- Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life
The past decade has seen a surge in studies on religion and ethnicity sharing a key theme: What is the relationship between "ethnic" religion and American life? More specifically, does religion isolate immigrants by embedding them in particularistic ethnic identities and networks or does their religious involvement foster adaptation and integration into mainstream America? In Elaine Howard Ecklund's excellent book, second-generation Korean American Evangelicals provide the focus for pursuing these crucial questions. Ecklund does not ask whether Korean-American Evangelicals participate in American civic life, but how they do so. She gathered extensive data from "Grace" and "Manna," two churches with different ethnic compositions, through nine months of fieldwork, a survey of 225 respondents, and over 100 in-depth interviews. Recognizing that religious moral [End Page 242] schemas justify actions and legitimate ways of interacting with the world, the core of her study is a comparative look at the distinctive schemas of civic responsibility found within a mono-ethnic Korean American congregation and a multiethnic pan-Asian congregation with Korean American attenders.
The study begins by emphasizing that Korean Americans are neither biologically nor culturally predetermined to approach civic responsibility in a particular way. This may seem obvious, but the reminder urges us to focus on how a person's institutional involvement—in this case congregational membership—affects understandings and motivations for civic participation. Moreover, both churches are located in the same city and therefore have similar structural locations, yet each congregation provides different Evangelical frameworks for interpreting ethnic identity and the range of acceptable civic involvement. In other words, neither "Korean-American" nor "Evangelical" are monolithic. There exist diverse, legitimate expressions of Korean American Evangelicalism with different models of civic participation. This book introduces us to two of them.
The essential distinction between Grace and Manna is a collectivist versus individualistic ethic of civic responsibility. The ethnic-specific church emphasizes a communal model, while the multiethnic church emphasizes a more individually negotiated one. Specifically, the ethnic-specific church connects believers to collective obligations that commit members to a form of volunteerism that is both group-based and obligatory. In contrast, the multiethnic church stresses individual obligation to serve one's local community while leaving it to each person to cultivate the exact nature of that engagement. It does not prescribe activities but rather encourages members to engage their community as an outflow of their personal relationship with God. It is not surprising, therefore, that the multiethnic church manifests a greater range of civic options. Moreover, since individual diversity is encouraged over communal obligations, members are regularly exposed to diverse viewpoints and opinions which in turn stimulate a more critical perspective on American history and its institutions.
The core distinction between the collectivist and individualist ethic emerges in part from nuances in each church's appropriation of Evangelicalism. The ethnic specific church promotes a more privatized view of American Evangelicalism where public responsibility is channeled into proactive, personal evangelism. In the multiethnic church, individuals have a more public service point of view that stresses the need for individual participation in public roles of community life. The difference here is in the emphasis on evangelism; the ethnic-specific church legitimates participation in community service only if it clearly and directly connects to personal evangelism. [End Page 243]
These two churches are further distinguished by the ethnic identity developed in relation to other minority groups. Ethnic-specific church members tend to compartmentalize their identities as "American" versus "Christian." They strive for what they believe is a non-ethnic, pure Christianity that avoids stigmas they associate with their first-generation forbears (like legalism and self-segregation). These ethnic-specific Korean church members are "good Christian Americans" who participate in community service projects. Although they do not blatantly emphasize being Korean, their priority for taking responsibility to help those outside their church (i.e, outside the Korean community) actually highlights their ethnic uniqueness as hard-working Korean Americans. Even further, ethnic specific Korean church members accentuate meritocracy as a core principle...