Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Religious Freedom and the Social Usefulness of Chinese Christianity

Kevin R. den Dulk


May 25, 2012

Kevin R. den Dulk

I had the remarkable experience last year of meeting a wide range of Protestant clergy and other religious leaders in Shanghai and Beijing.  Despite years of persistent challenges to their faith, my hosts maintained deep Christian conviction and exuded sincere piety.  It was humbling to talk and worship with these brothers and sisters, and I left with a hopeful view of Chinese Christianity.

Yet, other aspects of my experience were disheartening. Most of the leaders I met worked under the auspices of the “Three Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM), which attempts to organize and manage Chinese Protestantism under a legal framework imposed by the state.  (Four other major religious traditions – Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Buddhism – have their own state-sanctioned “patriotic” associations.)  The irony is that the “three self” label, which stands for “self-governance, self-support and self-propagation,” suggests broad autonomy for TSPM-affiliated churches (and an assiduous rejection of foreign religious influence).  The reality is that, to varying degrees across the country, local and regional authorities subject churches to countless restrictions on their own self-determination.  This reality is even more pronounced for those unregistered churches that refuse to place themselves under the patriotic umbrella. 

For many of us committed to robust protections for religious freedom, the Chinese legal arrangement is an invitation to official harassment and even persecution.  But what struck me the most in my travels was that many of my new Chinese friends insisted that the state’s role in religious life has even more insidious effects.  They perceived that the problem isn’t simply that the state restricts believers from practicing faith as they see fit; they worried that the state is also becoming a catalyst for re-shaping Christian faith itself.

How does this happen?  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) clearly does not have the same strident ideological perspective on religion of a few decades ago.  To be sure, the CCP retains some militant Marxist atheists, and they sometimes occupy positions of leadership in the religion-monitoring bureaucracy.  But most CCP members, to the extent they even care about faith at all, view religion as a matter of social management.  If any social group, religious or otherwise, becomes large, organized and aggrieved, then local officials will likely act against the group as a threat to the one-party state.  But small and quiescent groups are generally tolerated, even if they do not fall under one of the state’s “patriotic” organs.

In the view of some of my Chinese Christian friends – particularly those involved in unregistered churches – this “practical” posture of the state toward religion has led some churches to change their posture toward the state. After all, if the state will act against a religion that appears as an enemy, perhaps the state with act favorably toward a religion that wishes to be a social ally.  The result is that many religious groups have pushed more and more resources toward social services and programming – a focus that was always front-and-center when I met with TSPM leaders during my travels. 

For its critics, the problem with this church-state relationship is not that the church is getting into the business of social service.  They agree that churches ought to be involved in the just satisfaction of human needs.  Rather, the critics fear that TSPM churches have strayed off the theological rails in their effort to placate the state’s desire to address emerging social problems. On this view, the religious practice of some TSPM churches does not flow from their own theological commitments; rather, their practice flows from what the state desires.

I’m unable to assess whether this is an accurate portrayal of Chinese Three Self churches on a broad scale.  But I would argue that there is plenty of evidence that Chinese officials have begun to realize that religion might serve useful social purposes, especially in areas that are reeling from mass migrations and rapid urbanization that are unprecedented in human history.  And I have heard many westerners and Chinese leaders celebrate this state recognition of religion as an opening to religious freedom.  Perhaps it is.  But this state recognition leads me to a cautionary message:  When the state extends religious freedom because of religion’s social utility, it can easily remove that freedom when religion’s usefulness runs out.  The true test of religious freedom is how government treats a religion that does little social good.

—Kevin R. den Dulk is the Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence Chair in Political Science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

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