The Atlanta Shootings, Evangelical America, and the Korean War

By Helen Jin Kim | May 25, 2021

Rachel Dumke holds a lit candle at a vigil for the eight victims of the shooting in Atlanta, Georgia. (Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

On March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Long, a white Southern Baptist man, murdered eight people in the greater Atlanta region, six of whom were women of Asian descent: Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, and Daoyou Feng. In May, a grand jury indicted Long with the following crimes against Kim, Park, Grant and Yue, the four women of Korean descent who were murdered at two spas in Fulton County: four counts of murder, four counts of felony murder, five counts of assault with a deadly weapon, four counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and one count of domestic terrorism. The county’s District Attorney Fani Willis plans to pursue the death penalty and hate crime charges against Long, based on the law that took effect in the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. Long’s charges read as if he had been a man at war—which may not be far off the mark, when we examine the transpacific and religious context of the Atlanta shootings.

When Long, a member of Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia, confessed his crimes to Captain Jay Baker, of the Cherokee County sheriff’s office, he reported that he struggled with a “sex addiction,” and that he targeted these spas as a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.” He had previously sought out residential treatment at Hope Quest Group, a white-led evangelical treatment center in Acworth, Georgia. As scholars, activists, and journalists have noted, the language of “sex addiction” and “temptation” hearkens back to racialized and misogynistic stereotypes about Asian and Asian American women. These harmful tropes in the U.S. date back to at least the Page Act of 1875, which drew upon the stereotype of Chinese women as sex workers, barring them and Chinese contract laborers from U.S. immigration.

Long’s language, and the sheriff’s public reporting of his confession, rely on an Orientalist past, made all the more troublesome amid the resurgence of anti-Asian hate crimes in the COVID-19 era, which has disproportionately targeted women of Asian descent. But as key scholars and religious leaders have argued, the language of “sex addiction” and “temptation” is not only racialized and gendered but also religious—they have highlighted how contemporary white evangelical sexual purity culture has been especially deleterious for Asian American women.

May marks API heritage month. This year, in light of the wave of anti-Asian violence, and the recent anti-Asian hate crime bill, there is increased public awareness about the need to understand Asian American history in all of its complexity, from K-12 to higher education. The Atlanta shootings, in particular, reveal that we need greater understanding of Asian America’s racialized, gendered, and sexualized past at the intersection of America’s religious past.

If we understand the Atlanta murders in not only local and national, but also transnational frames, we recall that the white evangelical imaginary has long been informed by U.S. wars in Asia-Pacific, including the ongoing but “forgotten” Korean War (1950-53). As political scientist Katherine Moon shows in Sex Among Allies, the “buying and selling of sex by Koreans and Americans have been a staple of U.S. Korean relations since the Korean War,” which Keun-Joo Christine Pae has critiqued in her work as a Christian feminist ethicist. That past is connected, in part, to the second wave of Korean American immigration (1950-65), especially of Korean military brides, as the work of historian Ji Yeon Yuh shows. Yet we know less about how this transpacific history of sex, immigration, and war intersects with U.S. religious history.

As it relates to the Atlanta shootings, it is crucial for historians and the public to understand how the rise of racialized and misogynistic stereotypes about Korean and Korean American women intertwines with modern evangelical America’s past. Fewer works tell us about this past, in part, due to a bias against a Pacific-Rim-centered storytelling of America’s religious past, which historian Laurie Maffly-Kipp has critiqued. We have the works of historians like David Yoo and Timothy Tseng, as well as the current and forthcoming works of Dean Adachi, Melissa Borja, Chris Chua, Stephanie Hinnershitz, Chrissy Lau, and Jane Hong Lee—to name a few historians—which will suture this storytelling gap. At the same time, as I have argued, we still have a knowledge gap at the intersection of U.S. religious history and Asian American history.

That gap is particularly pronounced at the intersection of Asian American history and U.S. evangelical history. We have a long and wide literature on U.S. evangelical history, from its eighteenth-century transatlantic origins to the twentieth century rise of the Christian right, all of which I regularly consult and teach. In light of the white evangelical vote for Trump and the resurgence of white Christian nationalism, new titles have been particularly influential to the U.S. public. In her most recent work, White Evangelical Racism, historian Anthea Butler argues: “Racism is a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.” She dives into a comprehensive anti-Black history that has shaped evangelical America from its origins to its contemporary manifestations. In Jesus and John Wayne, historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez shows the culture of militant masculinity that has especially shaped the formation of modern evangelical America.

