Christians on the move in China?

the lord's prayerThe growth of Christianity in non-Western cultures and societies is widely acknowledged to be one of the biggest religion stories these days. A significant subset of that story is the rapid growth of Christianity in China to a point where it is the country's second largest religion (behind only Buddhists and ahead of Islam). The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times covered the under-reported growth of Christianity in their Saturday editions. The article, which interestingly does not have a byline at the top (Xu Wan is noted as a contributing researcher at the bottom) is of a reasonable length and depth, but is strangely optimistic.

Statistics, political machinations, and ethic conflict generally make-up stories about religion in non-Western societies. The subject that typically receives the short-end of the coverage is the theology and faith that make up the religion. Here is what the LAT was able to muster together:

Christianity is thriving in part because it offers a moral framework to citizens adrift in an age of Wild West capitalism that has not only exacted a heavy toll in corruption and pollution but also harmed the global image of products labeled "Made in China."

Some Chinese Christians say their faith is actually a boon for the party, because it shores up the economic foundation that is central to sustaining communist rule.

"With economic development, morality and ethics in China are degenerating quickly," prayer leader Zhang Wei told the crowd at Jin's church as worshipers bowed their heads. "Holy Father, please save the Chinese people's soul."

At the same time, Christianity is driving citizens to be more politically assertive, emboldening them to push for more freedoms and testing the party's willingness to adapt. For decades, most of China's Christians worshiped in secret churches, known as "house churches," that shunned attention for fear of arrest on charges such as "disturbing public order." ...

This rise, driven by evangelical Protestants, reflects a wider spiritual awakening in China. As communism fades into today's free-market reality, many Chinese describe a "crisis of faith" and seek solace from mystical Taoist sects, Bahai temples and Christian megachurches.

Today, the government counts 21 million Catholics and Protestants -- a 50% increase in less than 10 years -- though the underground population is far larger. The World Christian Database's estimate of 70 million Christians amounts to 5% of the population, second only to Buddhists.

At a time when Christianity in Western Europe is dwindling, China's believers are redrawing the world's religious map with a growing community that already exceeds all the Christians in Italy.

The story's major hook was a battery of interviews given by a number of "clerk leaders and worshipers from" a variety of locales in China to the Tribune and PBS' "Frontline/World." Apparently, this is a sign of "Christianity's growing prominence."

While not explicit in the article, readers are understood to know that Christianity, and other religions, have not always been welcome in China since the rise of the Communist government. What goes unsaid is that repression still exists. To what extent is difficult to measure. We've noted before that reporters tend to play down the idea that repression exists in China, and this article is no exception. Rather than stating that churches are shut down for various reasons, the article notes that "A new church or Sunday school, for instance, might be permissible one day and taboo the next, because local officials have broad latitude to interpret laws on religious gatherings."

Here is more spin on how China's government is failing to allow for freedom of worship amongst its citizens:

Overall, though, the government is allowing churches to be more open and active than ever, signaling a new tolerance of faith in public life. President Hu Jintao even held an unprecedented Politburo "study session" on religion last year, in which he told China's 25 most powerful leaders that "the knowledge and strength of religious people must be mustered to build a prosperous society."

In an excellent review of a trio of books in Christianity Today International's July/August edition of Books & Culture, which is unfortunately not online yet, Terence Halliday writes that China's Communist Party does not tolerate rivals. "That includes religion, because of a 'long history of religious movements toppling dynasties in the past.'" (quoting Randall Peerenboom's China Modernizes: Threat to the West or Model for the Rest). Ignoring China's recent history of religious repression would be like the ignoring slavery in the United States in 1910.

Halliday, co-director at the Center on Law and Globalization, American Bar Foundation and University of Illinois College of Law, writes that the books he reviews (Peerenboom's in addition to Susan L. Shirk's China: Fragile Superpower and James Mann's The China Fantasy) fail to mention much about religion. Halliday notes that Christianity's destabilizing effect in China would likely involve pushes "for conditions under which their faith and witness can thrive, conditions that cannot exist alongside a one-Party state intolerant of competing ideologies."

As the Olympic media crush in China draws closer, reporting on China's religious freedoms (and other freedoms) will be important to note. Defining religious freedom will be key. Apparently it is now considered acceptable to talk to certain media outlets regarding a country's less repressive religious freedom, but what if less friendly media outlets decide to criticize the country's religious freedoms? Sometimes the lack of coverage of a topic is the most important story about which no one is willing to talk.

Photo of "The Lord's Prayer" in Classical Chinese from 1889 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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