started in a megachurch in the midst of the national outcry for the loss of men’s authority as the family head during the economic downturn that began in the mid-1990s. It has grown into a transnational evangelical men’s manhood and fatherhood restoration movement, calling for the reestablishment of men’s fallen authority as the head of the family regardless of their financial capacity. In other words, Father School signifies the Protestant Right’s efforts to redefine hegemonic masculinity by deprioritizing man’s financial responsibility as one of the core elements for being a “real” man. Father School assures that men lead the family irrespective of their earning power, because it is a God- given mandate. As for its counterpart Mother School, it teaches that the most pressing task is to restore women’s primary identity and most valuable positions as a wife and mother.

By adjusting to the social changes and ethos that demand less authoritarian and less violent manhood through the emphasis on the emotional reconnections with family members, Father School has managed to reinforce patriarchy as “acceptable” by reframing it to be “benevolent.” Such benevolent patriarchy is envisioned in a heteropatriarchal Christian family where the man’s authority as the head of the family is safeguarded, regardless of his economic ability. Father School can be appealing because of some “positive” features, such as emotionally connected, less authoritarian, less violent manhood. However, it can be more alarming than outright anti-feminist or anti-LGBT campaigns because it has potentially lasting effects of solidifying gender hierarchy and the heterosexual two-parent family as “natural” and “normal.”

Different from Father School, the Protestant Right’s fervent anti-LGBT movement has shown its reassertion of hegemonic masculinity in relation to sexual minorities and gender-non-conforming people. The Protestant Right’s anti-LGBT movement can be viewed in part as a reaction against counterhegemonic practices and expressions of masculinity because hegemonic masculinity is heterosexual masculinity. This becomes evident if we pay close attention to three sites, mass media, the school, and the military, where the Protestant Right’s homophobic attacks have been concentrated.

So, why the secondary school and the military? Because these are the sites where socially prescribed gender roles and relations based on gender binary are constantly regulated and performed, whereas mass media is a site where strict gender roles and relations can be contested, challenged, or controlled, and further reinforced. So, as one can see, the Protestant Right’s anti-gay bashing is not only about rallying Christians to condemn homosexuality as a sin out of their biblical and theological convictions. It also has to do with the Protestant Right’s own anxiety and unexamined fear over possible changes in gender order, gender roles and relations, because such changes can be threatening to male power and privilege that the Protestant Right has enjoyed for so long.

I don’t think the Protestant Right’s anti-LGBT movement is unique, rather in part indicative of the growing transnational conservative Christian anti-LGBT movements that share theological and biblical justifications for an anti-homosexuality position. However, the Protestant Right’s anti-LGBT movement cannot simply be viewed as a Western import or a replication of the U.S. Christian Right’s campaign against same-sex marriage, either. The Protestant Right’s anti-LGBT movement views homosexuality as a sin against God and a menace to society because it is believed to affect the national population growth negatively and to put national security in hazard by weakening the military, and thereby remaining vulnerable to the potential military aggression of North Korea. It is no surprise that the Protestant Right has frequently targeted gay men, calling them not only sinners but also commies, reds, or pro-North Korea sympathizer, and even “inauthentic” Koreans who uncritically embrace “Western” values and practices. While gay men have been a primary target of the Protestant Right’s anti-LGBT movement, lesbians are also viewed to be threats to hierarchical gender order because women whom men cannot subjugate under their power are viewed as “dangerous.”

The Protestant Right’s “new enemy” is LGBT persons and their allies, but this “new enemy” does not replace the perpetual enemy, the communists, leftists. They are in the continuum, both ungodly and unpatriotic. And their other new found enemy is Muslims.

The last phenomenon I examined is the ways in which Islamophobia is inscribed in the Protestant Right’s discourse on Islam and Muslims and their implications for a multi-ethnic, sub-imperial society. Though different from strategies employed in Father School and the anti-LGBT movement, the Protestant Right has been able to reaffirm hegemonic masculinity of Korean men by denigrating (im)migrant Muslim men through the stereotyped depictions. The Protestant Right’s discursive construction of Islam and Muslims is primarily based on the interpretative framework of rescuing Korean women from violent and incompetent Muslim men and evil Islam. Such discourse that relies on this framework produces gendered, racialized stereotypes of Muslim men as violent, opportunistic, non-monogamous, deceitful, most of all incompetent spouses who take advantage of their Korean wives, thereby “unmanly.” It also generates an ethnonationalist view of Korean women as hapless victims who are desperately in need of being rescued by fellow Korean men from their violent and incapable Muslim male spouses. Implied in this depiction of Muslim men is that Korean men, particularly Christian men, in comparison, are “responsible,” “financially capable,” “monogamous,” and, thus, “manly” and better marriage partners with whom Korean women can be physically safe and financially secure.

The Protestant Right discourse hijacks feminist ideas, such as women’s rights and women’s liberation. What “co-opted” feminist principles and values in the Protestant Right discourse do is to erase sexism, misogyny, heteropatriarchy, intimate partner violence, and gender inequality prevailing in Korean Protestant Christianity as if they do not exist or are archaic. In doing so, the Protestant Right ironically occupies the position of feminist critic/activist. This is deeply troubling because in fact the Protestant Right has been a major impediment in achieving the rights of women and sexual minorities as well as gender and sexual justice. I think critical interrogation of dominant Christian discourse on Islam and Muslims is a significant step in order to challenge Islamophobia. At the same time, we need to seriously interrogate social practices that are intolerant, hostile, exclusive, and discriminatory of the “others” who are deemed or labeled as “different” in multiethnic, sub-imperial Korean society.