Yet this body of historical literature has seldom thought about Asian and Asian American people as significant historical actors, and Asia-Pacific as a central category of analysis—a lacuna I seek to address in my forthcoming book, Race for Revival: How Cold War South Korea Shaped American Evangelical Empire. To be sure, key works from Rudy Busto, Rebecca Kim and Janelle Wong tell us a contemporary Asian American evangelical story. There is also a hidden history of anti-Asian violence—via U.S. war and empire-building in Asia-Pacific—that was core to the rise of modern evangelical America. What happened to the people on the receiving end of white evangelical America’s militant masculinity, including people of Asian descent, who encountered that cultural formation through real wars?  This past can help us to understand an overlooked transpacific and religious context that may be unwittingly informing anti-Asian violence today. For, indeed, one of the most salient historical contexts, out of which white men from the Southern Baptist Convention encountered people of Asian descent, was through U.S. wars in Asia-Pacific, including the Korean War, the first “hot” war of the global Cold War.

Even the Protestant “star” of modern evangelical America—none other than Billy Graham—made his first travels to Asia with the outbreak of that war. Just one month after Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election to presidency in 1952, and with Pentagon approval, Graham spent “Christmas in Korea.” Graham traveled with his Youth for Christ (YFC) friends, including Bob Pierce and his friend Kyung Chik Han, the founder of Young Nak Presbyterian Church, which would become the largest Presbyterian church in the world. On Christmas Eve, Graham traveled to the battlefront to preach to U.S. servicemen, an evening he said he would never forget. When he returned, he published I Saw Your Sons at War: The Korean Diary of Billy Graham, which featured the below photograph of Graham’s battlefront preaching that evening.


Billy Graham at the Korean War battlefront, 1952.

While most military pulpits were barren, marines adorned the pulpit that day with artwork. A U.S. marine prepared a six-foot painting of Jesus, depicted as a meek white man with long flowing hair, wearing a white robe draped around his shoulders. Under a dark and ominous sky, the meek white Jesus watched over a tired and discouraged white marine who, while holding his rifle, crouched down on the ground in front of a Korean-style house called a kiwajip.

Behind this large painting of the white Jesus and white marine hung southern flags from North Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, foregrounding the U.S. South in this moment of white Southern Baptist preaching on Korean soil. The white South and South Korea, white Jesus and the white marine, merged in this preaching hour, as it conjured up nostalgia for home, stoked white southern regional pride, and knit together the triad of Jesus, soldier, and evangelist. As Graham stood confidently at this pulpit, he breathed life into these lifeless material objects, serving as the transpacific linchpin that fused the white Jesus, soldier and evangelist together. Koreans had learned the American white-over-black racial hierarchy through mass media and military culture, in the aftermath of WWII, with the arrival of the U.S. military in Korea. We see here that religion, and specifically, religious material culture, played a crucial role as well.

Yet the conservation of U.S. racial hierarchies on war-torn Korean soil did not detract from Graham’s revivalistic message, but only further boosted it. Graham declared in I Saw Your Sons at War: The Korean Diary of Billy Graham: “Never in my ministry have I preached with more liberty or power. The Spirit of God seemed to fall on the meeting.” Many of the “big, strong, tough Marines” were “weeping unashamedly” because of their “sins and their need of a Savior.” One of the “big” marines who had calloused hands from years of fighting gripped Graham’s hand and thanked him with “tears streaming down his face.” Graham associated this marine’s spiritual awakening and emotional release with increased masculinity: “I was proud of him, and proud of every one of those men, the finest of American youth. Everyone was a rugged, he-man. Everyone was a courageous, red-blooded American.” Graham sanctified the U.S. marine’s militant masculinity in this racialized moment of white Southern Baptist preaching on Korean soil. Graham had understood the Korean War in particular, and the Cold War in general, as a holy war against communism—a theological and political sin—not unlike Eisenhower who would expand Truman’s belief that Cold War America had a divine mandate to save the world from “the spiritual evil of atheistic communism.” For the sake of God’s holy cause, a faithful Christian soldier might marshal all forms of power, be it muscular, white or militaristic.

Did Long also think of expunging his “temptation” as a holy war against sin, a cause that would render him pure in the eyes of God? If he did, then he was possibly subject to a religious belief rooted in this longer evangelical and American legacy that has sanctified racialized and militant masculinity as holy. Key segments of evangelical America continue to wage holy wars today, whether it be against feminists, queer people, liberals, Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement—and even women of Asian descent. These contemporary evangelical culture wars have roots in real wars the U.S. has waged, including in Asia-Pacific. We have to understand the multiple historical roots of this violence to forge a new future.

Helen Jin Kim is assistant professor of American religious history at Emory. She is author of the forthcoming book Race for Revival: How Cold War South Korea Shaped American Evangelical Empire and co-author of Family Sacrifices: The Worldviews and Ethics of Chinese Americans, with Russell Jeung and Seanan Fong.

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