Communist Christianity

Posted: March 9, 2012 in Religion
Tags: , , ,

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


  1. Lorin Yochim says:

    I like your brief discussion of the potential of repression to produce cults. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that otherworldly thinking produces cults repression or not. On the other hand, is not Christianity the cult of Jesus?

    The point about “good old fashioned dogma” is important, too, although “dogma” tends to lend an undeserved legitimacy to racism, homophobia, and bigotry in general. While I agree with your general argument about liberalization, both of these problems, especially the latter, are more serious problems than your “political risks…pale next to the potential.”

    That leads me to another “potential” of religion. With respect to the Wenzhou example in a previous post, if accurate, that is the most “American” of all religious phenomenon in China. In that case, if religious affiliation helps, it is not because it causes people to be kinder to their fellow religionists, although that may be a side effect. Rather, the church becomes a social club for the wealthy. This doesn’t mean that members are not true believers or somehow cynical. It is because the doctrine (whatever it is) provides a justification for doing what is necessary if one actually is a capitalist. As I said before, if one is not pursuing profit, then one is not a capitalist and we need some other description of the Wenzhou model.

    Also, elsewhere (China Hope Live), there are Christian claims contrary to what you say about Christian disinterest in politics. Specifically, Joel is claiming that Christian activists are disproportionately at the forefront of protest movements in China. Frankly, its seems likely that there is no data to prove this. Of course this is a argumentative strategy employed by everyone with a solution to China. It goes something like this: “What I’m doing in China is righteous because those people are oppressed. And those that follow our way become the most righteous.”

    This is a good series of posts. I’d really like to have seen you discuss how atheism itself provides critical resources of the kind religion supposedly contains. I wouldn’t call myself an atheist, so I’m genuinely not familiar with how an atheist would respond. Frankly, the idea that only religion (supernatural orientation) can fill this role is absurd. People who make this claim surely know full well that humanism and liberalism grew up largely as a critique of the religious orientation. From what I’ve seen, to overcome this unpleasant fact, they try to make Jesus’ supposed thoughts, somehow unfiltered by his evangelists and institutional Christianity, the motive force of history. Anyway, I hope my contributions along the way have been more helpful than annoying.

  2. Joel says:

    Huh, I’m getting mentions all over this series!


    So nice of you to ask.

    From everything I’ve seen of China’s Christians — and I’m no expert — they avoid politics, aside from religious freedom (but even then they only court trouble when they feel they have to). With a possible notable exception: the activists. My claim was that, among the names we often see in the headlines of this or that Chinese activist getting persecuted, I bet a disproportionate number of them are Christians. I have this impression for a couple reasons, but mostly because I keep tabs on the mainstream China news, which carries these stories, but also on the persecuted Christian niche reports (like China Aid), who report on Christians being persecuted in China. Often the same names come up in both sources, though in the mainstream reports their religious affiliation is almost always unmentioned (I assume the reporters are either unaware or think it’s a non-factor in their activism).

    It makes sense that Chinese Christians would be sticking up for the poor and oppressed given the content of Christianity, and there’s also the association of Christianity in China with Western culture and ideas. But it also makes sense that China’s Christians would not want to publicize the fact that these trouble makers are Christians. I probably shouldn’t even be writing it here.

    Lorin, you’re so suspicious! Blog conspiracies, argumentative strategies… what next? 😉

    • sinostand says:

      I think (emphasizing the “think”) the cause and effect of Christian activists is often the other way around. It seems they’re not usually activists because of their Christianity, but Christian because of the disillusionment that’s also the source of their activism. One prominent example I can think of is Chai Ling – one of the ringleaders of the Tiananmen protests. She wasn’t Christian in 1989, but years later after she immigrated to the US she became Christian.

    • Joel says:

      Oh, I can imagine a few different ways that could work, with various reasons for activism and Christianity ending up in the same person. And one of them is that, like many activists historically and around the world, their Christianity inspires them to fight for justice on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

      Chai Ling is… interesting.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Just suspicious of factoids, Joel. No doubt, though, there are many, many Christian activists, and your modification re religious freedom would be important in that case. My own sense, however, is that the oppression of Christians in China is exaggerated and for obvious reasons both honest and self-serving. To the extent that religious groups are oppressed, it seems that they are put in jeopardy when their associations challenge state power in this or that domain. This, of course, is a kind of oppression with many precedents in the nation-state world.

      By the way, clearly you have no idea how famous your blog has made you. :O

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Taking up Christianity after migration to NA is quite common. I have my theories, but they are of the “pet” variety.

  3. Joel says:

    clearly you have no idea how famous your blog has made you.

    now you’ve got me worried!

  4. Alliana says:

    hmmm… i don’t agree that evolution should be taken out of schools. i think it’s best that it should just be more emphasized that it’s a theory and that the theory of creation should also be mentioned. but that’s it. i believe there is some truth in evolution, but not in the scale like we come from monkeys, land animals come from marine animals, and some of the sillier parts of evolution. and yeah, i don’t support homosexuality but that doesn’t mean christians should alienate them. they’re still human but with different beliefs and they should be respected. “hate the sin, but love the sinner”. i have homosexual friends and we get along okay. sure, we’re not that close and i don’t confide with them, hello, that’s normal for people who have different beliefs, but we get along well and work well with each other. ANYWAY… to put a stop to my excited fingers that seem to go on typing passages of my life that i’m not sure i should be sharing blatantly, i would end with praise to your post and to the replies, which seem so much more intellectual than mine. *goes to a corner and sulks*

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