Acton Institute Powerblog

Meet the two Chinese Christians Donald Trump compared to Thomas Becket

Cardinal Joseph Zen joins 13,000 others in a march for Hong Kong’s freedom on April 28, 2019. (Photo credit: etan liam. CC BY-ND 2.0.)

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump rendered a tremendous service to the advancement of global religious liberty: He reminded people of the legacy of Thomas Becket, and he named the sainted martyr’s modern-day successors-in-the-spirit. The same battle for dominance between the flesh and the spirit still rages eight centuries later, merely changing venue from England to China.

In a beautifully written document on the 850th anniversary of Becket’s murder, President Trump recounted the life and ministry of the archbishop of Canterbury. King Henry II attempted to subject the Roman Catholic Church to his own law by placing Becket on the episcopal throne, assuming he would prove as pliable on the cathedra as he had in private life. At first, Becket refused to allow the crown to strip clergymen who had broken the law – the so-called “criminous clerks” – of their right to be tried according to ecclesiastical law. Unlike some of his successors, Becket had no interest in letting malefactors get off easy; he recognized that a king who could substitute his discipline for that of the Church could also substitute his doctrine for that of the Church. That encroachment had to be repulsed at all costs, including his life.

Becket would not, however, subject others to martyrdom. After having his fellow prelates drop their opposition to the proposals outlined in the Constitutions of Clarendon – thus, drawing all of the king’s ire on himself – he fled in exile to France. He later returned to his throne in Canterbury and advised the king in writing, “We are ready faithfully and devotedly with all our strength to serve you as our dearest lord and king with all our strength in whatsoever we are able, saving the honor of God and of the Roman Church.” King Henry II would one day erupt, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights, led by Reginald Fitz-Urse, stabbed Becket to death while trying to drag him from his church. The martyr’s dying words were said to be, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.”

President Trump summarized the centuries-long impact Becket’s death had on the cause of religious liberty and conscience rights:

Thomas Becket’s martyrdom changed the course of history. It eventually brought about numerous constitutional limitations on the power of the state over the Church across the West. In England, Becket’s murder led to the Magna Carta’s declaration 45 years later that: “[T]he English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.”

When the Archbishop refused to allow the King to interfere in the affairs of the Church, Thomas Becket stood at the intersection of church and state. That stand, after centuries of state-sponsored religious oppression and religious wars throughout Europe, eventually led to the establishment of religious liberty in the New World. It is because of great men like Thomas Becket that the first American President George Washington could proclaim more than 600 years later that, in the United States, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship” and that “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

Thomas Becket’s death serves as a powerful and timeless reminder to every American that our freedom from religious persecution is not a mere luxury or accident of history, but rather an essential element of our liberty. It is our priceless treasure and inheritance. And it was bought with the blood of martyrs.

President Trump recounted how he has put religious liberty at the heart of his foreign policy. “We have directed every [a]mbassador – and the over 13,000 United States Foreign Service officers and specialists – in more than 195 countries to promote, defend, and support religious freedom as a central pillar of American diplomacy,” he wrote. The administration applied the same consideration to domestic religious freedom. While every federal agency has long had offices securing, e.g., civil rights, “not every agency, until now, had a religious freedom office,” said Roger Severino, who oversees civil rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, just last month. The Justice Department has also supported churches that sued state governments for the right to hold in-person worship services.

Perhaps the proclamation’s most moving passage came when it turned to the twenty-first century, naming two contemporary confessors, both subject to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party: “We pray for religious believers everywhere who suffer persecution for their faith. We especially pray for their brave and inspiring shepherds – like Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu – who are tireless witnesses to hope.”

Pastor Wang Yi led the Early Rain Covenant Church, a house church movement that refused to adulterate the Gospel with Communist teachings. For his insubordination, the Chinese government sentenced him last December to nine years in prison on flimsy charges of “subversion of state power and illegal business operations.” While he reports that some putative Christian pastors are “openly holding idolatrous worship gatherings or ceremonies in churches, such as the raising of the national flag, singing of Communist Revolutionary songs or secular music, public reading of [a] political leader’s statements, etc.,” his only message is the eternal truth that Jesus Christ has freed the human race from the bondage of sin. As long as Xi Jinping’s Communist government demands that Christians erase the First Commandment to “have no other gods,” replace the Ten Commandments with socialist propaganda, and remove pictures of Jesus from their living rooms or lose their government pensions, he will not comply.

