Can Christianity save China? There might be more to that question than westerners imagine

Tear your eyes away from the White House campaign for a moment and consider the coming 50 years in an officially atheistic land with the world’s biggest population.

The surprising question at the top of this post is the headline of a July 14 piece for The Week by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a France-based fellow of America’s conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Simultaneously we get the same point from prominent human rights activist Yu Jie, a 2003 convert to Christianity now living in exile near Washington, D.C. Writing in First Things, he contends that “neither the dead hand of Communism, nor the cynical imitation of Confucianism,” nor democracy, nor capitalism, will determine what happens to his homeland. “Christianity is China’s future.”

If that’s possibly so, such a cultural earthquake demands substantive journalism.  Why would Yu or Gobry think such a thing?

First, Yu says, Christianity is “the largest force in China outside the Communist Party.” Probably true, because Communism stamped out normal institutions of civil society.

Second, Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang estimates China’s Christians number 60 million plus.  (Believers often offer higher numbers.) Several million more convert each year, among them a notable number of urban intellectuals. He figures if this growth rate persists by 2030, the mainland’s 200 million would be the largest Christian population in any nation, surpassing the U.S.

Analysts say Protestantism prospers much more under Communism than Catholicism because it operates without a hierarchy. Growth of both registered and illegal "house" churches has defied the atheistic rulers’ harassment and persecution. Not long ago, Mao’s dictatorship tried to exterminate all religions. Currently, the  well-Christianized coastal Wenzhou region is suffering a major drive to destroy churches and public crosses. That’s a sure sign of the regime’s insecurity.

Many observers say Communism’s enforced dogmas, waves of oppression and bloodshed have little credibility so there’s  widespread hunger for a replacement to build lives upon. Indigenous Taoism and folk religions are poorly equipped for 21st Century dynamism. Confucianism, more a philosophy than a religion, has a revered heritage the Communists tried to wipe out but they’re now desperate to co-opt an ersatz version. That leaves two world religions born outside China, Buddhism and Christianity.

With all that in mind, newswriters should read a little-noticed piece by G. Wright Doyle, Ph.D., of the scholarly Global China Center (disclosure: a personal friend of The Guy).  He joined 40 specialists for a scholarly conference on “moral construction in modern China” at the Renmin (“People’s”) University Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Religious Theory. (The existence of such an institute tells us something.)

Doyle’s keynote speech, candidly Christian, built from host Prof. He Guanghu’s lament about the deplorable condition of Chinese society. Western media focus on economic and political strife and military expansionism. But Doyle depicted on a nation unmoored from ethics, rife with selfishness and corruption, and therefore with an unraveling social fabric.

China, he said, needs “clear and authoritative ethical standards,” expressed in “an accessible canon of literature,” with a “realistic” concept of the good and evil in human nature, providing a way for personal peace and morality, fostered by a meaningful community, equipped to heal a polluted natural environment, and fully indigenous within China yet having “worldwide reach.” Wright contended that Buddhism and Confucianism offer some of that but “Christianity alone appears to possess all the required qualifications.”

This and other Global China Center materials are a useful starting point for exploration by journalists looking ahead.

There are many other good resources, including two 2015 books: “China’s Urban Christians” by Brent Fulton (Pickwick Publications) and “A Star in the East” by Rodney Stark and Ziuhua Wang (Templeton Press). Click here for a tmatt interview with Stark about news trends linked to that book.

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