A New Face of American Evangelicalism
Walter Kim aims for “a way forward even within difference.”
Here's how Walter Kim, Ph.D. ’07, tells the short version of his parents’ migration. After the Korean War, his father escaped communist southern China by crossing the Taedong River hidden inside a barrel. He got to Seoul, where he met and married a young woman. The pair ultimately immigrated to New York City, where Walter was born and spent his first eight years within a vibrant Korean American community before the family moved to western Pennsylvania.
Religious institutions played benevolent roles—his father trained at a Catholic medical school in South Korea, and missionaries were among those who helped the couple reach and resettle in the United States in 1966—but they were not believers. It was Kim alone, then, the summer before high school, who felt drawn to a youth program led by a Baptist pastor. At the end of the season, the man took the kids to see Star Wars, sparking discussion afterward. “‘Did Obi-Wan Kenobi die so that everyone else would be able to escape the Death Star? Did that remind you of anyone?’” Kim recalls, smiling. “And that of course led to a conversation about the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of humanity and the forgiveness of sins. And literally, there in the parking lot, I prayed to embrace Christ in my life as my savior.”
That “born-again” conversion, a pillar of evangelical faith, led him to campus ministries and to study the ancient world at Harvard, and then on to become pastor of Boston’s historic Park Street Church. But he could not have foreseen that his adolescent commitment to Christ would land him, in 2020, as president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and in the maelstrom of American partisan politics.
It has been challenging, he modestly notes. The umbrella organization was founded in 1942 as a “third way” neo-evangelical solution to the acrid debate between fundamentalist and modernist Protestant strains. It now represents millions of people across 40 denominations—Pentecostal, Wesleyan, and Presbyterian among them—along with scores of ministries and institutions, including The Salvation Army. Kim has spent the last three years amplifying core religious tenets—trying to heal, unify, and revitalize a community splintered by politicization. At the same time, he’s been asked to help explain and sometimes defend a movement viewed by many in the secular world as a monolith of Trumpist zealots. Labeled too extreme by the right, ultraright, and the left, “somehow, I am simultaneously this and that,” he says. “But it speaks to our moment right now. Characterizing those with whom we disagree is a national sport. Which is unfortunate.”
“Evangelicalism really needs to embrace the reality that we are in a pluralistic society.”
While attempting to build bridges all around, he and other NAE leaders are also shepherding a new kind of evangelicalism: one that is perhaps more intellectually inclined, less political—and, based on shifting demographics, not nearly as white. “If evangelicals seek to be the kind of Good News people of Jesus Christ, there should be a capaciousness, a curiosity, a willingness to engage for the common good,” he said during an April panel discussion on “Faltering Faith in Institutions” at Princeton Theological Seminary. “Evangelicalism really needs to embrace the reality that we are in a pluralistic society, and we’re going to need to figure out what it means to be an influence for good as a participant—as a member of the choir—and not as the conductor.”
It is hard to imagine someone better suited than Kim for this complex role. He brings the “lived experience” as a person of color (the first to lead the NAE), a son of immigrants, and a refugee. Coming of age in Pennsylvania, he was the only Asian kid most people had met and got “used to navigating spaces where I have to code-switch,” he says. “And I am very sympathetic to communities on the margins.” Yet he’s also attuned to the different kind of disenfranchisement felt these days by many white evangelicals.
Uniontown, Pennsylvania, was once an economic engine of industry and boasted the highest number of millionaires per capita in the nation. By the time the Kim family arrived, however, that day was long past, and the community had a spiritless atmosphere of “deep social displacement and economic dislocation,” he says. Yes, he has been shaped by cosmopolitan cities, having lived in New York, Chicago, and Boston, but those years in the foothills of Appalachia “are part of the fabric of who I am, too.”
Through high school, he felt a growing call to serve God. But because “the only doctrine of predestination in my household growing up was one that had me becoming a doctor,” he jokes, one viable model became the Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer, a theologian and physician. At Northwestern University, Kim loved studying medicine, but soon found he “really loved the idea of serving people, leading some Bible studies and talking to friends about my relationship with Jesus,” he says. “Seeing some of them become Christians was enthralling.” He switched majors to philosophy and history, and dove into more religious activities; after graduation he joined Cru, a parachurch ministry with a chapter at Yale, as a chaplain. There, he also met Toni (earning a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics), and after she graduated, they began dating, got married, and moved to Vancouver, where each pursued a theology master’s degree at Regent College.
Thinking he could merge his academic interests and pastoral work, Kim then aspired to become a professor—“a presence of Christians at research universities is an important aspect of being in a faithful dialogue with broader society on intellectual, cultural, and social issues.” Also seeking a more primary, interdisciplinary understanding of the world of the Bible, he entered Harvard’s Near Eastern languages and civilizations doctoral program in 1998. Immersed in classes on languages and literature, archaeology and history, he also delved into linguistics and cultural anthropology while working on his dissertation, “The Language of Verbal Insults in the Hebrew Bible.”
