The Influence of Economic Prosperity on Religious Flourishing: A Case Study of South Korea

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber argues that “practicality has somehow received the sanction of modern religious understanding, so that what appears to be purely pragmatic and egoistic behavior is actually religiously motivated in some way; [and] religious understanding has somehow been debunked within modern culture in such a way as to give a free reign to practicality and pragmatism.”[1] In this paper, I will argue that economic prosperity—regardless of the root cause being of Christian origin—compounded by the effects of globalization,[2] will inevitably lead to a practical and pragmatic worldview that will impact people of all nations, including Christians. I will utilize Korea as a case study for this trend, which in turn can be analyzed as a signpost for the larger global society.

The history of Korea is plagued with a tumultuous narrative of multiple, successful invasions from various nations.[3] While the prosperous footprint of South Korea can be seen internationally today, it has been only less than a century since the end of Japanese rule and the Korean War, leaving the nation to rebuild from its agricultural roots.[4] Since the war, South Korea has seen unprecedented economic growth, which has been coined as the “Miracle of the Hangang River.”[5]

This miracle can be attributed to earlier forms of globalization with the involvement of Japan and Western nations. While the Japanese colonial rule of Korea in the early 20th century has been associated with much tragedy, it has also paradoxically aided in the development and modernization of Korea.[6] “Undeniable economic exploitation by Japan, especially in the agricultural sector, was balanced by the deliberate creation, often for strategic reasons, of the public works and communications infrastructure of a modern country.”[7] Following the Korean War, the 1965 normalization treaty “provided for a $500 million settlement in grants and loans which Japan promised to South Korea” and in turn greatly helped stimulate the economy.[8] As the economy of South Korea grew, it quickly attracted international attention and received investments from the United States and other Western nations.[9]

As the external influences of globalization aided in South Korea’s miracle recovery, rebuilding with improved technology was also integral to the nation’s growth. Known as the Saemaul movement, this was a collective effort to improve the rural standard of living alongside the industrial development.[10] Improved agricultural technology and proper infrastructure has essentially rid rural poverty in South Korea.[11] The Saemaul movement continues to be an indispensable part of South Korea and its modernization and economic improvement.[12]

The miraculous economic growth of South Korea cannot be examined without exploring a parallel miraculous growth of Christianity in the 20th century. In 1900, only 1% of the population of South Korea was Christian and by 2010, it grew to roughly 30% of the population.[13] This growth has been attributed to varying circumstantial and spiritual reasons. In the early 20th century, the “Japanese oppression of the Korean church… cast it as a champion of Korean nationalism.”[14] Christianity later provided various social improvements such as education, medical aid, and community engagement.[15] In regards to the spiritual climate of Korea, there was a natural attraction to the Christian ideas of salvation.[16] In addition, there was a strong emphasis on evangelism, prayer, and Bible studies.[17]

At this point, one could argue that the growth of Christianity could have been a root cause of the growth of economic prosperity in South Korea, especially when considering what Max Weber explicated in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[18] While it is evident that Korea was influenced by Western culture and values,[19] I argue, it is irrelevant whether economic prosperity comes from a Christian origin or other means such as through globalization and improved technology. It seems once a nation reaches a certain level of prosperity, that nation will inevitably veer towards a form of secularization as seen in Western nations and now in South Korea.

As discussed thus far, economic prosperity and Christianity has seen tremendous growth over the past century in South Korea. However, Christian growth has now somewhat stagnated, reaching a “saturation point” particularly for Protestantism.[20] Despite South Korea being considered one of the centers for global Christianity,[21] the plurality—i.e. 46%—of the country has no religious affiliation.[22] Economic growth, on the other hand, continues to rise—in 2017, South Korea ranked 12th in gross domestic product.[23] The technological development in South Korea has vastly improved and according to one study, ranks third in the entire world, just behind Japan and the United States.[24] The development and progress of South Korea since the Korean War has vastly improved “the material quality of life,”[25] however a former South Korean pastor argues that “the church faces the challenge of filling the spiritual void in Korea, which has been created by materialism and the obsession with economic development.”[26] (italics mine) Reverend Kisung Yoo, a senior pastor of a church in Seoul, also acknowledges that “the Korean church has achieved tremendous quantitative growth since the 1980s, but there has been too little focus on qualitative growth.”[27] He is seeking to battle the “challenges of secularization” through the Walking with Jesus movement, a combination of spiritual practices aided by the use of digital technology.[28]

The story of Christianity in South Korea is still being written and perhaps it is too early to make any definitive conclusions. However, if the Western church is any indicator of its progress in light of its prosperity, it will be challenging to say the least. Son Bong-ho, a philosophy professor, criticizes the South Korean church having “a fatal lack of critical attitude toward the materialism of modern culture.”[29] And the spiritual void mentioned earlier could very well be a result of the “impact of revolutionary capitalism” and how a modern system creates a “cultural vacuum.”[30] While South Korea is not a Christian nation in the same sense Western Europe or North America was, there is a similar pattern developing even in its short history that aligns well with Weber’s critique that practicality and pragmatism will reign.[31]

By utilizing South Korea as a case study, one can see the impact economic prosperity has on a country in a relatively short span of time. South Korea has had a unique experience, and despite its tremendous and rapid growth, it is facing similar challenges that Western Christians are addressing, such as materialism and consumerism. While most of the development of South Korea happened in the 20th century, a time period filled with massive innovation that fueled globalization,[32] the technological innovation happening in the 21st century is only compounding these effects. Take for example, the number of monthly active Facebook users in 2008 was 100 million and by the end of 2018, it had 2.32 billion monthly active users.[33] This accounts for approximately 30% of the world population.[34] Our global society has never been more connected than it is today.

