Racial Reckoning in Race for Revival – Helen Jin Kim

Helen Jin Kim (Emory University) reflects on her new book.

In Race for Revival, I argue that the rise of evangelical America’s empire depended on America’s religious Cold War in Asia.[i] With the outbreak of the Korean War, the first “hot war” of the Cold War, Koreans were indispensable to the transpacific networks that made evangelical America into an empire. I show this with three examples: Campus Crusade for Christ, World Vision and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Exhuming the Korean foundations for all three from 1950-1980, I weave together conversations in American religious history, Korean history, Asian American history and World Christianity. I use archival sources from both the US and South Korea as well as oral histories conducted in English and Korean in both countries.

This project has many points of origin. At least one is APARRI. In 2006, I presented my college thesis at APARRI, which made a significant impact on my career. I met a community of scholars I had only known through books. I, then, conducted ethnographic research with some APARRI scholars for a project on Asian American evangelicals and the Bible.[ii] In part, the questions we pursued, at the nexus of race and religion, sparked my interest in returning to graduate school. In Race for Revival, I build upon the scholarship of APARRI scholars in thinking about race and religion in a transpacific frame—to write transpacific religious history.

What do I mean by a transpacific frame? I use the frame that emerges out of Asian American studies, including Gary Okihiro’s idea that “America is as much a Pacific civilization as it is an Atlantic civilization.”[iii] Consider Lon Kurashige, Madeline Hsu and Yujin Yaguchi’s understanding that “transpacific history” tends to bridge “two or more conventional fields, including histories of the American West, US immigration and ethnicity, US diplomatic and international relations, Asian American Studies, East Asian Studies and Pacific Islander Studies.”[iv] And, as Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janet Hoskins note, there are two competing visions: “the Pacific as an arena of economic development and imperial fantasy or the Pacific as a site of critical engagement with and evaluation of such development and fantasy.”[v] As much as possible, I wanted to show the latter, especially as it pertains to the history of evangelicalism.

As someone trained in the long history of evangelicalism, including its transatlantic origins, the transpacific is a relatively unfamiliar frame for US religious historians. To be sure, in the modern period, especially the 20th and 21st centuries, evangelical histories have featured Asian countries, some Asian American figures and Pacific turns. But, to my knowledge, there are no other book-length histories of modern American evangelicalism that have used a transpacific frame that emerges out of Asian American Studies. Race, then, was not necessarily foregrounded when these evangelical histories examined Asia-Pacific or Asian/Asian American subjects.

Why is it that when we study subjects of Asian descent or the transpacific, “race” seems optional? If we are not intentional about addressing race, we run the risk of constructing histories that replicate narratives of the Pacific as an arena of economic development and imperial fantasy, painting transpacific evangelicalism as a relatively innocuous movement, free of racializing hierarchies. Race for Revival takes race seriously as a category. That is why, for example, my reconstruction of World Vision’s origins is a distinct narrative.[vi]

However, some critics suggest I over-emphasize the US imperial frame. Indeed, the transpacific frame, embedded in Asian American studies, uses critical race theory as a core part of its disciplinary thinking. So, in taking up this frame, I resist the temptation to erase US empire, when considering the transpacific history of late-twentieth century Korean Christianity. Those who want me to paint a picture of Korean Christianity in the Cold War era as free of US imperial imposition want me to erase the history of US militarism that shaped this period. To be sure, I make significant room for Korean agency in this narrative—an approach, informed by the discourse of World Christianity, which intersects with and sometimes even clashes with the transpacific frame of Asian American Studies. But it is not sound history to erase the archive of Korean protest, struggle and entanglement under structural forms of oppression—whether in the Japanese colonial period or the context of US Cold War empire.

So, then, how do I think about race as it pertains to transpacific evangelicalism?

First, when looking at the history of modern US evangelicalism, a Black and white racial narrative is crucial. As pivotal works like White Evangelical Racism and Divided by Race show, twentieth century evangelicalism is, crucially, a racialized movement.[vii] There are clear distinctions between Black and white evangelicals. Moreover, a social versus individualistic understanding of the sin of racism created a sharp divide between the two movements.[viii] But how does a transpacific frame intersect with this story of the racial divide between Black and white, the understanding of racism as a social versus personal sin? I have two answers to this question—first, the transnational Korean subjects I study are importantly shaped by this Black-white binary. In chapter three, Korean War orphans, for instance, are positioned betwixt and between Blackness and whiteness as the myth of the model minority emerges in the mid-twentieth century. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the shiny image of transpacific Korean War orphans told a story of success that boosted a narrative of the US as a global moral leader, in spite of ongoing racial injustices against Black Americans.

