Guest Blogger Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an On Faith panelist.
This week, President Obama opened up a two-day meeting in Washington between U.S. and Chinese officials with a speech that included a quotation from one of the most famous Chinese Confucian philosophers. “Thousands of years ago, the great philosopher Mencius said: ‘A trail through the mountains, if used, becomes a path in a short time, but, if unused, becomes blocked by grass in an equally short time.'” In other words, said President Obama, let’s make tracks in Chinese/American cooperation.
Mencius was a good choice for this conference that is focused on economic cooperation between China and the U.S. Mencius believed that the duty of the ruler was to ensure the prosperity of the people–a big theme in Confucianism overall. But the economic trajectory of China today cannot be understood solely through Confucianism. If the President really wants to carve a new path in Chinese/American relationships, he should also have quoted John Calvin.
Calvin, the Reformation thinker so influential in Protestantism, is also a factor in Chinese economic growth. John Calvin’s thought is widely credited with influencing the rise of capitalism in the West, and many of China’s new economic class are finding a Calvinist brand of Christianity just the thing to combine with their own Confucian heritage in order to create the new China.
It may come as a surprise to many Americans, but Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, is experiencing a huge growth spurt in China. Even more astonishing is the reason many Chinese give for converting to Christianity. The Chinese perceive that the values of Protestant Christianity have been key to the economic development of the West. And they are explicit about it.
John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge, two economists, have written about the way competition among the world’s faiths is powerfully affecting the world. In their new book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, they begin with impressions and interviews of Chinese businesspeople, tech experts and other members of the new Chinese middle class in their Protestant faith groups. These are the people who are flocking to the small, primarily Protestant “house churches” in China.
In a gated community in Shanghai, “Wang,” a management consultant and lay host for a house church, sums up the biblical message for the day. “Countries with lots of Christians become more powerful. America grew strong because it was Christian. The more Christian China becomes, the mightier it will be. If you want China to be a truly prosperous country, you must spread the word to nonbelievers. If you are a patriotic Chinese, you have to be a Christian.”
The sheer numbers of Chinese dictate that the percentage of Calvin’s admirers in China is proportionally small. But it is significant that these are the thought leaders of China who are beginning to take a look at what John Calvin may have to offer them as they rev up their economy.
In his speech, the President referred to the suppression of religion in China. “Just as we respect China’s ancient and remarkable culture, its remarkable achievements, we also strongly believe that the religion and culture of all peoples must be respected and protected, and that all people should be free to speak their minds. And that includes ethnic and religious minorities in China, as surely as it includes minorities within the United States.”
And while it is true that Chinese law restricts religion, ironically the methods of restriction are actually a factor in the huge growth of religion. People in China who want to join a Protestant house church are forced to replicate almost a perfect growth model for this brand of Calvinist Christianity. The Chinese government has set an informal limit of 25 for these house churches, as they are “unauthorized” religious gatherings. Thus, when one gets too big, another one is planted. The early Christian church, suppressed by the Romans, grew exponentially in almost the exact same way.
But even with legal suppression, the economically patriotic Chinese middle-class is flocking to Christianity in greater and greater numbers. If the growth trajectory continues, China could well become the largest Christian nation in the world.
It is worth mentioning that Islam is exploding in China, and thus China is also on track to also become the largest Muslim nation in the world. This double track in the growth of faith in China should prove interesting (to say the least) both in terms of internal Chinese culture and politics, and in the external relations of China with the developed and the developing world.
The future of faith in China is a huge factor that the Obama Administration must not ignore as it pursues a new course in Chinese-American relations.