Although the US general election is more than a year away, things are already heating up on the campaign trail. Battle lines have been clearly drawn. On a wide range of issues, the differences between the opposing sides could not be starker.
Yet in today’s deeply polarized political environment, there is one issue that seems to engender nearly unanimous agreement. Whether on the right or left, in red states or blue, China is the great unifier. Campaign rhetoric about China may range from dismissive to disdainful to fear-mongering and alarmist, but it is decidedly negative. We may not agree on anything else, but most will agree that China is a problem, as reflected in the most recent Pew Research poll on US attitudes toward China, revealing 83 percent of Americans have unfavorable views toward China, up from 73 percent in 2020.1
Evangelical attitudes on China tend to track with those of the larger population, so it is not surprising that evangelical China stories often mirror the anti-China rhetoric that is so prevalent on the campaign trail. Politicians seeking to appeal to evangelical voters, or evangelical leaders themselves, invoke the name of the Chinese church to bolster their case against China or, in many cases, to support a domestic policy position that has nothing to do with China at all.
Within the broader world of politics, this instrumentalization of religion is a common device in the rhetorical toolkit. International relations scholar Owen Frazer writes:
“In a political context, when people talk about someone ‘instrumentalizing religion’ they typically mean that the person is using religion for their own political ends. Usually it is about mobilizing supporters in order to obtain political objectives or political power. This can be through general appeals to identity, or appeals to religious teachings, or a combination of the two. Sometimes these appeals are positive in tone (‘support me and I will stand up for the interests of our identity group’, ‘support this policy because it is in line with what our holy book says’). More often politicians are accused of playing on fears of the religious ‘other’ (‘our way of life is under threat’, ‘their religion encourages the use of violence’), often to distract from other problems that they cannot, or may not want to address.”2
Instrumentalization of China’s church can take many forms. Chinese Christians who dare to speak out against their government are hailed as heroes in the global fight against tyranny. Playing upon feelings of disenfranchisement and resentment, politicians and pundits draw parallels between the plight of Chinese believers, portrayed as helpless victims, and that of their own constituents. Stories of persecuted Christians stoke fears of perceived threats to religious liberty at home. Opponents who are “soft” on China are somehow complicit in the suffering of the Chinese church. By extension, voting for such people or supporting their policies is tantamount to betraying the Christians in China.
Religious liberty scholars Knox Thames and Peter Mandaville caution specifically against conflating domestic religious freedom concerns with the plight of persecuted Christians overseas. “Although debates about religious freedom stir strong views and passions at home,” they write, offenses against believers abroad “are usually much more severe and frequently involve violent conflict, mass atrocities, and even genocide.”3
Some of the rhetoric about the church in China may be motivated by a genuine concern, which is shared by sympathetic Christian audiences. Too often, however, this kind of language betrays a callous willingness to appropriate as political props groups that have no real stake in the matters at hand. These China stories come across as disingenuous, aimed at furthering a political agenda rather than illuminating the true situation of Chinese Christians.
Again quoting Frazer, “Understanding who is seen as having the legitimacy to make religious references in contexts where religion has power in politics, is important.”4
In the current context, public figures with the proper evangelical credentials may have legitimacy in the eyes of their Christian constituents. But this does not give them the right to speak on behalf of Christians halfway around the world who have no say in how their words are being quoted or their stories are being told. Nor is it appropriate to offer the experiences of one group of Christians in China, which happens to bolster a given political position, as representative of the entire Chinese church.
Frazer and co-author Jean-Nicolas Bitter urge that, to be legitimate, “this kind of ‘use’ of religion and religious actors should be based on a consensual dialogue with religious actors and legitimate interpreters of the religion, bearing in mind the importance of engaging with a variety of voices within a religious tradition. Actions must be jointly agreed…. The goal must therefore be one that is shared, and the approach one that is jointly designed.”5
Absent this consensual dialogue, dragging China’s church into the fray of Western political discourse only further obscures the voices of Chinese Christians at a time when true communication between East and West is urgently needed.
Unless the current trend changes – and there is little reason to expect that it will – unfavorable US attitudes toward China a year from now will likely be at or even above today’s record levels, fueled by fiery stump speeches and one-dimensional portrayals of China’s church. This trend does not bode well for enhanced understanding between believers in our two countries. Yet for those willing to engage, China’s prominence in the national debate presents an opportunity to reframe the conversation within the much larger story of God’s work in and through his church in China, providing thoughtful reflection on the very real issues shaping the debate while making space for the voices of Chinese believers to be heard.
- Laura Silver, Sneha Gubulla, and Jordan Lipert, “Americans see both Russia and China in a negative light – but more call Russia an enemy,” Pew Research Center, May 10, 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/05/10/americans-see-both-russia-and-china-in-a-negative-light-but-more-call-russia-an-enemy/. Accessed September 19, 2023.
Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries,” Pew Research Center, October 6, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/. Accessed September 19, 2023.
- “What Does it Really Mean to ‘Instrumentalize Religion?’ An Interview with Owen Frazer,” Religion and Diplomacy, June 25, 2020, https://religionanddiplomacy.org/2020/06/25/what-does-it-really-mean-to-instrumentalize-religion-an-interview-with-owen-frazer/. Accessed September 19, 2023.
- Knox Thames and Peter Mandaville, “Maintaining International Religious Freedom as a Tenet of US National Security,” Special Report No. 513 (October 2022), 11, https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2022-11/sr_513_international-religious-freedom-us-national-security.pdf. Accessed September 19, 2023.
- Jean-Nicolas Bitter and Owen Frazer, “The Instrumentalization of Religion in Conflict,” Policy Perspectives, Vol. 8, No. 5 (June 2020), https://css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/pdfs/PP8-5_2020-EN.pdf. Accessed September 19, 2023..
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Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio
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