Letters from China: Rethinking Religion and the State

Essays

To begin with, if there has never been a clearly identifiable religion of the state – as in Europe – or if China was not established in reaction to such religions – as with the USA – then what does that mean for the traditional and defining terminological opposition of religion and state? The way in which the narrative of political theory has been bequeathed to us in the West moves from inseparable connection to radical rupture. Or, it may trace a constant conflict between temporal popes and European emperors, only to lead to the humiliation of the pope’s temporal claims. Or, it may argue that all theories of the state are really secularised theologies (Schmitt). Yet all of this presupposes a strong contest between two powerful entities, which move back and forth between identity and difference. In a situation where there has never been such a struggle between two powerful entities, let alone a sustained and close alignment of religion and the state, the relation itself cannot be thought in these terms.

A couple of days ago I asked some students about their response to visiting heads of state from other countries – USA, Australia, UK and so on – prattling on about human rights, freedom and democracy in China. They laughed!

‘We can see through it’, one said. ‘We’re not interested in bourgeois democracy, with its “freedom” for a select group’.

Another said, ‘And we find it hypocritical coming from places like the United States, which has one of the worst human rights records of all’.

I asked them about religious freedom, since the image portrayed in the West is that such freedom does not exist in China. One of them made a very astute point: China has never had a religion sponsored as the exclusive religion of the state. To be sure, an occasional emperor may have supported Buddhism, but then another would ban it for a while, thereby ensuring it never became dominant. All of which made me realise that the whole question of church and state, or, preferably, religion and the state, needs to be rethought in light of the Chinese experience. So I offer a few preliminary thoughts.

To begin with, if there has never been a clearly identifiable religion of the state – as in Europe – or if China was not established in reaction to such religions – as with the USA – then what does that mean for the traditional and defining terminological opposition of religion and state? The way in which the narrative of political theory has been bequeathed to us in the West moves from inseparable connection to radical rupture. Or, it may trace a constant conflict between temporal popes and European emperors, only to lead to the humiliation of the pope’s temporal claims. Or, it may argue that all theories of the state are really secularised theologies (Schmitt). Yet all of this presupposes a strong contest between two powerful entities, which move back and forth between identity and difference. In a situation where there has never been such a struggle between two powerful entities, let alone a sustained and close alignment of religion and the state, the relation itself cannot be thought in these terms.

Further, the reality of China has always been one of religious pluralism. Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and other identifiable religions have been here for centuries, yet not one has been dominant. Even Taoism has not enjoyed that position with the state. And the Chinese state realised well before the current reassessments of secularism that the state is always in a position of managing a variety of religions. It did not need Charles Taylor or Talal Asad to tell them that. So also today, with increasing religious diversity, the government engages in complex patterns of management of religious diversity and freedom. It has done so for a very long time, well before Western states happened upon the idea.

That means it does not delude itself with the fiction of a secular state as in the USA. As Marx already pointed out in his On the Jewish Question, ‘freedom of religion’ actually strengthens religion, for it assumes a religious basis to all of life. The same applies to property, for the ‘the political annulment of private property not only fails to abolish private property but even presupposes it’. No wonder, then, that in a state in which religion is supposed to have no place except in private, religion is more pervasive than ever. No wonder presidential wannabees hold prayer vigils. No wonder its currency has emblazoned across it, ‘In God we trust’. Is this perhaps the obverse of the separation of church and state, in which the bourgeois state believes it is freeing itself from religion but is ever more enslaved to it?

It may well be asked, what about religious freedom in China, especially by those espousing a liberal agenda? What about all those accounts of repression and persecution? China has not had a long history of religious persecution, for two reasons. First, since religion and the state have never been close, and since no one religion has ever been truly powerful, there has been no need for a systematic destruction of the power of religion.

The immediate objection to this point would be to mention the relatively brief period of the Cultural Revolution. The term itself has inescapably negative associations, due both to the agenda of the post Cultural Revolution government, which depicted it as a disaster, and through Western representations as a symbol of all that is wrong with communism. However, the period was far more complex than that, with sophisticated reassessments beginning here in China. I would suggest that we may see it in terms of a constant tension within communism: one element sees the revolution as a complete break with the past. All dimensions of that oppressive past need to be destroyed so that the new may emerge. During the Cultural Revolution, this approach came to dominate. And so, all cultural and religious manifestations of an undesirable past were attacked, often with violence and the imprisonment of clergy and monks. This repression was, however, one part of a broader effort to smash the vestiges of feudalism, which can never be a gentle process. Here the often anarchic and uncontrolled violence, in the hands of students and young people, played a role, along with Mao’s efforts to regain his position of authority. By contrast, another element of communist revolutions sees communism as the culmination and elevation to another level of all that is best in the past. Here continuity is preferred over against radical rupture. In this light, the cultural heritage becomes a positive, and one seeks dimensions (such as Confucianism, Taoism and even Christian communism, as I discussed in an earlier post) that provide the basis for communism.

All of which leads to the second point: the dominant approach to religion has been deeply influenced by the cultural patterns of Confucianism, which is inherently practical. One may therefore adhere to many religions, deploying them as seems useful, or observing none at all. The trick here is that Confucianism itself does not have a God or gods, focusing very much – for good or ill – on the realities of one this-worldly life. So also with religion.

As I mentioned at the beginning, these are very much preliminary and somewhat scattered thoughts. The reality is that the universal forms of thought the West has used to assess matters such as religion and the state suddenly become particularised and relativised. They turn out to be false universals, predicated on a limited particular, thereby generating an exclusive and singular universal. Of course, we need to avoid making the same move in the Chinese context.

Roland Boer is at the moment visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad, at Fudan University, Shanghai. His usual occupion is as research professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia – that is, when he is not voyaging by container ship or on long-haul bicycle tours. Among numerous publications, the most recent is Criticism of Theology: On Marxism and Theology III (2011).

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