The “Red White and Blue,” the Black, and the Gray Religious Markets

An Iranian pastor arrested in 2009 was convicted of “apostasy” for turning from Islam to Christianity. He was sentenced to death because he would not recant his faith, and he may already have been executed before you read this blog. In Afghanistan, NATO forces burned some library books from a detention center because they contained hand written extremist notes. They were trying to prevent Taliban extremists from communicating to incite violence during their detention, but unfortunately some of the burned books were copies of the Quran. This mistake so offended the Afghan people that 4 Americans have already been killed, and possibly more by the time you read this blog, despite an official apology by the president of the United States.

It’s easy to forget that not all nations allow religious freedom. America is a free marketplace of religious ideas, and consequently is very religiously pluralistic and politically secular. In contrast, the majority of countries on earth are what Fenggang Yang calls religious oligopolies (in which specific religions are legal or preferred by the state) or monopolies (in which only one religion is privileged or “official”). Dr. Yang’s recent insightful book “Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule” (2012; Oxford University Press) details some of the surprising fallout of religious oppression in China, and advances a theory to account for what he (and others) observed.

First, most early theories in the sociology of religion assumed that “supply” drove “demand,” so that a reduction in religious offerings would result in lower religious vitality in secular nations. Thus, the “secularization hypothesis” argues that religion will decline in modern nations. This is supposed to account for the very low levels of religious activity in Western Europe. However, this did not happen during the modernization of America or China. America apparently has more religious vitality than ever, despite an increasingly secular public square. China outlawed religion completely from 1966-1976 during the Cultural Revolution, all in the service of promoting an explicitly atheist Marxist state. However, religion would not go away. After the expulsion of all western missionaries and the closing of all churches, somehow Christianity grew from a small group to about 100 million people in China today. Some optimistically argue that there will be 300 million Chinese Christians in 30 years. What happened? Apparently demand for religion cannot be suppressed, and even the most severe shortage of supply for religious information and expression does not eliminate demand, which leads to the second point.

Yang describes “the Red, the black, and the grey” markets for religion to advance a theory of what happens to religious faith when the state regulates religion. The Red market is the context for officially state-sanctioned religions, which are legal but understandably tainted by the state’s agenda. For example, duly ordained (by the state) ministers in China must officially teach their flock to love the state (i.e., communist party) and God—in that order. This can be distasteful, which leads to an expansion of the black (illegal) and grey (semi-legal) markets. During the Cultural Revolution, the personality cult worshipping chairman Mao flourished, because it was the only legal form of “religion,” even though it looks like a perversion of religious faith. After the Cultural Revolution, more religions are legal, but there are strict controls. Thus, the black and grey market expanded. The black market would include illegal house churches and the grey market would include a “legal” minister engaging in illegal practices like proselytizing outside of church property and baptizing people who do not have a state-approved application for baptism.

I’ll skip the predictions and nuances of the theory (read the book!) to get to some implications. First, it is incredible that Christianity flourished in China under heavy regulation by the state. I hope that there are lessons America can learn from China, as most churches in America struggle to grow, despite high levels of religious vitality in this country. Second, although America does not have much of a Red market for religion, I’d like to suggest that we have a “Red White and Blue” market for religion. By this I mean that the state and culture exert negative influences on “officially sanctioned” religious faith. The Red market metaphor is supposed to mean that legal religions allowed by the state become polluted by the state’s agenda. In China, where religion is highly regulated, the effects are clear. For example, it would be wise for a Chinese minister to allow his or her theology to absorb the teaching that a Communist society is a utopian ideal shared by both the state and the religion.

Religion is not as regulated in America, so by Red White and Blue market I mean that Christian groups in America are under more subtle pressure to accept our culture’s definition of “respectable.” That is, churches must own property, hire paid professionals to do the work, engage in sedate worship services, accept the ideals of materialism and radical individualism, refrain from proselytizing (e.g., in the high schools, on the university campus), and denounce unpopular truth claims. For example, to join the Campus Ministers Organization (CMO) at a university you must sign a pledge not to derogate other religious groups, however heretical they may be according to your theology. You do not have to join the CMO, but you want to so that you can park and have an ID and otherwise avoid harassment by the university while on campus. However, Christian teaching will necessarily critique the teachings of other religions like Islam, Mormonism, and Buddhism. This puts the minister in the Gray market, as certain aspects of their exercise of religion would be frowned upon by the administration.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, the gray market expands when the state regulates religion. To the extent that the state and our culture persecute Christianity, this is quite conducive to authentic Christianity. So, if Fenggang Yang is correct, I hope that we can learn to embrace the gray market in America. Some evangelicals view the rapid growth of the house church movement in China with great admiration and envy. If the Red market can pour fuel on the black and grey markets in China, can we find a way to learn from China in the Red White and Blue market of America?

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