This week we’ve looked Christianity’s potential in China to provide morality, work ethic, and possibly an opiate to keep people working through exploitation. The Chinese government has noticed these things and many within the party seem keen to enjoy the benefits of Christianity. So they’re doing what they know how to do best: Throw money at it.
The government is approving, funding, or outright building churches across the country. Party leaders are more than happy to let you worship…as long as it’s at one of their churches. Lest any religious organization go off the grid and pull a Falun Gong or Taiping, no church is allowed to operate without approval and constant oversight. So as a matter of logistics, official churches tend to be few in number and large in size.
Several months ago I went into one of these churches in Anhui. Sure enough it was magnificent. It was six stories high, capable of holding thousands of worshippers and the interior resembled a European cathedral. But I was less impressed once the service started. The sermon was boring, people went through the motions, sang a bit and left. And I’d guess about 90% of the churchgoers were over 60 years old. It’s the kind of place I’d go just to fulfill a religious obligation.
A few weeks later in Beijing, I met a Chinese girl in her late 20’s in an elevator. After some small talk, she pulled out a card with directions to her church and invited me to check it out. I asked if I was welcome given that I’m an atheist, and even worse, a journalist. She laughed and replied, “Then you should definitely come.”
Her church was in fact a little studio apartment in Beijing’s Zhongguancun district – a stone’s throw from where several Shouwang Church Evangelicals were arrested last year. And like the Shouwang church, this one was technically illegal.
About 25 people showed up, almost all in their 20’s or 30’s. They sat in rows before a pulpit where the preacher, Brother Xing, pounded on the podium and yelled throughout his sermon. He was a firebrand that would never get approval to preside over an official church. But for the young adults accustomed to hearing docile scripted speeches from school and government officials, he was an inspiration. They swayed back and forth as they sang hymns while some occasionally started tearing up.
At the end several people stood up to give testimonies about how faith was helping them through their lives. As they all stuck around for socializing afterwards, it became obvious why most choose this over official churches – where spontaneity is barred and sermons must be pre-approved.
The party sees the value in developing religion, but like it does with film, art, education, and just about everything else, it thinks money is a substitute for freedom. In its insistence on maintaining complete oversight and control, it neuters the institution and ensures the full benefits aren’t reaped.
There are of course risks with religion’s spread other than threatening the party’s rule. With religious freedom, there’s always the potential for cults to emerge. But current circumstances hardly protect against that. In fact, by forcing these churches underground the government just gives cult leaders the perfect excuse to keep congregations in the shadows.
Then there’s good old fashioned dogma. I once met some Chinese Christians who’d done Bible study with American missionaries. They spewed bile about the sin of homosexuality and the need to take evolution education out of schools. It yanked me right back to the worst of what I thought I’d left behind in Kansas. With the success of any religion comes the chance that its influence will lead to social and scientific regression.
But the government has more pressing issues. An increasing eat-or-be-eaten mentality in an overall system of corruption undermines the country’s ability to sustain itself though development. The political risks of religious liberalization pale next to the potential. I’ve noticed (and the experts I’ve spoken with have agreed) that Chinese Christians seem mostly disinterested in politics with the exception of one issue: Religious freedom. They just want to worship how they want without being bothered. Then they’ll have peace of mind.
Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?
Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians
Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics
Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right