06/12/2017, 14.23
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Religion-state relationship, a legacy of the Confucian past, dubious about the anti-religious present

by Lai Pan-chiu

In pre-modern China, the emperor was the supreme leader in Confucianism. With a divine mandate, he controlled religions in an authoritarian manner. Today’s China controls institutions and believers, but has replaced the divine with Marxist theory.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Due to the phenomenal growth of religions and the complexity of religion-state relations in contemporary China, this theme has become an important research area for scholars of Religious Studies as well as China Studies. Because of the radical divergence between the mainstream of religion-state relation in the Chinese and Christian traditions, the tensions between Christianity and the contemporary Chinese government are to a certain extent inevitable. However, considering the pluralistic alternatives within the Christian tradition as well as the significant difference between the government of Communist China and that of pre-modern China, there is also a theoretical possibility of developing a relatively more stable and peaceful relation between the state and the Christian churches.

Regarding the Chinese religious traditions, the first thing to be said is that the state in pre-modern China is not entirely secular. In fact, religion played an important role in the legitimatization of the traditional Chinese government. Perhaps one may even say that in pre-modern China, the state itself was also a religious institution with the emperor as its Chief Diviner and Chief Priest. The divine mandate was supposed to be earned and maintained not by birth but by good deeds or merits, by performing relevant religious ritual properly, and governing the empire efficiently. When there is natural disaster, the King might have to perform rituals and offer prayers for his people, including confessing to and petitioning Heaven to bear the guilt on behalf of his people. Therefore, the state is supposed to have the right to decide what is the true religion permitted, and to crush all the heresies and obscene worship, which are more or less equivalent to what are labeled as “evil cults” in contemporary China.

This model of “subordination of religion to the state” is expressed not only in the state’s establishing a particular department to supervise and control the religions allowed by the government. The state’s control or intervention covers not only the institutional and personal aspects, e.g. the number of temples, monks and nuns, but the deities to be worshipped. In fact, other than suppression, the state can also absorb the worship of certain deities originated at local level into the pantheon of the state cult. For example, Mazu had been first a goddess believed able to protest and save fishermen or people traveling by sea, and widely worshipped in the coastal villages in South-East China. The state then approved the worship by conferring various honorary titles associated with the function of protecting the nation and even making Mazu an official object of state cult. The measure of absorption of course can be applied to not only the objects of worship, but also the religious leaders as well as religious organizations. Most importantly, this model was accepted by religious leaders, including Buddhists. The famous Buddhist monk Dao’an wrote, “Without relying on the emperor, it is difficult to launch the matters of the Dharma and even went so far as to say, “The Emperor is the boss of religion. Even during the republican period, many Buddhists endeavored to reform Buddhism and some of them looked for support from the government.

Viewed in this historical perspective, the religious policy of the Chinese Communist regime is quite understandable yet dubious. It is understandable because it follows the “habit” inherited from pre-modern China. It is dubious because given the atheistic position of Marxism, the government should not appeal to any divine being to legitimize itself. Although the theory of divine right of the king was rejected, it remains possible to legitimize the Communist regime by presenting a Marxist theory of history as the truth of history. However, with the anti-religious position proclaimed by Marxism, the absorption or incorporation of religion into the state became much more difficult than in pre-modern China. The religion-state relation in pre-modern China was heavily influenced by Confucianism, which supported and was supported by a hierarchical socio-political system based on lineage. Religious adherents were expected to be obedient to the emperor, who represented the pinnacle of this hierarchy. One of the serious problems is that based on the theory of the divine right of the emperor, it was believed that the emperor had the authority to rule anything within his kingdom and there is mechanism of check and balance to limit this totalitarian authority. Religions, especially those of foreign origin, which do not depend of this socio-political system of lineage, were often subject to suspicion, control and even suppression.

The tensions in church-state relation in China are quite similar to and are inherited from those in the western world. The appointment of Catholic bishops in China repeats the investiture struggle in medieval Europe. The exact arrangement is subject to negotiation with the state. However, the Catholic Church as a matter of principle rejects state interference. The case of Protestantism is relatively more complicated as practices have varied from denomination to denomination. Under Communist rule, the Protestant churches in Mainland China became post-denominational in the sense that all Protestant churches came under the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council. Their particular theological understanding of state-church relations influences the actual relation between the Protestant churches and the Communist government.

The model of “subordination of religion to the state” seems unacceptable for the Protestant churches because if violates the principle of the separation of church and state. However, the case of the Church of England may be highlighted as an example well known for is recognition of the King or Queen as its Supreme Governor on earth. In actual practice, the state may have certain rights or influences in church matters, including the appointment of clergy. As it happened, Bishop Ding Guangxun (K. H. Ting, 1915-2012) had been consecrated as an Anglican bishop long before becoming the leader under the Communist rule. Similarly, the present Anglican Archbishop of Hong Kong accepted the political appointment to serve as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, many Anglicans rejected the model and left the Church of England. Thus, subordinating one single church institution to the state may not be an effective solution. In principle, the head of state of Communist China is supposed to be an atheist and not a Christian. Therefore, it is rather difficult to conceive, from both Communist and Christian perspectives, how this person can be proclaimed “Supreme Governor on Earth” of the Church in China.

The experience of contemporary Chinese Christians in Mainland China shows that it is of paramount importance, first, to develop the rule of law and to constrain the administrative power of the state. It may then be able to legally guarantee and effectively protect the civil rights of religious freedom, and to develop a healthier relation between the state and religions, especially Christianity, in contemporary China.

An extract of the author’s presentation in the conference of “Religion-State Relationship in the Chinese Context” in 2016), published in the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies News, Autumn 2016.

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