“Christ’s great commission requires of us great disobedience,” Pastor Wang wrote. “The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.”

The Chinese Communists find themselves intimidated in part by the boldness of his indictment. He declares:

[T]he Church should not be discriminated, monitored, or limited solely for religious reasons. For the Church’s freedom of religion to proclaim the Gospel and worship our God is given to us by Christ Himself. Any infringement or stripping of such freedom are evil acts of the antichrist, and will not be spared from the fury of hell fire and God’s righteous anger.

Beijing finds itself all the more on the defensive, because the pastor does not merely apply these rights to an ecclesiastical body but to each individual, exposing the anthropological fallacies of Marxism. “Only God (and His words) is Lord over a person’s conscience,” he wrote. “Because of this, every person can have and enjoy the freedoms and responsibilities of his conscience. Every person should use his conscience to examine and judge all the authorities, ideas, and mandates from the state, social institutions, or families, based on God and His words.” For a country that teaches that Jesus Christ stoned a woman to death in order to preserve the inviolability of the Chinese Communist Party’s right to inflict the death penalty, any reference to a Higher Power poses an existential threat.

“[T]he Communist regime is filled with fear at a church that is no longer afraid of it,” the pastor wrote. “I will resist in meekness those who resist God, and I will joyfully violate all laws that violate God’s laws.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong who will turn 89 next month, offers the complement to Pastor Wang’s argument: The Communist regime is not afraid of a church that courts its favor and allows it a say in appointing bishops. The agreement that Pope Francis hammered out with the CCP, and which the two parties renewed this fall, tolerates the very conditions China’s orthodox Catholics protested unto the death. “The brothers and sisters of mainland China are not afraid of being reduced to poverty, of being put into prison, of shedding their blood. Their greatest suffering is to see themselves betrayed by ‘family,’” Cardinal Zen wrote in February 2018.

The Catholic cardinal and the Protestant pastor have been welded into one body of Christ in the ecumenical crucible of persecution. “We can no more freely announce the Gospel values” in Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen said. He added that “Vatican authorities” told his successor, Cardinal John Tong Hon, to quietly acquiesce to Chinese directives.

Yet Pope Francis remains silent on the systemic repression of faithful Catholics, much less “other sheep” of every religious background. “With all the persecution increasing in China, with all the cruelties, the brutalities of the police on our young people – no word from the Vatican,” said Cardinal Zen. “Not one word.”

Some already speculate this will harm the evangelism already well underway in China. After the CCP’s inevitable fall, “China will be the greatest field of Christian mission in centuries,” predicts George Weigel. “A Catholicism identified with the old, despised regime will be at a serious evangelical disadvantage in post-communist China: not least because it will be seen to have failed Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Joseph Zen, and so many other noble and courageous confessors of the faith.”

Indeed, it appears to be losing its charm with some of its current adherents. “We really feel that we are at the bottom of the pit now,” said Cardinal Zen. “God must be with us and will make His way.”

Why should he feel any differently, when he receives greater support from the sitting U.S. president than he does from the man he believes sits in St. Peter’s chair?

President Trump filled the void of global leadership, demanding that Beijing proclaim liberty to the captives and set at liberty those who are oppressed. “To honor Thomas Becket’s memory, the crimes against people of faith must stop, prisoners of conscience must be released, laws restricting freedom of religion and belief must be repealed, and the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed must be protected,” he wrote.

In a backhanded reference to the atheism that socialism promotes, Trump wrote: “A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure – because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the grace of God.” Indeed, as Jean-Paul Sartre noted, there is no “heaven of ideas” in which amorphous “universal values” of liberty, honor, and compassion assert themselves as self-evidently true rather than repression, exploitation, and the will-to-power. His words apply equally to the United States, which sees a surging agnosticism displacing its increasingly sclerotic, impotent, and decimated faith as swiftly and certainly as China aims to displace the U.S. as the world’s leading economic superpower.

In time, both our nations will answer for the way we respected or disregarded the religious liberty of all our citizens, a right long upheld by Christian theology. On that day, every would-be persecutor of the brethren will utter the last words attributed to the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate (331-363): Vicisti, Galilaee  – “You have conquered, O Galilean.”

