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Religious liberty and socialism

By Joseph Randolph
web posted November 17, 2008

On the first Sunday of our church attendance after the election of the new American President, my wife and I were witnesses to an absolutely infuriating sermon in church.  Expecting to hear what Christians might or would expect to hear at church--the Word of God--we instead sat treated to the word of politics paraded alongside some biblical imagery so as to conflate the two.  The newly elected President of America was touted with all the borrowed prestige of the prophet Isaiah.  Though stopping short of actually naming the new President—the source for this clerical jubilation from the pulpit—any middle-schooler only half listening could e easily surmise to whom the spurious connection to the prophet Isaiah was intended.  Showers of blessing extended to complement the coming greening of the culture, the welcoming of immigrants--the word "illegals" was left out--and universal health care.  There were denunciations of Enron, Goldman-Sachs, corporations in general, and some other political sinners and sin about to be abolished or imprisoned for all eternity in the coming new nation.  I could not resist thinking of the stained stories of some of the persons of the promising stain-glassed left as they had entered office in the past: Al Gore's boast of the Clinton administration as the "most ethical ever" in the history of the Presidency and Jimmy Carter's promise to never lie to the American people. 

Unfortunately, unlike the intent of our President in-waiting to "spread the wealth around," my minister-in-judgment did not spread the guilt around.  The usual leftist retreat into the punishment absolution of "we're all sinners" to defend any politicians was curiously absent, as were, and also to be expected, their own guilty politicians.  There was, for example, no mention of sub-prime mortgages, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and a whole train of wreaking heart congressmen who collectively nearly wrecked components of the banking industry in America. 

My experience last Sunday was of course not the first time ministers of the church have been found tipping their hats--and worse, their God and their religion to compliment liberal politicians.  I suppose such is to be expected when, for example, a patient's bill of rights, child care, dental insurance, and heaven knows what else, is deemed of more significance than right and wrong.  In a secular culture the message from pulpits is therefore not infrequently overtly or covertly political.  Indeed, many so-called "mainline" churches are rife with political cadences and cultures that now feel compelled to rewrite, for example, the perceived brutal banter of old hymns lacking the softness of contemporary leftist utopian dreams.  One can easily guess the offending words, indeed, offending idea, in the old classic, "Onward Christian Soldiers."

In an increasingly secular age, traditional priests and pastors of Christianity in America have felt the pinch and sometimes the paddle of civic pressure to accommodate themselves to the secular goals of a secular age. In the future they may feel more overt governmental pressure.  Those who have resisted anything of this sort have of course been mocked as backwater fire and brimstone Neanderthals, and are seen as the continuing the embarrassing religiosity of America that seems to hang on in the best of times and the most perilous times.  Such radicals who buck the progressives are not popular with the liberal advocates in American culture; however, no notion of radicalism is ever popular with leftists except for their own. 

A very interesting example of the religious tensions within another culture, socialist China, is instructive in seeing how a radically secular and socialist culture such as that found in contemporary China deals with religion.  In fact, some brief examination of religious life in China may add to our ability to conceive our future possibilities with the new regime coming to Washington in January. 

In China congregations of Christian believers are expected to register themselves with the Religious Affairs Bureau.  This is a governmental office run by the government, and thus it monitors religious affairs from the perspective of the government.  Those congregations which are registered with the RAB belong to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement or TSPM.  This organization is headed up by a Chinese Christian who is Protestant, as the Chinese distinguish between Protestant and Catholic Christians living in China.  The Chinese have a tendency to see most things as having political consequences, so any church, such as the Roman church, headquartered within its own state, the Vatican, is immediately politically suspect.  Therefore, a Chinese Catholic must see himself as a Chinese Catholic, not a Roman Catholic.  I shall refer to primarily the Protestant Chinese church in what follows, though with the allowance that the plight of Christian religious believers in China, both Catholic and Protestant, is often conjoined. 

