Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

At least a hundred Chinese college students packed into the small auditorium of the American consulate in Shenyang, in the heart of old Manchuria, to hear my lecture on the civic role of churches in America. No interpreter was necessary, since most were English majors, and I felt at home enough to wander around the room, just as I do in my classes at the University of Oklahoma.

But my own students have never asked the kind of questions these did: “Do you believe in God?” “Are you a Christian?” “Where is God?” “How do you reconcile religion and science?” “Do you believe that humans evolved from monkeys?” “Can’t people be moral without religion?” And my favorite: “If the Bible is the word of God, how come God didn’t know about China?” Not only did this questioning force me to drop the professor’s shield, but it epitomized the intense curiosity about religious faith among many Chinese today.

For three weeks in September of 1999 I traveled the length and breadth of the People’s Republic of China, lecturing to scholars, students, journalists, and even government officials. Sponsored by the U.S. Information Service, the branch of our foreign service that “tells America’s story” to the world, my lectures developed the theme that one cannot understand American politics without comprehending American religion.

Because the subject was religion and the U.S. State Department had just issued a report critical of religious persecution in China, these lectures often evolved into extended discussions, often debates, about the religious situation in China, the nature of a free civil society, the concept of religious freedom, and the meaning of faith in the modern world. Plentiful opportunities for quiet, one-on-one conversations also allowed me to hear personal accounts, whether of suffering during the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen crackdown, or, with striking regularity, of the continuing struggles of religious believers in this one-party state. These encounters—some of the most poignant I have experienced as a scholar—opened a window into Chinese life and thought that I could not have anticipated. The following are some lessons I learned from this experience.

There is a tremendous spiritual ferment taking place in China, despite fifty years of official atheism. The chaos introduced by rapid market lib eralization, not to mention the corruptions inherent in cadre capitalism, have produced a moral and intellectual vacuum. Is materialism enough? What is the basis for moral behavior in the marketplace? What is the purpose of a person’s life? Upon what are the moral foundations of civil society to be built?

To this latter question, of course, Alexis de Tocque ville famously answered that spiritual beliefs and religious practice provided the “mores” that undergird free society in America. And in my lectures I explained how his thesis is being reaffirmed by a growing scholarship on American voluntarism, civil society, and social capital. American scholars are rediscovering religion, I noted.

What I discovered is that Chinese intellectuals are also groping for moral and religious clarity. I met scholars looking for ways to make Confucianism, traditionally hostile to commerce, more compatible with modern capitalism. I was asked whether, and how, religion might provide moral restraint in a market society. I was asked about how religion might produce “social capital”—social ties and trust among people—to help smooth the process of modernization. One perceptive student even asked if communism is a religion. Yes, I said, it is the god of the twentieth century that failed.

Yet the Communist Party clings to power, attempting to fill the vacuum with consumer goods and nationalist pride. The blossoming of religious movements, however—from Falun Gong (the banned meditation cult that blends elements of Buddhism, martial arts, and strict moral messages) to Islam and Christianity—suggests that the party’s solution will not be adequate for China’s restless people.

Indeed, I discovered curiosity about religion that went beyond mere academic interest, and I found myself explaining my own faith—or “witnessing” in the evangelical argot. One of my guides, a professed atheist, described how if he got depressed or anxious during college, he would go to the Catholic church to sit and meditate. There was something special about the place, he said. What was it? It speaks to our transcendent yearnings, I offered. Another guide, in a very sober moment, asked me what the essence of Christianity is. Love, I answered. God’s love for us, as epitomized by offering His own son; our mandate to love others.

Then there was the young woman, obviously burdened by some trouble, who asked in the Q & A if religion could release a person from feelings of guilt. Taken aback by the elemental nature of the question, I answered that, yes, this was central to Judaism and Christianity and many other faiths, but I responded a bit too academically. After the lecture she shared more of her personal problems. Though not a practicing Christian herself, she wanted to talk to a Christian, someone outside her circle of family and friends. I told her she could be released from guilt, and I tried to connect her with someone who might help. I wondered if she found solace and, during Mass at a “patriotic” church later that day, I found myself praying for her.

But it was the Christian professors and students who really humbled me. At one lecture a student raised tough questions about the sincerity of many Americans’ professed faith, given their moral behavior. I sized her up as a smart modern skeptic, like some of my own students. Then after the lecture I learned that she was an underground Christian, one of millions in China who worship in small fellowships against current Chinese law. A top student, she had been asked to join the Communist Party, which would advance her career. But it would also require a profession of atheism, which, in good conscience, she could not make. At another site I encountered another young woman who faced the very same dilemma. Not only would she refuse to lie, but she felt called to witness to her faith, which requires real courage in China today.

At best, people must choose between their faith and career advancement because party membership remains a crucial avenue for public employment. At worst, they face arrest and brutal treatment. In fact, just prior to my trip an elderly Catholic bishop and three priests, along with forty “house church” Protestant leaders, were arrested for “cult activities,” the favored government term for anyone worshiping outside the officially sanctioned churches.

