Protestant Work Ethic in China

Guest Blogger Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an On Faith panelist. … Continued

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.

About

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • justillthen

    Hello New-World,Though you sound certain of your perception, I am not nearly as convinced as you of the tenor of religious and political sentiment in China, nor her direction of religious or political consciousness. Indeed I would be more of the bent that the populace is moving inexorably toward more liberal, democratic and open ways. This seems clearly evident if the last few decades are taken into account. It only makes sense that the people would seek to embrace spiritual values and belief systems after decades of forced abstinence from same. The leadership may continue to seek to repress diverse cultural elements, but it cannot do so as easily as it once did. This is an aspect of the continuing evolution of Communist China into the 21st century. Though I would not predict a Christian China, (and certainly do not hope for one!), I expect an continuing progression of China out of their repressed Communist system.

  • ZZim

    Jeepers, what a hate-filled rant by New-World. I think it would be good for him to examine his preconceptions of what the world is like.Susan wrote an excellent article on current religiuos trends in China and New-World reacted with a violent emotional outburst when that information clashed with his preconceived notions of what China is like.Good article, Susan, thanks.

  • CGLarkin

    It might have been helpful if the author had explained exactly what “the Calvinist brand of Christianity” entailed that made it so supportive of the rise and triumph of capitalism.Unlike the Catholic tradition which emphasized the salvation of all humanity, Calvinists obsessed over the salvation of the SELF. In Calvinism material prosperity was designated as a sign of divine favor or “grace” in a world predestined from the beginning, by an arbitrary God, into a division between the “few” who would be saved and the “many” who would be damned for all eternity. Accumulated wealth became a “sign” of election!This essentially anti-Christian concept (for anyone familiar with the New Testament) certainly has made its historical mark: greed seems to have triumphed in our market economy — or at least what’s left of it…hardly something to wish on China — or anyone else!

  • HumanSimpleton

    “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.”Boy, is someone brainwashing those gullible Chinese!Which values of Protestant Christianity are these? The ones that were also present in plain commonsense?

  • new-world

    Sister This-that-what-ever,China is the Largest Atheist/Agnostic & biggest Secular Nation on Earth.It was Chinese Socialism born from Soviet Communism, of which they steadfastly still cherish and are and will be for a long long time to come (even after You and I die) , and that Christianity nor Islamiity did not give them prosperity as the 5th Richest Nation on Earth nor “Westernized” them.You are fibing or rather exagerating that China is on the road to being the Largest Christian and or the Largest up and coming Muslom Nation on this blesseth Earthly block.Organized Religion is “Poison” to most Chinese Communists. As an Example, even native chinese BuddhISM via the Dali Lama’s Monks movement there failed. So what makes you think that a violent Abrahamic Faith , much worse than buddhism, like IslamISM & ChristianISM will be the next religious Fad or holy Vogue there?Miss, I’m not a Communist but I, sure as Jim Beam, agree that most “Religion” as we know them Spoils Everything” and CalvinISM or MuhammadISM in China is not Welcome in their unique ModernISM. Includes rich Communist Russia too.So Do not “Project” Middle-Eastern nor Western Religions onto those conceted diehard Communists. They have Religion and its called SecularISM. So Islamism & Christianism cannot shine their Shoes nor touch them with a 10 meter carrot or stick? Sorry!

  • spidermean2

    This is good news for China for it means that when Doomsday comes, it won’t be destroyed as much as the evolutionist liberal gay-marrying North-Eastern States in America. “His own wickedness shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be HOLDEN with the cords of his sins”. (Proverbs 5:22)It means stupidity is self destructive. It also shows why countries influenced by atheism (communism) and false religions like Catholicism and Islam are chained in poverty and dictatorship. Just compare China 40 years ago when all people wear the same shirts and travel by bikes at the peak of their communism stupidity. During the cultural revolution, they almost self-destruct.

  • Dermitt

    That economist said, China? They send us defective products and we send them worthless paper. At least we have the Washington Post and valuable paper. You gotta keep killing trees to prevent forest fires. We can make chainsaws up there in Detroit next. Gotta jet now! Keep the Faith and keep the kids safe.