A recent incident in South Korea is telling. More than 500,000 people submitted petitions to the Blue House (South Korean President’s official residence and executive office) to reject asylum applications submitted by 549 Yemenis who fled war-stricken Yemen and have recently arrived in an island in Korea where no visa is required. The main reason behind anti-Yemeni asylum petition is that if those Muslims (mostly male) are admitted, Korean women’s safety will be at risk because Muslims are misogynist, sexual predators, and potential terrorists, who are the followers of Islam that is an inherently misogynist and violent religion. I was dismayed to learn that the “dangerous” alliance has been made among the Protestant Right, ethnonationalists, and some self-proclaimed feminists over the anti-Yemenis asylum petition. The anti-Yemeni asylum protest was made in the name of women’s rights and anti-violence against women. As such, the issue of Islamophobia cannot be viewed as an odd phenomenon any more in Korea. It would be also naïve to think that Islamophobia is not a “real” issue in Korea in the ongoing US global war on terror where South Korea is participating as an ally. Instead, it is necessary to pay attention to the transnationality of Islamophobia without losing the perspective on specific ways in which Islamophobia is revealed in different contexts.

The Protestant Right’s multifarious ways of engaging the contested hegemonic masculinity are, in part, related to its anxiety over the loss of patriarchal power, the breakdown of the “traditional” family, and some predictable changes in the traditional gender roles and relations, in other words, losing kyriarchal power. Unfortunately, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia continue to reinforce one another in the current social, political climate, and the Protestant Right is one of the leading forces behind it (by opposing the passing of an anti-discrimination bill that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, religion, and disability).


Q: Is this movement the same in U.S. Korean churches as it is in Korea? Or are there differences?

Nami Kim: This movement isn’t one church or denomination. It’s a constellation of churches, Christian organizations, Christian leaders, political leaders, etc. What they’ve been doing is making alliances over evangelical men’s movements, anti-LGBT groups. They’ve been doing this in Korea and abroad. It’s a transnational movement, so Korean Christians participate in this in the U.S. context as well. So their particularities are different but they have transnational common threads.

Q: I know from experience traveling in Southeast Asia that there are a lot of South Korean missionaries. What role does hegemonic masculinity play in missionary work abroad?

NK: When missionaries go to certain areas they start things that look similar to Father School. Under neoliberal economic systems, a lot of men struggle to provide for their families. So the Father School message is comforting, that they can be the head of their household without financial success. So it’s the same message that undergirds their teaching. When missionaries go somewhere else, they spread these ideas. Depending on which missionary or missionary organization, they might not do this. Rather, they might employ Islamophobic rhetoric. So I wouldn’t generalize among missionaries but many of these ideas do come up.

Q: I wonder, does the Catholic community in Korea have similar teachings to the Protestant right? Also, if half the Korean population practices no religion whatsoever, what actual impact do these movements have? What makes this so central to the Korean culture?

NK: I do talk about this aspect in my book. Protestants are much more than Catholics in Korea. The teachings are different. There are conservative and progressive Catholics in Korea. The way Protestants have been working seems different than the way Catholics are. Their (Protestant Christian) influence has a lot to do with their resources and connections, which was built during the U.S. government’s stay in Korea in the late 1940s. The Protestant Right also had a close relationship with the military dictatorships. They received enormous support. During this time Protestant Christianity grew. They gained access. In terms of numbers of Protestants, people say it’s decreasing. But they still have power that they’ve built for the last half-century.

Q: Yes, that relatively small percentage of the population has enormous impact. That’s very helpful to know.

Q: Thank you, Dr. Kim. It’s wonderful to hear you. I’m wondering what might give you hope for the deconstruction of hegemonic masculinity and the Korean Protestant right? Could you talk a little bit about any ways that people are going about liberation? Is there any dialogue across different progressive issues?

NK: Thanks for that question. I think it’s really important for us to think about what can be done. I don’t necessarily answer this in my book unfortunately. I don’t think there is one single solution. There are people working really hard to fight the Korean Protestant Right. The numbers might be small, but people are working hard both inside and outside the church. There’s a lot of solidarity work going on. In the practical sense, each individual church should also make concerted efforts to make their own community change. My mentor and teacher Rita Nakashima Brock talks about the importance of ritual. So I wonder what religious communities can do to create a collective ritualized dimension to connect people together and help people to be aware of this force and actively engage resistance.

Q: What tensions existed when the President of Korea was a woman? It’s mentioned that the Korean Protestant right was in support of President Park. Is there a tension with hegemonic masculinity with this?

NK: I think one thing about this female President was that she was the daughter of the dictator who ruled Korea for almost 30 years. So people didn’t see her necessarily as just a woman; she was kind of a personification of this dictator that made Korea an economically developed place, according to some versions of history. So I think the Korean Protestant Right fed into that narrative, they didn’t really focus on her gender.

Q: What is the Christian rationalization for hegemonic masculinity? Are there texts or traditions that inform this?

NK: I think the younger generation of Korean women is more hesitant to get married. The current Korean landscape is that younger women decide not to marry or get married later, or get married and not have children. So it’s an important issue to think about. Newer generations have struggled to perform household chores along with their professional work. It will be interesting to see how the Protestant right’s message will play out among young women.

There are some theological teachings that women should support what men do. I think women can also get some emotional support from their congregations. A lot of women experience hardship when trying to continue their work in their religious communities.

The Father School movement started in a Presbyterian church. But, there are some progressive Presbyterian churches, though most of them are conservative. So I’m talking about more overall tendencies within Korean Protestant churches. There are certainly counter-movements that I hope will grow.

WATER thanks Professor Nami Kim for her challenging presentation. We all learned a great deal about South Korean culture which will allow us to follow the unfolding situation with more insight.

The next WATERtalk will be on September 26, 2018 from 1 PM – 2 PM ET with Rebecca Todd Peters, “Trust Women: Moving the Conversation from Abortion to Reproductive Justice.” REGISTER HERE.