We cannot stop there though. I have noticed a tendency to read transpacific Korean subjects, like the orphans, as merely at the service of whiteness—to read Korean and Korean American subjectivity only through the lens of Black and white. But that is not where the story ends. It is key for us to see they are shaped by the racialization process of Cold War Orientalism, which reveals how the myth of the model minority is, indeed, a myth or a racial strategy governing inequality. In the 1950s and 1960s, the racialized politics of American evangelicalism depended on the exclusion of Black people. But the racialization of Korean people occurred through the politics of inclusion, the US Cold War embrace of noncommunist Asians. As Christina Klein shows, the tight embrace of Asia—through the incorporation of South Korea into US Cold War politics—is, in part, how racialized hierarchies in the US were maintained.[ix] If we only used a Black-white lens, we would not be able to see this. These transpacific evangelical networks were not just propelled by a process of anti-Blackness but also anti-Asian sentiment.

As seen in chapter three, the result is, unfortunately, the exploitation of these transpacific Korean children. For, as it turns out, many of the children were not actually orphans. Many of the children who actually toured with the World Vision Korean Orphan Choir were not parentless. One of my key historical subjects, Oh Ji Young, notes that, as a chorister, she was often positioned to be grateful, to confess to transformation when they were actually suffering. And ultimately, Oh Ji Young shares with me that “Peanuts,” featured on the cover of the book with her, commits suicide. He shared with her, “Don’t you think we were exploited?”

This is a tragic ending, and I argue that evangelical humanitarian organizations like World Vision grew in the 1960s, in part, at the expense of children like “Peanuts” and Oh Ji Young. We have to read this exploitation through the lens of racialization. But we cannot do so if we only read their experiences through the lens of whiteness or Blackness. It is because of the conditions of war, the Korean War—the first “hot” war of the cold war—that these children’s lives were structured into a racializing schema that exploited them. Modern evangelical American organizations, like World Vision, came to power through racializing Koreans.

This racialized history is important to reckon with for a few reasons. First, the history of white evangelical racism has both anti-Black and anti-Asian dimensions. Second, even when Asian and Asian American subjects are racialized as the model minority—as proximate to whiteness—an Orientalist racial dynamic is often also at play. We see this dynamic when we take a step back and use an Asian Americanist racial lens beyond Black and white. Third, many Asian and Asian Americans are leading key US evangelical organizations. There is increased interest in Asian American evangelical experiences, as with Netflix’s Beef. My book shows it is critical for us to recognize that Asian America’s racial reckoning with evangelicalism today is, in part, a legacy of the Cold War in Asia. That culture war cannot end without the end of “hot” wars, including the Korean War. Asian America’s reckoning with the American evangelical empire, then, requires addressing the racialized, gendered and sexualized legacies of US Cold War empire, which continue to haunt the Korean diaspora in particular and Asian America in general.

For further discussion on Race for Revival, please see the public forum at the University of Chicago’s Martin Marty Center, with Angie Heo, Anne Joh and Helen Jin Kim:

Helen Jin Kim is Associate Professor of American Religious History at Emory University. She completed her PhD in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University and her BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.

[i] Thank you Carolyn Chen, Grace Kao and Hyemin Na for their feedback on this blog post.

[ii] Tat-siong Benny Liew et al., “Asian Americans, Bible Believers: An Ethnological Study,” in Misreading America: Scriptures and Difference, ed. Vincent Wimbush (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 165-207.

[iii] Gary Okihiro, “Toward a Pacific Civilization,” Japanese Journal of American Studies 18 (2007): 73-85.

[iv] Lon Kurashige, Madeline Y. Hsu, and Yujin Yaguchi, “Introduction: Conversations on Transpacific History,” Pacific Historical Review 83.2 (May 2014): 183.

[v] Janet Hoskins and Viet Thanh Nguyen, Transpacific Studies : Framing an Emerging Field (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014), 3.

[vi] Helen Jin Kim, “Gospel of the ‘Orient’: Koreans, Race and the Transpacific Rise of American Evangelicalism in the Cold War Era, 1950–1980” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2017); see also Helen Jin Kim, “Race and the Korean War Origins of World Vision Inc,” in Global Faith, Worldly Power: Evangelical Internationalism and US Empire, Melani McAlister, Axel Schafer & John Corrigan, eds., (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 195-217.

[vii] Anthea D. Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021); Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[viii] Curtis Evans, “White Evangelical Protestant Responses to the Civil Rights Movement,” Harvard Theological Review 102.2 (April 2009): 245– 273.

[ix] Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

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