American-style religious freedom battles take root among evangelicals in Korea

The conflicts over religious freedom and evangelicals’ stance against LGBT rights in the U.S. are having global repercussions, most notably in South Korea, according to an article in the social science journal Society (January/February). Researchers Joe Phillips, Joseph Yi, and Gowoon Jung write that the debate about LGBT rights in Korea, which is at an early stage, has reflected the controversies over religious freedom for evangelicals acting on their beliefs in the U.S. over these issues, especially among political parties with strong evangelical representation. The Korean evangelical media likewise report “emotional scenes of Christians censored, fired, and legally penalized by LGBT officials,” not only in the U.S. but in Europe. These concerns have galvanized Korean evangelicals to help block national legislation on LGBT rights, persuading officials to withdraw their support for same-sex marriage. This “narrative of victimhood” has influenced younger Korean evangelicals, who tend to be more tolerant about gay rights but who nevertheless “resent the supposedly excessive power of the LGBT [movement] and their abuse of the state apparatus against religious believers.”

The researchers find a “counter-narrative” concerning how Christians need to love and understand LGBT people. Especially compelling are the accounts by Christians who experience same-sex attraction or who were sexually active until they converted and adopted a celibate lifestyle. The 2016 evangelical documentary “I Am No Longer Gay” (which premiered in Los Angeles though it was produced in Korea) has given Korean evangelicals first-time exposure to gay Christians who have varying views on homosexuality (such as whether it is innate). Philipps, Yi, and Jung conclude that the results of the 2016 U.S. elections could accelerate the emerging Korean polarization between religious conservatives and the LGBT community. But the growth of the counter-narrative and the recent, if limited, visibility of gay Christians in Korea could also help turn back the culture wars and bridge the divide between the LGBT and evangelical communities.