Jiang Tao is a (necessary) pseudonym for a courageous Chinese journalist who, last
week, wrote a fascinating and disturbing piece in Bitter Winter, titled “Pressure Surges on Local Governments to Suppress Believers.” Bitter Winter is a daily online magazine (founded in 2018) on religious liberty and human rights in China, and is published by the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy, founded by Massimo Introvigne in 1988.
As is well-known, Communist China has long been a foe of any and all religions, a position that goes all the way back to the party’s founding by Mao Zedong in the late 1940s. The Chinese government is against not only “Western” religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but also religions indigenous to China such as ancestor worship, Taoism and Buddhism. Religion is officially seen as a phenomenon that can all too easily stand in the way of the goals of the state and the state’s control over people’s attitudes and lives.
Despite the Chinese government’s persecution of Christianity, it has been growing there for the entire 20th century and into the 21st. There are currently well over 100 million Christians in China, and the growth rate is at least 7 percent per year (see Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang’s 2015 book “A Star in the East: the Rise of Christianity in China”). The surprising and counter-intuitive fact is that there are now more Christians in China (110 million) than there are members of the Communist Party (95 million).
The Chinese government has a lot of problems. Not the least among them is the growing number of Christians (and Muslims) living there. China has yet to figure out how to deal with religion — other than the blunt instrument of shutting Christian churches down by force and placing over a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps. But this isn’t working very well.
To come back to Jiang Tao’s article: The Chinese central government is now requesting local grassroots officials to report every day on the number of “believers” in their villages and their activities. If the central authorities detect any indication that the local officials’ numbers are not accurate, they are severely punished. Each local official has to sign a yearly “responsibility statement” recognizing their duty to suppress religion; their effectiveness in doing this is included in their performance reports. The central government is especially worried about “house churches” springing up to afford meeting locations where churches have been closed and/or torn down.
It is good to remind ourselves that the original Christianity took shape within the Roman Empire by making use specifically of “house churches,” private homes where the faithful could meet with relatively little fear of detection. Something similar took place in Soviet Russia and in Castro’s Cuba and even for some time in Mexico, where the Catholic Church was shut down by the post-revolutionary Mexican Constitution of 1917.
It is a fortunate fact of life that forms of governments come and go, but religion hangs on through it all. I have a theory as to why that happens, one that is born out of simple historical observation. When central governments become too powerful for the good of the people, these governments attempt to make themselves into surrogate religions — religions that turn the top ruler(s) into cult figures and turn the goals of the state (and that state’s economy) into a self-propagating supreme system whose demands always come first. The people come at a far distant second.
The separation of church and state established by the First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution was a stroke of brilliance: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... of the right of the people to peaceably assemble ...” It may very well not have been the original intent, but this Amendment protects one of the most important functions of religion in the modern world: to be a major force against the state.
China is right about one thing in that they are afraid of religion and how it can be a force to counter state power and state propaganda. That is the truth. The early Christians stood up to the Roman Empire and the Roman state’s deification of the emperors, the so-called Imperial Cult. The Christians won. In 1926, the Catholic Christians in Mexico stood up to the anti-church, atheist revolutionary government; the people fought the Cristero War and won in 1929 — today 88 percent of Mexicans are Christian (83 percent Catholic, 5 percent Protestant).
Christianity, when truly understood and followed, is always against the state. This is exactly why every 20th century totalitarian state has been atheistic — if not openly, then surreptitiously. And this is exactly why we should all be worried when any nation state sets out to weaken the strength of religion among its citizens. This is always a red flag that somebody wants to do something that, sooner or later, will be nefarious. You can take that to the bank.
If an overly zealous government can’t stamp out religion, it will attempt to co-opt one form and make it into an effective crutch to prop up the government. This is what Nazism did in Germany with the creation of what it called “positive Christianity” and the “German Christians” movement; these were people who sided 100 percent with the Nazi Party and worked to create a national “Reich Church” that was based on a Nazified, Aryan Supremacist version of Christianity. (See, for example, Nazi Party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg’s 1930 book “The Myth of the 20th Century,” in which “true identity” of Jesus is discovered to be Aryan.)
Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Whenever a Christian, any Christian, claims he supports a given politician because that politician has God on his side, that Christian is not being true to the demands of the faith. The Christian religion was created never to support politicians and states, but on the contrary, always to challenge all politicians and states.
The proper relation between church and state can be summed up very simply: religion vs. state. Period. And we should never forget it.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.