Despite the complexities associated with defining and placing globalization, it is a trend that will continue to progress, for better or worse. My focus is not to argue for or against globalization as some have attempted, but that it is an inevitable reality.[35] Technology and economy will progress, most notably now in the form of cryptocurrencies and digital money. This new technology offers a “gospel” to developing nations and is a practical means of lifting them up out of poverty.[36] When nations and their people are hyperconnected to the world and can make financial transactions with one another ultimately improving their standard of living, there is no need for any other gospel, [37] especially when they realize how poor Western Christians have responded to the needs of their global neighbors.[38] This is particularly concerning as Christianity has shifted to the Global South and is growing in developing nations. As globalization will exponentially increase the speed in which nations reach a certain level of prosperity, the global church should take heed with what is happening to the church of South Korea.

When nations and their people are hyperconnected to the world and can make financial transactions with one another ultimately improving their standard of living, there is no need for any other gospel, especially when they realize how poor Western Christians have responded to the needs of their global neighbors.

The key takeaway here is to recognize that this complex force of globalization and modernization may be the biggest competitor to any form of religious flourishing. The greater danger is that those who are engaged with globalization are making futile arguments for resistance, while the vast majority of Christians and non-Christians alike are either ignoring or fearing it.[39] Peter Heslam, who works from an interdisciplinary approach, may have stated it best: “The only substantial agreement is that this is a transitional period. Many of the values, assumptions and structures that once enjoyed broad acceptance have been set aside, but new ones have not yet fully emerged.”[40] While this temptation is nothing new to followers of Christ as he instructed that we cannot serve two masters, hopefully the global church will not follow in the same patterns as the church of South Korea.[41]

[1] Taken from Craig Gay’s explanation of Max Weber’s thesis found here: Craig M. Gay, Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today’s Society (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans and Regent College Pub, 2004), 27.

[2] Globalization, defined for the purposes of this paper, is a process in which people of all nations are being evermore connected by means of technology, including but not limited to communication, manufacturing, and production, thereby making every decision and action interwoven and impactful on a global scale.

[3] David Rees, A Short History of Modern Korea (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1988), 2.

[4] Ibid., 64.

[5] “The Korean Economy – the Miracle on the Hangang River,”, accessed April 9, 2019.

[6] Rees, 72.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 148.

[9] Ibid., 149.

[10] Ibid., 151.

[11] Ibid., 155.

[12] Ibid., 154.

[13] Philip Connor, “6 facts about South Korea’s growing Christian population,” Pew Research Center, accessed April 9, 2019.

[14] Donald N. Clark, Christianity in Modern Korea, Asian Agenda Report 5 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986), 36.

[15] Ibid., 29-30.

[16] Ibid., 36.

[17] Ibid.

[18] While outside the scope of this paper, this would be an intriguing proposition to explore as Protestantism constitutes most of the Christian population in South Korea. See Douglas G. Jacobsen, The World’s Christians: Who They Are, Where They Are, and How They Got There (Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 190.

[19] Clark, xi, 47-49.

[20] Jacobsen, 191.

[21] Ibid., 373.

[22] Connor, Pew Research Center.

[23] “Gross domestic product 2017,” World Bank, January 25, 2019, accessed April 11, 2019.

[24] David Allouche, “Top 10 of the Most High Tech Countries in the World,” accessed April 10, 2019.

[25] Clark, 16.

[26] Ibid., 37.

[27] Kisung Yoo & Paul Sung Noh, “The Korean Cyber Monastery Movement: Overcoming the challenges of secularization,” Lausanne Global Analysis Vol 7, Issue 5 (Sep 2018), accessed April 11, 2019.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Clark, 25.

[30] Gay, 42-3.

[31] Ibid., 27.

[32] Robert Angus Buchanan, “The 20th century,” History of technology, accessed April 10, 2019.

[33] “Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 4th quarter 2018 (in millions),” statista, accessed April 11, 2019.

[34] Calculated based on 7.7 billion people in the world from, accessed April 10, 2019.

[35] Peter S. Heslam, Globalization: Unravelling the New Capitalism, Grove Ethics Series ; E125 (Cambridge [England]: Grove Books Ltd., 2003), 25.

[36] In reference to the remittance industry and digital money in smaller fractions than the US dollar. See Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World (New York: Portfolio, 2016).

[37] Myers, 255.

[38] See Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, Reprint edition (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2015).

[39] Myers, 4.

[40] Heslam, 3.

[41] Matt 6:24.