By Brent Walker
In President Obama’s meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao Jan. 18-21, the issue of human rights and religious liberty must be discussed along with economic and environmental issues.
Certainly, the tradition in the United States is that — to quote the father of our Constitution, James Madison — the right of conscience “is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” In discussions with the Chinese, tactically it may have to be merely on par with economic and environmental issues, but in no way should it be secondary. This is an opportunity that President Obama must not pass up when he meets with Hu Jintao.
I have traveled to China twice as part of delegations to speak with Chinese religious and governmental leaders on religion and religious freedom issues and have seen firsthand that religion in China is thriving. We have seen dramatic growth in numbers and vibrancy of religion generally and Christian churches specifically — both registered and house churches. Today it is said that Christians in China outnumber members of the Chinese Communist Party. The gospel has burgeoned in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and the re-opening of churches in 1979.
However, religious liberty falls behind the growth of religion, qua religion.
The Chinese constitution protects only “freedom of religious belief” and “normal religious activity.” This generally means state-regulated “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant) have the right to worship unmolested and to proselytize within the four walls of their house of worship — but not on the street corner outside of it.
The extent to which various folk religions, other denominational traditions and unregistered religious organizations are free to worship varies from region to region. Religion is permitted to exist and is sometimes actually promoted (the state often pays for the purchase of land for churches and seminaries) when the state judges it will spawn what the Chinese call the “harmonious society.”
Beyond this, groups the state considers “evil religions,” such as the Falun Gong or ones that are deemed to be splitist, like the Tibetan Buddhists, or supporting terrorism, like Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, are often persecuted.
China has been working on religious liberty for only about 30 years. In this country, we have been at it for nearly 300 years and still do not always get the church-state equation right. Chinese culture has always been hierarchical, authoritarian and communal. As a result, the Chinese are not used to thinking about individual rights. They will always be more interested in promoting the “harmonious society” over the sometimes cacophonous clash of individualism, but progress is being made.
China does not turn on a dime. It never has in 4,000 years and will not now. Nor will China respond to dire threats and embarrassing diatribes about its shortcomings on the religious freedom front. But, President Obama and U.S. foreign policy generally must continue to press diplomatically for more religious liberty.
The message that I would suggest the president articulate is that, in the final analysis, full fledged religious liberty will actually promote a “harmonious society” more than divisive governmental intervention into the religious demography –favoring some, disfavoring (even persecuting) others.
Religious liberty is good for both religion and the state — and that goes for China, too.