The TSPM actually began in 1950, hence on the heels of the 1949 Revolution, which of course indicates the controlling idea behind the strong arms of the Bureau.  The Bureau, however, was dissolved during the time of Mao's Cultural Revolution, perhaps because there was too much chaos then for government to operate as before.It appeared again in 1979 after Mao and his supporters, to include ardent proponents of the brutal Cultural Revolution, passed off the scene and religious practice was given something of a new life—but not a new meaning.  To the Communists, religion, and particularly religious liberty, remains as dangerous as ever.  

Nevertheless, it was from the 1979 reconstitution of the old TSPM that China significantly liberalized its posture toward religion, but at the same time and as in the past, China wanted Christians in the country to see themselves as Chinese Christians.  Indeed, the adjective appears to carry more meaning and importance for the RAB than the noun.  Thus my earlier point about there being no "Roman" Catholics in China. 

After the TSPM came back into existence in 1979, the China Christian Council, or CCC also came into being.  This office produced yet another organization in 1985, the Amity Foundation, which serves to print Bibles and direct and perform various social projects, particularly with an eye toward China's poorer rural areas.  When I visited China four years ago, a guide cordially told us that the notion of smuggling Bibles into China was anachronistic now: China had their own because the government printed them.Such a gesture by the state of course presented an appearance of friendliness and accommodation toward religion, though masking the underlying motive of control.  No Brother Andrew would be needed to smuggle Bibles into China, or so it was suggested. 

For Christian churches not registering with the RAB—and there are many—their reasoning is that often the leaders of the TSPM are Party affiliates who manifest compromised Christian convictions.  Such resisting churches have come to be called House Churches, mostly Protestant but some Catholic, though many are manifestly too large for the relatively small size such a term connotes.  Indeed, the massive network of House Church congregations in China suggests to many that their numbers are routinely underestimated from a government perspective, both because of genuine ignorance and for purposes of propaganda. 

From the perspective of those content with the relative freedom offered by the Chinese government toward the practice of religion since 1979, the refusal of the House Churches to register with the RAB may appear as a needless and obstinate stance toward the state.  However, the refusal of the House Churches to place themselves under the yoke of the state is rooted in opposition to the implied state-church relationship in China. 

Confrontation between the state and the House Churches has escalated as a result of the desire of House Churches to evangelize.  Opposition on the part of the government toward evangelism is couched in the Marxist gospel that religion will die as socialism advances.  The evangelism undertaken by the House Churches is something that of course presents the real possibility of making the church larger, and is therefore closely monitored by the authorities of the state.  Furthermore, as the House Churches in China grow, and continue to grow, this phenomenon would appear to undercut confidence in the Communist belief that religion is an historical phenomenon receding in numbers and power.  Thus, Marxist dogma and recent Chinese Christian history are in collision.  Both cannot be right.  Therefore, steps are taken by the governmental authorities to impede the growth of a rising religious population that is supposed to be dwindling, but in fact is hugely escalating.  Seen in this way, the conflict does come around to a church-state issue simply because the state does not want to see the church grow, particularly when it is not supposed to be according to Marx.  However, religion is more alive in many quarters of China than Marx or Marxism.  Meanwhile, the state does accommodate the church somewhat, though this is because the state feels that such accommodation will only be temporary. That is, because Communist doctrine dictates that it time China will witness falling religious numbers in a weakening and dying institution, it can afford some kindness at the graveside.

Unfortunately, for the Communists there is no grave toward which the Christian religion is shuffling, but a maternity ward rapidly growing in virtually every sector of Chinese society.  Thus, because churches are not shuffling toward extinction, persecution from governmental authorizes has been added to the church to hopefully trim its numbers.  Paradoxically, this persecution has greatly emboldened many Chinese Christians.  One Chinese House Church leader has written that Tertullian's words are being lived out in China: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."  The government harassment and persecution that intensifies when the church is perceived as growing, paradoxically contributes to further growth.  However, try as they might, the governmental authorities cannot simply leave the House Churches alone.That simply cannot take the Marxist step of faith that religion will die out on its own.  It must, therefore, be put out. 