It looked at how “ancient Near East discourse used concepts of honor and shame in social dynamics,” he says—not unlike the ways language is used today “to exert power and to caricature others.” Understanding differing cultural values, he emphasizes, is “vital to a flourishing democracy.” This belief and a penchant for scholarship underpins Kim’s pastoral and NAE work, informing his adept integration of Bible stories and scripture with broader sociopolitical issues. Kim thinks God used his time at Harvard to form him as a person, “to say that there is a diversity of opinions and there’s a way forward even within difference,” he says, “to have that fundamental curiosity, ability to learn, openness to questions.”
While Kim wrote his dissertation, he and Toni grew more active with Boston’s Park Street Church, a stop on the city’s Freedom Trail known for its history of grappling with social issues. In 1829, abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison took to the pulpit for his first public speech against slavery. The church also spawned America’s first prison ministry and later hosted meetings of the Boston Branch of the NAACP. Pastor Harold Ockenga, a founder of the NAE, led the church from 1939 to 1969, aiding the rise of global evangelical leader Billy Graham, who in many ways laid the groundwork for the movement’s political power.
The Kims served with a group of co-pastors, then Walter became the primary pastor. All told, the Kims were active from 2002 to 2017 while raising their children, Nathan and Naomi, who has Down syndrome. (The couple also founded the church’s disability ministry, and that issue has been a continuing focus of their lives.) In 2017, the family moved to their present home in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Walter was pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church before being tapped to lead the NAE in January 2020.
That October, a month before the election, the NAE took a major step toward refocusing the evangelical movement by taking out a full-page ad in the Washington Post featuring a “sign-on statement” from Kim and other evangelical leaders resolving, among other things, to uphold a “comprehensive pro-life ethic,” seek “racial justice and reconciliation,” and “resist being co-opted by political agendas.”
Kim followed up with a letter published in Christianity Today calling for solidarity under “biblical values that unite us across denominational, geographic, ethnic, and partisan divides.” “In rallying around these principles,” he wrote, “we will also show those outside the church that evangelicalism is not defined by politics. Rather, we are motivated by love for God and our neighbor.”
He and NAE are, of course, up against various cohorts identifying as evangelicals—Christian nationalists and pro-Trump activists among them—with effective campaigns and friends in high places. As Holy Post podcaster Skye Jethani put it during a January interview with Kim, the popular evangelicals “not necessarily engaged in academia and more elite areas of thought...tend to take stances that are the very opposite of what the NAE has put out there.... Is that where the breakdown is happening?...There’s that old statement, ‘If the people aren’t following, you ain’t leading.’”
Three months after the October Washington Post ad, Kim was profoundly disturbed by the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. Especially alarming were rioters with gallows carried alongside flags naming Jesus. The insurrection was a “deformation of our faith and expression of faith, in addition to a deformation of the political discourse and ethos so necessary for life in a democracy,” he says. The NAE denounced the violence—and has taken other stands now unpopular with the vociferous, more right-wing segments of its community.
Shortly before Kim became president, the NAE adopted language opposing “discrimination against anyone, including LGBTQ persons.” He says, “We are seeking to navigate” faith-held beliefs “while simultaneously protecting the dignity of all persons.” Following the NAE’s 2022 report on climate change, Kim reiterated on Amanpour & Company that stewardship of God’s creation is “foundationally an expression of our faith”: erosion of the planet also has a disproportional impact, he added, “so it’s also a matter of solidarity with those most vulnerable.” Similarly, “getting vaccinated is one of the best expressions of loving our neighbors,” he said in a YouTube video (sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) while receiving a COVID-19 vaccine injection, which he also called “a gift from God.” He’s clear that theology must control ideology. That extends to renewed focus on racial and social justice. “Evangelicalism is going through an identity crisis,” he explains, and one major challenge is “engaging, in fresh ways, the growing diversity of our constituents.” The movement is growing fastest in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia, which is reflected in the rising number of immigrant constituents in American churches, he says. The NAE no longer has an all-white leadership. Serving with Kim is board chair John K. Jenkins Sr., the prominent black pastor of First Baptist Church of Glenarden (a megachurch in Maryland), and the NAE includes the largest networks of Hispanic and Asian American churches. Founding NAE president Harold Ockenga did sermonize against racism in the 1930s, and the NAE later officially resolved to advocate for “human rights.” But it “did not show up as strongly as it should have, with broad institutional support” for the civil rights movement, Kim says. “I want to own that,” he told the Princeton panel. At this point, promoting racial justice is not “a discretionary choice,” he added. “It’s a matter of, ‘Do I actually love the person who is sitting at the table with me? Do I really believe that her concerns and life situation are now mine as well?’”
Still, Jethani’s points about the gaps within the movement remain. Can the changing NAE reach the more entrenched, politicized factions? Kim has hope. But it’s the “millions of people in the movable middle” he’s aiming for: “Those seeking out better information, who are open to experiences that inculcate empathy.”
Censorship and narrow-mindedness are not limited to the political right, he points out, and any suppression of ideas and of religious freedom troubles him. And he sees the way emotional conflicts involving fear and insecurity lead to the inability to form friendships or to even talk “with people with whom we differ,” and that profoundly short-circuits “any possibility of change.”
In the end, as he does when wrestling with any hard questions, Kim returns to Jesus. “He supped with the tax collector and the sinner, and we like to talk about that. But he also had dinner with Pharisees. He is, by definition, someone who did not worry about getting sullied by coming down and assuming human flesh and walking among all of us.”
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