Re-Thinking Religion as Social and Cultural Capital

We need to understand, and gear our policy to, the PRC’S outdated and unpopular framework for religious policy, and the internal debate about it since 1987-88 attempt to draft a religion law.

I. The PRC’s Outdated and Unpopular Framework for Religious Policy

Roots in 1950s Stalin model -- zero-sum “struggle” between competing political ideologies – Stalinist constitution, laws and governing structure still very evident.

  • United Front system……Party control over non-communist “bourgeois” social organizations;
    • “religion & minority nationalities” in same bureau/section (i.e. rights for historical religious minority communities, not for all)
    • “intells,” i.e. democrats; O.C.; (& orig’y HK/T policy); and business associations/entrepreneurs
  • Post-Mao moderate reform, early 1980s, from viewing religion as dangerous and counter-revolutionary “bourgeois ideology“ of the enemy classes, and thus to be eradicated in favor of socialism’s official faith -- “materialistic atheism,” to viewing religious freedom as a temporary concession to minority social groups during the “initial stage” of socialism, until economic development and scientific education gradually does away with “unscientific” superstition and religion – according to the “modernization paradigm” defining one element of “modernization” as “secularization” (vs. new theories of modernization as “pluralization”).
  • Freedom of religious belief in a narrow private sphere of the home and family, greatly restricted from public life by intrusive party-state definitions, regulations and monitoring…no freedom of association or expression of religion outside authorized monopoly agencies, the five so-called “patriotic” religious associations, viewed as social organizations serving members only. (e.g. only ONE Protestant national magazine and ONE national publishing house -- test case of 3 yr sentence for printing X’n lit. in Beijing )
  • Residual treatment of religion as political ideology evident in defining unauthorized religious or spiritual groups as “heterodoxy” – outside state-mandated official orthodoxy – “scientific” atheism as part of natioanl identity.
  • post-9/11 resurgence of fear of religion as the basis for political separatism AND a new wave of democratic revolution.
  • PRC has painted itself into a corner on religious policy and regulations – can’t move forward to meet (a) reality of changing society, and (b) international norms, without re-vising the Constitution and changing to rule of law.

II. Our Outdated Paradigm for IRF Policy

First, I would note my great appreciation for the hard work, and excellent work, of all those who produce the annual govt. reports and recommendations on religious rights (DOS, CECC, CIRF), and write the talking points for exchanges, and work on tough cases. They deserve much more support, recognition and praise. So my ff’g comments are in the spirit of ideas for continuing the pattern of steady improvement:We have to make sure our own IRF policy doesn’t inadvertently shore up the PRC approach, and there are still some blind spots that ironically are akin in some ways to the PRC paradigm.

  • Viewing religion primarily in the narrow framework of human rights, with an emphasis on political rights, reinforces the PRC view of religion as political ideology.
  • Implicitly accepting the same modernization paradigm, by
    • Highlighting the secular values and process of political democratization as our primary goal
    • Post-9/ll resurgence of fear in U.S. of religion as a source of anti-modern, radical and dangerously anti-social behavior….religion as a “problem.”
    • Which has reinforced a tendency to raise the right of religion and belief with the PRC mainly in the context of ethnic minority rights rather than as rights of the whole Chinese population [e.g. CECC annual report sub-heads “Human Rights for Chinese Citizens” and “Religious Freedom for China’s Faithful” (corrected in first sentence, but then again crops up in last sentence “help Chinese believers – vs. all citizens – to understand their rights etc.)
  • Implicitly taking as our primary “constituents” Chinese religious believers (via their assumed spokesmen, religious rights advocates outside China), while neglecting the views and interests of the much larger number of U.S. citizens engaged in religious or faith-based projects in China. This would be the equivalent of going to Chinese businessmen for advice on our trade and investment policy, ignoring U.S. business interests!

Results of this include:1. Confusing the views/interests of “religious rights activists” and their networks (political-legal redress) with the much broader interests/networks of non-oppositional “religious activists – promoting their religion in multiple ways” and;2. To reinforce a black and white “good guys/bad guys” image of polarized religious groups in China, missing the growing complexity of the middle ground under the impact of globalization (econ-soc-cultural-religious pluralization) - and the resulting new opportunities to promote change.

III. Re-Thinking Religion as Social and Cultural Capital

In recent years, as I have been trying to understand and explain religion and religious freedom issues in China, I have found it very important to place religious practice within its broader social and cultural contexts. And this helps illuminate some very important trends on the ground in China that we need to be aware of, but tend to miss otherwise.

  • Religion as “Social Capital” Valuable for Socio-economic Development.
    • Growing awareness in China of the contribution religious groups can make to economic and social development….by local government officials, especially those in economic and civil affairs, as well as some central policy advisors, experts on social issues and the NGO community.
    • Faith-based organizations, both Chinese and international, that support anti-poverty and charitable work are becoming an accepted part of the NGO sector
    • Even some religious affairs officials and researchers are picking up on this more positive aspect of religion, and are encouraging both faith-based NGOs and even religious organizations to get involved in providing social services and mediating conflict between religious groups (e.g. CCC Social Services Dept.)
    • potential contribution to Conflict Resolution
  • Cultural and Moral Development.
    • 1990s shift in Modernization Paradigm to consider religion a normal and lasting aspect of any culture or civilization, which has allowed Chinese academic institutions to develop religious studies in departments of history, literature, philosophy and lately, also sociology. Over 40 centers or institutes for the study of various religions have been developed in the major universities; a prof. at Purdue has begn an important summer training program at People’s U. in the scientific study of religion.
    • post-2000 expansion of religious topics in literature and popular mass media, adult ed. or distance learning courses in ethics and philosophy, which include some study of religion, such as for entrepreneurs, or even in public education.
    • public interest in what religion can contribute to solving China’s social conflicts and inspiring altruism, volunteering, and philanthropy, as well as Moral Renewal more broadly.

Caveat: This paradigm, too, is limited in its usefulness. Clearly it adopts a reductionist and instrumentalist attitude that would be unacceptable to religious adherents.

  • Beware supporting the “two-pronged” Ch. govt. effort to encourage religious organizations to focus on ethics of social service RATHER than, not in addition to, religious worship, teaching, and spreading their faith.
  • There is a danger of ignoring the spiritual meaning and purpose of religious activities for individuals, families and communities with a focus on what is “useful” for the purposes of the country in question OR for us.

Some Implications for IRF Policy

(see also my Task Force Report)

  • adopt a non-adversarial mutual problem-solving approach to complement media monitoring and advocacy through diplomacy
  • expend efforts to understand and work with US business and civic-religious circles on the issue, e.g. why not fund training of U.S. media and NGOs and businesses so that THEY can better incorporate legal education on IRF issues in their regular work among their peers (more effective and less sensitivity)
  • create regional Asian institutions & models through which to work
  • promote indirect international and Nongov’l vs. direct USG initiatives
  • ****My latest idea: e.g. assist PRC to create an experimental “pilot” program for new mechanisms for managing religious affairs via law – Zhejiang or Guangdong/Shenzhen (easiest) and/or Henan (hardest…and yet central govt. might want help there, given HIV/AIDs problem). Provide technical advice/monitoring provided through UN religious rapporteur? other agency? or work through the Carter Center or some INGO? Positive results could reshape international opinion, become a model for other provinces and a “laboratory” for central policies.
Briefing NotesJason Truell