What would it mean in the USA if someone succeeded in persuading the public that, in order to protect religion, the government should regulate it? The government regulates historic sites, river water, and bald eagles, all in the name of protecting them. What would happen if citizens accepted the hypothesis that the government needs to regulate religion in order to protect it? What might that look like?
Christians have good reason to conduct this mind experiment, because if they ignore the problem, they may find themselves ensnared in it.
China is an example of a country where the government alleges to be protecting religion by regulating it. The history of religion in China is beyond the scope of this post, but the information is easily uncovered in a Google search. It is China’s current status with regard to religious freedom that is of interest.
In China, there are legal Christian churches, a legal Bible, legal seminaries, legal bishops, and so forth. The Chinese government does not agree with the assessment of foreigners that it is restricting religious freedom. The government protests that only entities with legal status can be effectively protected, because those entities have standing to go to court if they feel abused. Entities of any sort that are not legal have no standing in court. Hence, the government asserts that the regulation of churches (and mosques and temples and any other religious house of worship) is necessary for the good of the religions.
How does it work? In China, every house of worship must be registered. There is a regulation that determines what sort of house of worship can be registered, and when a house of worship has complied with that regulation, it is deemed to be under the protection of the government. For Christians, there are two high-level umbrella organizations under which religious regulations are administered, one for Catholics and one for Protestants. The regulations establish official seminaries, for which the government licenses the official teachers. There is a legal translation of the Bible, and one legal publisher which may print and distribute that translation through registered bookstores. Churches must be registered, and after some years of tribulation, the government agreed to register house churches as well as those in single-purpose buildings; many house churches, however, refuse to register because of the rules of compliance with registration. The regulations consist of seven chapters and 48 articles, a hefty volume of law for each church and church member to absorb and obey. (Read more at http://www.christiantoday.com/article/chinas.new.controversial.religious.law.comes.into.effect/2246.htm
Among the government regulations regarding religion is one that prohibits foreigners from proselytizing. Christians call it evangelism and Christians consider it the calling of every Christian to share the faith with everyone he encounters. Foreigners are forbidden, with rare exceptions, from evangelizing or attending house churches, let alone speaking in them, and recently an American couple visiting a house church in China was arrested by the Public Security Bureau. This is the organization in the Chinese government charged with protecting citizens and registered churches. The couple was charged with illegally attending worship in a registered house church, and it is still uncertain if they will simply be detained for a while or if they will possibly be deported for their illegal activity. They are ethnic Chinese with US passports, and they have spent the past seven years teaching the Bible and training church members in discipleship. They believed that their activities were legal, and the PSB has not accused them in that regard, only with illegal church attendance.
(Read more at http://www.persecutionblog.com/ . You will need to scroll down to September 14 post for this story.)
During the 2008 Olympics, the rumor was widely circulated that China confiscated Bibles brought in by Olympic athletes. China officially rejected that rumor, and there was never any confirmation of it in public announcements by the athletes. However, groups that came into China with large numbers of Bibles in their luggage did lose those Bibles if they were found. Chinese law allows Chinese Christians to read only one translation of the Bible, which must be printed by one publisher in China, and must be purchased at officially registered bookstores in China. Foreigners are forbidden to bring in and distribute other Bibles.
In the USA there is currently a major dispute about the place of religion in public life. It is taking shape in court cases surrounding the request of people of faith to exercise their faith in their daily lives according to their Christian principles. Not every Christian group asserts the same principles, and this difference is likely to figure in the trials ahead. The cases all hang on the HHS regulation which defines the religious entity that the government authorizes to act on conscience with regard to the health insurance coverage mandated for employers in the Affordable Care Act. That definition is exceedingly narrow, and that definition flies in the face of all Christian teaching that says that every Christian is expected to live by Christian principles in every part of his life. In other words, Christian teaching says that there is no such thing as a secular life and a sacred life for a Christian. In Christian teaching, every moment, every act, every word is sacred.
In the early days of the USA, Christian teaching was so commonly accepted by most members of the population that it was assumed people would live by their faith principles in daily life. Even people who were not Christians expected the Christian faith to flavor the culture. It is a new idea for Christians to confront a culture that wants freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. The Chinese government effectively isolates religion from the general population and controls it by complex and heavy-handed regulations. American Christians should learn from China’s history that it does not pay to casually accept the sacred/secular distinctions that grow out of secular thinking. If Christians “go along” with that idea in order to “get along” with secular thinkers, the day will come that Christians will necessarily “go along” the path to extinction by regulation.
What do you think Christians should do about this problem?