The above narrative hints at another lesson I learned, one concerning attitudes toward free civil society. The Chinese government, of course, fears an independent civil society. One scholar told me (without irony or apology) that fear stemmed from how religious critics, Christians in particular, provided opposition to the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Or, as a party organ put it most graphically a few years ago, the regime must “strangle the baby while it is still in the manger” to avoid the fate of Warsaw Pact countries.

What surprised me was that many Chinese, including some sophisticated intellectuals, do not themselves fully appreciate, or accept, the concept of free civil society. Given China’s five thousand year history of centralized, nondemocratic governance, this should not be a surprise. But I was fascinated about how attitudes of deference toward government exist alongside the capitalist modernization and opening now taking place.

This insight emerged in discussions of the religious situation in China. Though greater religious freedom exists today than during the Maoist era, religious persecution and discrimination are still common. With respect to Tibetan Buddhists, of course, the government has pursued a colonization policy that approaches cultural genocide. On general policy the Communist Party has attempted to channel religious practice into pro-government, or “patriotic” forms, making it illegal to worship anywhere but in a state-sanctioned church. Approved Christian worship, consequently, is restricted to the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the Catholic Patriotic Association, which register only a fraction of China’s fifty to seventy million Christians. Those who worship outside these approved churches, even in their homes, are subject to arrest, confiscation and destruction of property, exorbitant fines, and, credible reports suggest, torture.

This policy illustrates the contradictions of the regime: on the one hand it is eliminating state-run economic enterprises; on the other hand it continues to promote “state-run” churches, which cannot fulfill the spiritual hunger of the population and are often resented by “underground” Christians, who suffer and sacrifice for their faith. As Richard Madsen notes in a recent book, China’s Catholics (University of California Press), many underground Catholics are bitter toward the patriotic churches, which they accuse of unfaithfulness in collaborating with the regime. Among Protestants, the underground population dwarfs the Three-Self churches, which are viewed as secularized or deeply compromised.

The existence of these approved churches, however, provides visible evidence of open religious practice. Some Western Christian groups have allied themselves—injudiciously, I think—with the official churches (liberal Maryknoll missionaries with the Catholic Patriotic churches; the Protestant National Council of Churches with the Three-Self Movement). Further complicating the picture is the fact that the enforcement of the religious law varies widely, with some unregistered Christians practicing openly in a few big cities while elsewhere they are harshly repressed.

Yet repeatedly I was told that there was full religious freedom in China. Some of these protestations, of course, were for public consumption, given police surveillance of university forums. And I sometimes heard a different story in private, especially among those Christians whose personal experience imparted special insight into the nature of the regime. But I had numerous conversations, both public and private, which convinced me that many educated Chinese believe what they have been told by the government. They would refer me to Chinese law, which recognizes five official religions. They would point to the functioning Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim places of worship in their cities. When I would mention the arrests of house church Christians and Tibetan Buddhists, they would parrot the party’s line that unregistered churches are dangerous cults, or that they bilk peasants out of their money, or are involved in other illegal activities.

Some of these exchanges had an Orwellian quality, especially those with party apparatchiks and the less sophisticated students. To explain U.S. concern about the religious situation in China, I would sometimes show photographs of house church Christians arrested by the government. A common response was, so why don’t they register? What’s the big deal? Well, I responded, the Religious Affairs Bureau is headed by an atheist, and the officially sanctioned seminaries and ministers are not free to preach the pure gospel. But why do they want to worship in their houses anyway—isn’t it more pious in a church? They worship in houses, I replied, because the government won’t let them worship in unregistered church buildings. Well, they must have been engaged in illegal activities, that’s why they were arrested. Yes, I would say, but their only illegal activity was refusing to register. They still broke the law.

Wonderfully revealing also were questions about American religion. What does the American government do about religious groups that engage in antigovernment activities? How does the American government protect people from cults? How does the American government deal with bad religions? Many found my laissez faire answers unsatisfactory, and some even argued that China had a better way because it protected people from bad religions. My standard response, which occasionally elicited chuckles, was that as a typical American I apparently trusted my government a lot less than they trusted theirs to make the judgment about what is good or bad religion.

An excellent illustration of this was the response to the crackdown on Falun Gong, which involved the arrest of thousands, the burning of books, and a propaganda blitz of immense proportions. China has a long history of secret societies that undermined rulers, so the Communist response was perhaps understandable, if unfortunate. But almost everyone I talked with in China viewed the government ban as appropriate. One of my interpreters, for example, told how a teacher she knew became involved in Falun Gong and would scare the students by holding a meditation pose in the classroom for half an hour. Others echoed the government’s charge that some Falun Gong members died because they refused medical treatment or jumped off buildings in moments of euphoria.

My own response to queries about “bad religion” was that free civil society can be messy. The law can deal with criminal activities, but not beliefs or membership in organizations. Thus we in the United States rely on moral suasion, publicity, and people’s ultimate good sense to deal with problematic groups, rather than entrust government with too much power. To many Chinese, these softer remedies did not seem as satisfying as swift and sure government action.