Most Christian denominations and organizations outside of China that would count themselves as mainline Protestant denominations, give some attention to this persecution of the House Churches in China, at least minimally, but they also typically place the number of house church Christians as probably significantly less than the actual number of Christians worshipping in TSPM, or government-approved churches.  This perspective, however inadvertently, must see the admitted persecution as a function of the growing numbers in the growing churches; these, however, are not the TSPM churches—the churches having the permission of the state to exist—and the churches that the mainline denominations outside prefer to think of as the church in China.

This troubling interpretation of the Christian Church in China and the persecuted Church is not difficult to assess, but it is more troubling to see the united vision of secular socialist China with Western liberals who will tolerate religion as long as it carries socialist articles of faith with it.  However much a Western liberal might deplore the excesses of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—or what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989—the egalitarian spirit of the Chinese and the Soviet socialist experiments continues to be admired by many Western liberals.  For those who weight equality for citizens greater than freedom for citizens, economic inequalities are counted first and given most weight. 

Those who attach little importance to what the House Churches are doing, typically also attach little importance to the reasons for the resistance of the House Churches toward the government's restrictions upon churches.  This indifference stems from the idea that the work of the Gospel amounts to alleviating poverty for most liberals, both western and eastern.  The Chinese governmental authorities will be much friendlier toward a religious practice which takes such as its sole reason-to-be.  But for those who see the sum total of human need exceeding material needs, the additional needs of a hungry soul must be addressed.  To hold these two things in tandem, body and soul, is what the House Churches in general have set out to do and this why they have encountered opposition from within China by its secular and socialist regime and outside China among Western liberals.  The offending House Churches are going beyond the articles of faith of socialism.  Their relationship to a socialist government then will almost necessarily be tense and stormy. 

In my Sunday experience after our recent American election, I saw a dangerous flirtation from a Christian pulpit with a secular ideology which promises historically to undermine the Christian message.  The minister I heard may have fallen into precisely the materialist orientation of socialism with little realization of where he is going or what he is doing.  While some in the Christian community have advanced the Christian parent idea for socialism—that economic socialism has an ultimate Christian foundation—other Christian critics have lamented how Christian features disappear or manifest small residual in socialist economies and states where material welfare trumps or manifestly ignores moral and spiritual components of the human person.  Western Europe comes to mind of course.  In other words, while the historical seeds of socialism may be diverse, Christian and otherwise, the eventual product seems to uniformly evolve away from religious concerns to an aggressive secularism.  While socialism may be prompted by humanitarian ethical concern for material lack, it can easily atrophy into only that. 

The Christian cannot presume to have done her whole duty in simply meeting material needs and wants.  The Chinese state would have its churches do precisely this, however, and we in America may be pressured in coming years to contain our message in a similar manner.A holistic orientation toward citizens may of course require that any Christian "economy" function outside the parameters of the secular state where matters of spirit are frequently frowned upon by such states.  For this reason, in seems to me that "faith-based" initiatives may ultimately collide with secular politicians who are desirous of leaving the immaterial person alone, while attending to the material person.  The parallel between the secular socialist and the Christian ethic dangerously ignores the differences between where the Christian wants to take his neighbor, in contrast to a secular socialism that is commonly materialist and probably morally indifferent.  I would allow that socialism may have significant roots in the Christian ethic, but I would also contend that secular socialism severed from Christian roots takes on an ambivalence about the spiritual nature of people, in the exclusive service of the material aspect of existence.  If it is the Christian ethical ideal which in significant ways gave impetus and prominence to socialism, then the Christian socialist must not abandon the fundamentally spiritual reasons for care of the body by abandonment of the soul.  I fear that my minister, though perhaps unnoticed by him, has etched in that direction.  He needs to wake up, but so do many other sleeping people in the pulpit and in the pew.  To scarcely be able to tell the difference between a church service and a political rally is symptomatic of a culture growing more polarized by becoming more politicized by the day.  ESR

Joseph Randolph is a writer and academic who lives in Wisconsin.






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