Acton Institute Powerblog

Christianity and Communism in China

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Kishore Jayabalan reported yesterday on the latest happenings with the Acton Institute’s office in Rome and the most recent installment of the Centesimus Annus Conference Series, “The Religious Dimension of Human Freedom.”

As Kishore notes, the conference took place within the context of the spate of media attention to the religious situation in China, especially with reference to the relations between Beijing and the Vatican.

Last month Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg wrote in The Australian about the increasing integration of religious identity into Chinese society. “Christianity and other religions previously viewed with intense suspicion by China’s communist authorities are increasingly considered potential social lubricants for China’s fast-transitioning economy,” he writes.

Gregg also observes that “increasing numbers of Communist Party members are reportedly embracing religion, even though this violates party policy.” But given the Marxist antipathy toward religion, how can this be?

As Gregg rightly points out, there is increasing recognition of the social benefits of religious belief…perhaps the Party leaders are seeing the usefulness of religion as a means of increasing social stability and productiveness. And, indeed, the Marxist view of religion as an “opiate” would fit well with a regime obsessed with social control.

But there’s another phenomenon that is facilitating this odd mix of Communism and Christianity. As Forum 18 reports, the radical secularization of religious belief into a hermetically-sealed private sphere provides assurance that religious beliefs won’t impact Party loyalty.

The report sounds a note of caution:

It would be hard to argue that the rising number of religious believers across China will never affect government policies. However, it would be wise not to assume that greater numbers of religious believers automatically lead to changes in government policy on religious freedom. One (or three) hundred million “individual” religious believers, unwilling to engage in direct dialogue and negotiation with – let alone to confront – the government, are not in themselves a collective force for positive political change for all of China’s citizens.

Indeed, a religion that restricts itself to a realm of authority subservient to and derivative of the state may fulfill the role that the Party desires, but it does not reflect the comprehensive symmetry of doctrine and practice, faith and love, that is at the core of Christianity.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • David

    For the last several years, I have been deeply involved with the church in China and in dialogue with officials at the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs, As a western Christian, I find religious liberty in China to be sorely lacking, but I am encouraged that the general trend of the Chinese goverment has been toward increasing religious liberty. I pray for this trend to continue. Prior to 1979, churches were not allowed to exist in China. Bibles could not be published or owned. No religion was recognized. Today, the churches are open, Bibles are widely and inexpensively availabe through churches, and I have even seen them “unofficially” for sale in such places as a shop in the airport in Beijing. Only one publisher, Amity Press, is allowed to produce Bibles, and the Bibles it produces are good, undoctored translations of the King James Version. Incidentally, the reason people are arrested for Bible distributing Bibles (for shame!) is almost always that they are not printed by the authorized press. In the same way, the Chinese government would arrest you for distibuting unauthorized cars in China. The only recognized religions Taoism, Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Christianity (yes, they distinguish between Catholicism and Christianity due to the shameful influence of nineteenth century Protestant missionaries who taught them that Catholics were not Christians!) The government remains totally paranoid about Falun Gong and other such sectarian groups. Certainly, religious liberty in China does not exist in the way that it does in the United States, but neither is it as restricted as most Americans think. Our image is still of the 1960s.