S. Korea Presidential Election Highlights Christian Influence

WASHINGTON – South Korea's presidential frontrunner, Lee Myung-bak, serves as a reminder of the strong influence of Christianity on not only the country's politics, but also on its economy and social life.

Lee is from the opposition party, the Grand National Party, which polls predict will restore conservatives to power after two successive liberal governments led by outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun and his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung.

The upcoming presidential election in South Korea will take place on Dec. 19.

Lee, 65, is the former mayor of Seoul and former chief executive of Hyundai Construction and Engineering, one of South Korea's largest construction companies.

If elected, Lee will be the country's first president with a business background, which citizens hope will help revive the country's economy.

In contrast to Roh - who is a self-described shallow Catholic or borderline atheist – Lee is an elder in one of South Korea's largest churches, Somang Presbyterian Church, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. He is also said to be strongly supported by South Korea's large Christian population, which makes up about 30 percent of the country.

But Christians were not always as sizable or influential as they are today. As recently as 1960, South Korea had less than a million Christians. Today, the country now has more than 19 million Christians, according to the 2005 national census.

In fact, there are now 15 megachurches each with over 10,000 people in attendance on a given Sunday. South Korea is also home to the largest church in the world, Yoido Full Gospel Church, which claims a membership of over 800,000 and an adult attendance of more than 230,000 on a given Sunday.

South Korea's Christian population is not only growing in size, but also in the level of religious intensity. A recent survey found more than a third (35 percent) of South Korean Christians said religion is very important in their lives, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project 2007. Meanwhile, only three percent of Buddhists and one percent of religiously unaffiliated people gave the same response.

A third (33 percent) of South Korean Christians said they shared their faith with nonbelievers at least once a week, and over a third (36 percent) shared their faith at least several times a year, according to the Forum's survey. Moreover, about three out of four (77 percent) say they attend church at least once a week.

The poll also shows that Korean Christians tend to believe social and political involvement is important. Half (50 percent) of South Korean Christians said religious groups should express their view on social and political issues, while two-thirds (67 percent) agreed it is important for political leaders to have strong religious beliefs.

In final opinion polls in South Korea released on Thursday, presidential frontrunner Lee is shown to be heading for a sweeping victory in next week's election.

The former Seoul mayor and church elder won 44.7 percent support in the survey by JoongAng Ilbo newspaper – a lead that is almost 30 points ahead of his closest rival, according to Agence France-Presse.

A poll in Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest newspaper, shows Lee at 45.4 percent, or 28 percent points ahead of his closest competitor, Chung Dong Young of the liberal pro-government United New Democratic Party.

Besides politics and social life, Korean Christians are also dominant in corporate boardrooms. The chairman of all of South Korea's top 10 companies are Christians, according to an August 2007 report in U.K.'s The Independent.

In politics, the majority of members of the National Assembly are Christians.

South Korea has the largest percentage of Christians in East Asia, according to statistics by World Christian Database.