President Trump’s full proclamation is below:

Proclamation on 850th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket

Issued on: December 28, 2020

Today is the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket on December 29, 1170. Thomas Becket was a statesman, a scholar, a chancellor, a priest, an archbishop, and a lion of religious liberty.

Before the Magna Carta was drafted, before the right to free exercise of religion was enshrined as America’s first freedom in our glorious Constitution, Thomas gave his life so that, as he said, “the Church will attain liberty and peace.”

The son of a London sheriff and once described as “a low‑born clerk” by the King who had him killed, Thomas Becket rose to become the leader of the church in England. When the crown attempted to encroach upon the affairs of the house of God through the Constitutions of Clarendon, Thomas refused to sign the offending document. When the furious King Henry II threatened to hold him in contempt of royal authority and questioned why this “poor and humble” priest would dare defy him, Archbishop Becket responded “God is the supreme ruler, above Kings” and “we ought to obey God rather than men.”

Because Thomas would not assent to rendering the church subservient to the state, he was forced to forfeit all his property and flee his own country. Years later, after the intervention of the Pope, Becket was allowed to return — and continued to resist the King’s oppressive interferences into the life of the church. Finally, the King had enough of Thomas Becket’s stalwart defense of religious faith and reportedly exclaimed in consternation: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The King’s knights responded and rode to Canterbury Cathedral to deliver Thomas Becket an ultimatum: give in to the King’s demands or die. Thomas’s reply echoes around the world and across the ages. His last words on this earth were these: “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” Dressed in holy robes, Thomas was cut down where he stood inside the walls of his own church.

Thomas Becket’s martyrdom changed the course of history. It eventually brought about numerous constitutional limitations on the power of the state over the Church across the West. In England, Becket’s murder led to the Magna Carta’s declaration 45 years later that: “[T]he English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.”

When the Archbishop refused to allow the King to interfere in the affairs of the Church, Thomas Becket stood at the intersection of church and state. That stand, after centuries of state-sponsored religious oppression and religious wars throughout Europe, eventually led to the establishment of religious liberty in the New World. It is because of great men like Thomas Becket that the first American President George Washington could proclaim more than 600 years later that, in the United States, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship” and that “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

Thomas Becket’s death serves as a powerful and timeless reminder to every American that our freedom from religious persecution is not a mere luxury or accident of history, but rather an essential element of our liberty. It is our priceless treasure and inheritance. And it was bought with the blood of martyrs.

As Americans, we were first united by our belief that “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” and that defending liberty is more important than life itself. If we are to continue to be the land of the free, no government official, no governor, no bureaucrat, no judge, and no legislator must be allowed to decree what is orthodox in matters of religion or to require religious believers to violate their consciences. No right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions. As I declared in Krasiński Square in Warsaw, Poland on July 6, 2017, the people of America and the people of the world still cry out: “We want God.”

On this day, we celebrate and revere Thomas Becket’s courageous stand for religious liberty and we reaffirm our call to end religious persecution worldwide. In my historic address to the United Nations last year, I made clear that America stands with believers in every country who ask only for the freedom to live according to the faith that is within their own hearts. I also stated that global bureaucrats have absolutely no business attacking the sovereignty of nations that wish to protect innocent life, reflecting the belief held by the United States and many other countries that every child — born and unborn — is a sacred gift from God. Earlier this year, I signed an Executive Order to prioritize religious freedom as a core dimension of United States foreign policy. We have directed every Ambassador — and the over 13,000 United States Foreign Service officers and specialists — in more than 195 countries to promote, defend, and support religious freedom as a central pillar of American diplomacy.

We pray for religious believers everywhere who suffer persecution for their faith. We especially pray for their brave and inspiring shepherds — like Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu — who are tireless witnesses to hope.

To honor Thomas Becket’s memory, the crimes against people of faith must stop, prisoners of conscience must be released, laws restricting freedom of religion and belief must be repealed, and the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed must be protected. The tyranny and murder that shocked the conscience of the Middle Ages must never be allowed to happen again. As long as America stands, we will always defend religious liberty.

A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure — because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the grace of God.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim December 29, 2020, as the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket. I invite the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches and customary places of meeting with appropriate ceremonies in commemoration of the life and legacy of Thomas Becket.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-eighth day of December, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fifth.

DONALD J. TRUMP

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.