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Korea Blog: Reading Tocqueville in Korea (Part Two)

Alexis de Tocqueville made his transatlantic journey in 1831 in order to discover what made America different from other countries, especially his native France and the rest of “Old World” Europe. “On my arrival in the United States, it was the religious atmosphere which first struck me,” he writes in the first volume of Democracy in America, published in 1835. “Americans so completely identify the spirit of Christianity with freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive the one without the other.” He saw “Americans coming together to dispatch priests to the new states in the West in order to found schools and churches” and met “wealthy New Englanders who left their native land in order to establish the fundamentals of Christianity and freedom on the banks of the Missouri or in the prairies of Illinois. In this way, in the United States, religious zeal constantly gains vitality from the fires of patriotism.”

When I first started taking notice of Korea, gleaning what I could from the occasional visit to Korean restaurants and Korean-American classmates’ houses, I sensed how different a culture it really seemed to possess from that of, say, Japan and China, the countries with which Westerners tended to conflated it. Certain differences in sensibilities and aesthetics quickly make themselves felt (even someone completely ignorant of east Asian languages can usually identify Korean script, “the one that has circles”), but nothing stands out quite as much as the prevalence in Korea of Christianity. A Westerner visiting Korea for the first time might expect some kind of theocracy, extrapolating from the enthusiasm so many Koreans profess for the church back in the West, but in reality Protestants and Catholics (a distinction insisted upon much more fiercely than in America today) account for about 30 percent of the South Korean population combined.

By the standards of this part of the world, 30 percent is an impressive figure, but it might nevertheless strike our Westerner in Korea as a serious underestimate, especially if he arrives by night to see all the neon crosses that burn red along the Seoul skyline. There aren’t as many neon crosses as there used to be, but culturally, Christianity in Korea still punches well above its weight, stop just short though it may of Tocqueville’s observation, made in the second volume of Democracy in America, of the its being “intimately linked to all national habits and all the emotions which one’s native country arouses” and ruling “not only like a philosophy taken up after evaluation but like a religion believed without discussion.” But since America towered as an example of national success — and in a way, an object of worship itself — all throughout Korea’s development in the second half of the 20th century, its trifecta of Christianity, democracy, and capitalism must have looked like a magic formula to banish privation and humiliation to the past.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books (and part one here).