Religious repression in China

Peter Berger notes that the Chinese government has reversed some of its openness toward Chinese Christians, resuming its crackdowns on house churches. Also, the government-recognized Catholic Church seems to have ignored the Vatican in appointing a new bishop, which runs contrary to the government’s previous policy of encouraging dialogue between the government-approved “patriotic” Catholic Church and the underground Catholic Church that is connected to the pope. At the same time, “old Maoist songs are again taught in schools.” Though Berger does not expect a revival of doctrinaire Maoist governance, he does think that China’s elites are flexing their muscles both at home and abroad.

Berger finds an interesting symbol for what is going on and reflects on the significance of religion for political systems:

Early this year a 31-foot statue of Confucius was erected on Tiananmen Square, within sight of the gigantic picture of Mao Zedong over the entrance to the Forbidden City, which has been hanging there for years. When I first saw it, it appeared as an irrelevant relic of the past, at best a symbol of the paradox of the red flag of Communism fluttering over a ruthless capitalism. (I knew the picture was there, but I was shocked all the same. I thought what it would feel like to see a huge picture of Adolf Hitler hung over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.) In any case, in April of this year the statue was mysteriously removed overnight. No one knew what happened to it. But it was seen, almost certainly correctly, as a significant event. Confucianism had been loudly condemned as a bourgeois ideology during the Cultural Revolution. In recent years it was rehabilitated by the party and the government. Confucius was celebrated as a teacher of social harmony, ethical behavior and, above all, respect for authority. The Chinese regime was following in the footsteps of what for a while was the government-sponsored Confucianism of the so-called “Singapore school”, another case of an authoritarian government presiding over a robustly growing capitalism. Chinese cultural centers abroad were called “Confucius Institutes”.  Well, Confucius and Mao no longer look at each other across the vastness of Tiananmen Square.  And the picture of Mao may once again be more than a relic.

What does any of this have to do with religious freedom?  There is a First Freedom Center in Richmond, Virginia. (An appropriate location. Thomas Jefferson pushed through the Virginia legislature the first law in America guaranteeing religion freedom.) The Center carries on an educational program in high schools and elsewhere. Its founding idea is that freedom of religion undergirds all other freedoms—it is indeed “the first freedom”. Empirically, this proposition may be questioned. It is possible to have limits on religious freedom voted in through democratic processes. Freedom of speech does not necessarily include all religious propaganda. But the “first freedom” proposition is correct in a more fundamental way:  Religion most emphatically proposes that there are limits to the legitimate power of the state. This, I think, is especially true of the three Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—with their history of prophets confronting rulers in the name of God—an endless reiteration, if you will, of the prophet Nathan confronting the king David and denouncing him as a murderer. All other freedoms depend on the primal assertion of the proper limits of state power (an assertion, by the way, that may be embraced on other than religious grounds by agnostics—but they too should be able to understand the contribution of religion to this assertion).

Confucius cannot be plausibly interpreted as a forerunner of modern democracy or ideas of human rights. Although it is noteworthy that the virtue of kindness, rem, is enjoined upon rulers as an important ingredient of their legitimacy—the “mandate of heaven”, which can be withheld from unjust governments. But modern authoritarian rulers have understood instinctively that uncontrolled religion can be a threat. By the same token, violations of religious freedom frequently foreshadow other measures of tyranny. Thus Chinese Christians today may resemble canaries in a coalmine, their fate sending out an alarm. Thus the removal of the Confucius statue may also serve as a warning of tyrannical actions to come—of policies bereft of few if any degrees of kindness.

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