Another lesson I brought home concerns American diplomatic efforts to raise the issue of religious persecution in China. Today in China access to information is largely limited to the state-run press. And it reports that the Dalai Lama is a political hack, that China rescued Tibet from feudalism, that the Falun Gong is a dangerous cult, and that good Chinese Christians belong to patriotic churches. One of my interpreters, in fact, had trouble translating “house church” because she had never heard of the term. If the U.S. government does not raise the problem of religious persecution in China, therefore, who will?

Ironically, we in open societies have better access to certain kinds of information on the religious situation in China than most Chinese. The arrest of Zhang Rongliang, for example, leader of the major unregistered Protestant movement in Henan, was reported widely in Christian circles in the U.S., but not in China. Thus, when I used as a lecture prop his photograph from a Focus on the Family publication, people in the audience invariably wanted to read the story, which was fresh news to them. If American officials continue to raise these issues, at least the Chinese authorities know someone is watching what they do.

What most Chinese know of the United States, unfortunately, is also largely what the state-run press reports. From city to city, for example, I kept getting questions about religion and mass suicides. What was going on? Finally I was told by a U.S. consulate official that in the wake of Beijing’s banning of Falun Gong, the party organs blitzed the airwaves with footage of Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and Waco, to show how cults induce suicides, thus justifying the government’s crackdown. In correcting their impression that mass suicide was a common trait of American religion, I tried to indicate how precious religious freedom is to Americans, and why American leaders raise the issue with Chinese officials.

Foreign policy realists, of course, may chafe at the prospect of religion “muddying” America’s international posture. But religious freedom is central to the protection of human rights and democratic evolution around the world; thus pressing the issue would seem to be in our national interest. Moreover, as mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act, which Congress passed unanimously in 1998, the promotion of religious freedom as a universal human right is now a “basic aim” of American foreign policy. And one of the legislation’s first fruits was a hard-hitting report on China’s suppression of religion, which will be followed by recommendations from an independent commission for specific presidential action.

Policy makers, to be sure, will differ on what blend of trade, engagement, and sanctions might promote greater religious freedom in China. My conversations with believers, at least, suggested that independent religious communities constitute a signal hope for a genuine civil society in China. Echoing Vaclav Havel’s idea that totalitarian regimes are undermined when people “live in the truth,” one Chinese scholar told me that Christians in China uniquely appreciate civil society. “There is no tangible benefit to becoming a Christian,” he said, “so once they make that crossover they see the truth, and do not believe the propaganda of the regime.” Perhaps this is one reason why dissident Wei Jingsheng believes that creating greater space for religious freedom may be the most efficacious way to promote human rights more generally.

The final lesson I brought home from China is that the world is watching us. As the globe’s indispensable nation and superpower, the United States symbolizes democratic governance, human rights, and free civil society. Thus many people abroad are keenly interested in how our experiment fares, and they pay attention to signs of decadence and disorder in our culture. From Chinese audiences I heard about school shootings, family breakdown, and President Clinton’s misbehavior. And when the American government messes up, as it did at Waco, that has greater implications than we imagine. In discussions about how the United States allows freedom for unpopular faiths and cults, I often heard the refrain, “What about Waco?” Good question. All I could say was that most Americans now see that episode as a terrible blunder, and that it is an exception to our general approach.

Fortunately, we look pretty good to those who have traveled to the United States. Visitors are struck by the religious life of Americans, by their hospitality, and by their civic concern. Typical was a prominent journalist, who had studied for a year in the U.S., who said that what surprised him about Americans is their honesty and trust. He mentioned how a clerk at a hardware store will take the word of a customer about how many of an item he has, and was impressed to see kids and well-dressed men and women picking up trash on a highway. It took me a moment to realize he was referring to adopt-a-highway programs so common among civic and church groups. Such simple things, I thought, but they illustrated a lot to this editor of a prominent Chinese newspaper.

Because of cultural exchanges, and perhaps because of American protests against religious repression in China, some elites in China have concluded that they must understand American religion if they are to understand the United States. A scholar at one of the top Chinese social science institutes, I learned to my surprise, has been asked to write a book on American religion for Chinese diplomats and leaders traveling to the U.S. Apparently, officials in high party circles concluded that religion is important enough in America to warrant serious study.

I wish some in our own intellectual class were as aware. I talked with one Chinese professor who had just completed a Fulbright year of study in the U.S. He had wanted to study the influence of religion on American foreign policy, but when he was put into contact with professors at some of America’s elite universities, they dismissed the idea. There was no story to tell, he was told; “we have separation of church and state” and therefore religion has no influence on foreign policy. After my talk on how the “sleeping giant” of American religion was roused during the lobbying campaign for the International Religious Freedom Act, he said he felt vindicated, if still disappointed.

This perceptive scholar, who was convinced that the religious culture of America might influence its foreign policy, also offered an appropriate epitaph for my lectureship in China. With simplicity and wisdom, he captured the point, not only of my lectures, but my life’s scholarship: “Without religion there is no America.”

Allen D. Hertzke is the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma.

Image by Peter Griffin licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.