  • new-world

    Hello JUSTTILLTHEN,On this Blesseth Planet There are the ‘haves’ and the ‘not-haves’ and there are those that have-Religion and those “People” who have No-Religion.But niether of these (religionists or not) create “Material-wealth” for themsleves. Ofcourse when one dies that all material things are trivial except Loved-Ones in memorium during our last and final thought process.Yet Man-Made MaterialISM as if Reality, as We see and know it, is in a SYSTEM of things. Its called Economics. And this insinuates ones propensity to spend and or buy with the ability to “CHOOSE” or make a “CHOICE” within such a System; example, to Abort or not to abort a developed zygote? Note: In Quasi Socialist/Communist China system there is a Two-Child Limit per family (married or not?). Ironicaly In Quasi Socialist/Communist Russia they have a Shortage or dearth of Birth-rates. But Economics (Advanced, getting there or not) still has a major role for its citizinary [to Choose]. The Miraculous State of Israel is “Modern’ not because of the “Abrahamic Jew-ish” religion but on KUBUTTZIM (SOCIALIST Communitys), not so much Communism.Today America is borrowing some forms of the “Socialist” Model just as England and others adopt or incorporate it, in some degree, in their Secular Governmental/Community Systems. But for Czarist-Peasant Russia & Feudal Opium using China the “COMMUNISM” experiment (Stalinism via Dialectical Materialism) acsually Saved Them “Peasants’ and “Opium” users, PROGRESSIVELY contributed alot to todays Modern Space-Age Economies of Scale. The Factors of (their) Production eventually forced them to come back down to Earth via CAPITALISM, not it’s competing Religions. Yes, “Time” is the best medicine. But what is good for the goose is not kosher for the gander. One mans poison is anothers mans medicine. Like FREEDOM; Communism or Socialism or Capitalism depends on how a System can handle it. And Timing and Luck? is a big thing. Even though man cannot live by bread alone nor by religion alone, Humanity is resilent and so is this Planet; with or without Humans. Remember, this world can go-on without Humans and their Religion or SYSTEMS!

  • new-world

    ZZIM,As history is our Jury, “ISLAMism” not Communism, especially via Sharia (personal god law)) via the man-made HADITH-MANIFESTO is more dangerous (Opium of The People like) than the “Communist Manifesto” itself!The Muslom/Islamic World claims to not like COMMUNISTS or mistrust their (godless)Secular-ISMs. Note: Todays RUSSIA claims itself to be a nation based on Eastern “Christianity” not Western. And the Iranianians now like them because they are officialy became the “People of the Books”.But today on this Modern-Planet if one was to remove or peel-back the real vail of Abrahamic-islam, that an ‘average Open-minded’ person will realize/awaken that they are the real COMMUNISTS or lets say, SCARE/THREAT on Earth.PS: The COLD-WAR is still alive and with Us! Call it TERRORISM, call it State Sponsored infiltration or Sabatage, call it Industrial Espionage. AndThis Blesseth United States needs to Keep-up the fight? The Commies are comming the commies are comming. Point: the MONROE DOCTRINE needs an Amendment; so This United State as we know it today, will in the not too distant Futur, United Itself all the way to Panama thus creating 100 States in All. And Imagine a Land, Sea and Ferry Bridge linking the state of ALASKA, (Russias old land; not Mrs. Palin) into Siberia Russia?Yes We can, Yes We Can!Have you read todays current Events, rantings?, starting since 1914?

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    John Calvin, eh? Via Weber, I would think.On the other hand, maybe they’ve just been up late watching preachers praising Jesus for their fourth Mercedes.Still, Susan, I wouldn’t hold out hope for a Christian China, just yet, since, as you say, Islam is exploding there, just as it is in Europe. According to Geman demographers, Germany will be Muslim within thirty years. Nothing can stop this; it cannot be reversed. (See Malthus.) The same is true for other European nations, would be true for the US were it not for its huge influx of Hispanic Catholics, who have high birth rates. But we’re trying to stop them from coming to this country, now, aren’t we?Tata, Calvin. It’s gonna be gettin’ lonlier among the elect, methinks.

  • markdf

    John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldridge are certainly coming from a secular and skeptical angle; seeing what the wind does but not believing in wind itself. Despite what some interviewees may indicate, it is doubtful that many Chinese are converting to Christianity for such mercenary motives as making more money. They, in fact, wouldn’t be Christians at all. Ascribing to Christianity’s higher code of ethics in order to earn more money would be contrary to those vary ethics. In addition, the price for joining an illegal house church as opposed to the state-sponsored churches is too high for the reward of the possibility of making a buck: imprisonment, torture. I have a gut feeling that David Aikman’s book Jesus in Beijing is probably a better assessment of the growth of Christianity in China.

  • Dermitt

    More money is better money. Social ambition is virtue. I still have a couple vices though. Gotta fly, so remember G20=waste of time and G150=saver of time! Time is money.

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