President Bush recently stopped to visit a protestant church during his recent state visit to China. Though a principal purpose of the trip was to address matters of trade (our Boeing employees and stockholders should be delighted with the sale of 70 new aircraft), the church presented an important opportunity to address the matter of religious freedom. Religious persecution in China is significant and harsh. Last fall the EU even joined in a resolution asking for China to disclose the names of clergy held as prisoners because of their faith. A Reuters news article dated September 8, 2005 states in part:
"(The European Parliament is) deeply concerned at the increase in arbitrary arrests, torture, unexplained disappearances, penal servitude, isolation and re-education camps endured by Christian clergy and lay people."
Many Christians worship underground, as they fear the entanglement of state-approved clergy and state political involvement in their churches, as well as risk to their personal safety from being publicly associated with the state-sanctioned groups. One watchdog organization on matters of persecution suggests that the number of Christians worshiping in unsanctioned churches totals in the tens of millions, including both Catholic and Protestant groups.
See www.Persecution.org. (As a side note, if the government was trying to throw you in the Gulag for your faith, I think that would make all Christians “protestants” of sorts. No offense intended to my Catholic brothers and sisters – I simply mean that we would all probably band together to resist the government’s oppression, making our other theological differences seem insignificant. That would be good, though I prefer to work toward those ends through other forms of motivation.) Of course, the oppression is not restricted to Christians, as Tibetan Buddhism is also banned.
Although the communist party is officially atheist, this group suggests that up to 20 percent of the party is active in some kind of religious activity. I don’t know how reliable that information is, but this does not seem surprising. People find ways to cope with bad situations, like oppression, and to somehow keep their faith going. This is how we live. (My previous post on the Ambassador from Lithuania and his stories of secret baptism under USSR domination would seem to also bear this out.)
Since this blog is about economic trends, you might wonder why I’m going off on religious freedom. Well, for one thing, it is a free country and I can! It is also Sunday! But there is also another reason. I am reminded of the importance of mediating institutions – which are principally religious ones – in making a democratic, capitalist system work. Let me share a few observations from Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America.
Among his many thoughts on American life, de Toqueville explains the role of religious belief as follows:
“For my own part, I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire political freedom. And I am inclined to think that if faith be wanting in him, he must be subject; and if he be free, he must believe.
Perhaps, however, this great utility of religions is still more obvious among nations where equality of conditions prevails than among others. It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits into the world, nevertheless suggests to men (as will be shown hereafter ) some very dangerous propensities. It tends to isolate them from one another, to concentrate every man's attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification.
The greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles There is no religion that does not place the object of man's desires above and beyond the treasures of earth and that does not naturally raise his soul to regions far above those of the senses. Nor is there any which does not impose on man some duties towards his kind and thus draw him at times from the contemplation of himself. This is found in the most false and dangerous religions.”
Book II, Chapter V. The full text can be found in electronic form here:
Mediating institutions help to make capitalism work by constraining our greed and self-centeredness and helping us to think of others. I am grateful that President Bush is helping bring this to light in China. It is a delicate matter, as change sometimes comes slowly through peaceful yet powerful forces. In the interim, let’s remember the plight of the Chinese faithful and consider how we can work for good through these mediating institutions.