Where is the Christian Left in Taiwan?

Christians in Taiwan must not mindlessly affiliate themselves with harmful movements that have pervaded historically moderate mainline denominations
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Gloria Hu
By

There has been much talk recently about a McDonald’s ad in Taiwan featuring a son revealing his sexual orientation to his father by writing a message to him on a McDonald’s coffee cup. Taiwan is often lauded for being a gay-friendly society: support for marriage equality is high, gays and lesbian soldiers can serve in the military, and incoming president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has affirmed her support for the LGBTQ+ community. However, there have also been protests like those recently organized by the Protect the Family Alliance, claiming that homosexuality is “immoral” and dangerous to society.

This incident is part of a larger movement in which ultraconservative groups (like the International House of Prayer, later mentioned) seek to foist their morality on others, on issues ranging from family structure to the content of school curricula and access to contraceptive measures. In the U.S., the enmeshment of political and religious interests has created a toxic, polarizing environment in which religious extremist groups have the ability to influence political discourse and policymaking. Although extreme churches often operate under the guise of being apolitical, nothing could be further from the truth. Worldwide, many of these groups actively support the persecution and criminalization of already marginalized groups [1] and proselytize these beliefs aggressively.

However, they are not the only voice of Christianity, which is good news for us all.

In this article, I discuss key differences across American Christian traditions, the rise of far-right movements, and the voice of the Christian left. Then, I discuss Christianity in Taiwan and call on its members to engage in the same dialogue that is being experienced by its American counterparts with regards to social justice issues as a whole.

Politico-religious cleavages in the United States

In the U.S., identifying as a “Christian” has virtually ceased to carry meaning; the spectrum of beliefs encompassed by various denominations is so wide that it is impossible to predict one’s political orientation, driving values, or core beliefs based on religious affiliation. Churches sharing the same denomination by name are often at odds in religious as well as political matters.

For example, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and American Baptist Church (ABC) generally have a more liberal theology and lean towards the political left. However, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Lutheran Missouri Synod, and Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have a more conservative theology and tend towards the political right. To alleviate confusion, academics often refer to more conservative, right-leaning churches as “evangelical,” and more liberal, left-leaning churches as “mainline.” Below, I explain two core evangelical beliefs and contrast them with mainline interpretations:

(1) Evangelicals believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Mainline church members believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, but are more likely to consider historical and cultural norms before applying it to today’s context.

(2) Evangelicals believe the only path to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ. Mainliners tend to believe that there are other ways for people to attain salvation, through other religions or moral codes.

Differing views of salvation translate quite neatly to the differing priorities of mainline and evangelical churches. If someone who has not heard the Gospel cannot be saved, this alone explains much of the dogmatic pressure for evangelicals to proselytize and convert new members. Globally, evangelicalism thrives because of its imperative to “save” the unchurched — to bring new believers to Christ. By contrast, mainline churches have in recent years focused on social justice issues, both internal (LGBTQ rights within the church, addressing the male-centric language used in normal religious discourse) and external to the church (the Israel-Palestine conflict, environmental preservation). The fissures of Christianity in the U.S. are ever expanding and becoming more apparent. As the most conservative of Christian denominations harden their stances against gay marriage, others move to ordain gay clergy and use more inclusive, context-sensitive language in their services. While women have served in leadership positions in multiple denominations for several decades, others continue to claim this is an unbiblical aberration from the word of God. Divorce. Abortion. Contraception. Grave sin or basic human right?

The church is not a monolith. Although the media tends to focus on bombastic Tea Party antics and conservative states’ deification of conservative demagogue Donald Trump, the landscape of Christianity in the U.S. is far from homogenous. Allowing fundamentalists to present themselves as the supermoral, uniquely Christian force appropriates the views of some to the voices of many.

Churches in America and the Silent Left?

Despite the relatively small percentage of Christians in Taiwan, the religion as a whole is culturally and politically visible. Missionaries from many different faith traditions have established a presence in Taiwan since the 1860s. Here I do not focus on their respective histories, but examine those with mainline counterparts in the U.S. For example, the PCT (Presbyterian Church of Taiwan) has ties to the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church USA). The Chinese Baptist Convention is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches (ABCUSA) through the Baptist World Alliance. The Taiwan Lutheran church is tied to the (liberal) Evangelical Lutheran Church in America through the Lutheran World Federation. All six denominations belong to the ecumenical World Council of Churches.

What is most important to note, however, is that fundamentalist movements are falling away from historic Christian denominations, not leading them. It is churches with the longest theological traditions that are showing themselves ready to embrace change and make amends for past injustices. Some noteworthy events:

(1) The World Baptist Alliance has drifted towards a more inclusive theology, shown by its acceptance of churches allowing the ordination of women and some accepting gay marriage. As a result, the Southern Baptist Convention moved to withdraw from the larger World Baptist Alliance in 2004, citing a “leftward drift” of the organization.

(2) In 2009, the ELCA voted to allow the ordination of gay clergy in monogamous, committed relationships. They also affirm the need for responsible sex education, with an eye towards pregnancy prevention through contraception.

(3) In March 2015, the PCUSA voted to redefine the church constitution on marriage to include ‘a commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman’ (emphasis added).

Admittedly, it was not so long ago that mainline churches opposed the rights of marginalized groups. Some, like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and ABCUSA, still do not explicitly advocate equal status for homosexuals within the church. However, the presence of debate and the recognition of divergent views within the church structure is far better than remaining silent- and thus being complicit in maintaining the status quo. Like all other institutions, churches must undergo divisive but unavoidable growing pains in order to progress. This is now the case in Taiwan.

The hijacking of mainline Christianity in Taiwan:
A call to the Christian left

For denominations in Taiwan, there is a moral imperative to consider the questions asked by their mainline counterparts in the U.S. It is a messy, potentially divisive debate, but one that must be had if it is to preserve its past legitimacy as a force fighting for human rights and democratic ideals in Taiwan. In the 1960s, the Presbyterian Church was instrumental in defending Taiwanese identity and actively pursued social justice issues during 38 years of martial law. Today, refusing to take part in debates that concern the social equality of marginalized groups puts this legacy at risk. The Christian left, in any denomination, has a responsibility to ensure that evangelicalism and social conservatism are not perceived as the only legitimate expressions of the Christian faith. It must also enforce the notion that the expression of one’s views must respect basic human rights.

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Opponents of same-sex marriage gather at Liberty Square in Taipei on March 16, 2014. Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan

 

Given Taiwan’s history, this is especially important. Groups in Taiwan like the Bread of Life Christian Church and Asia for Jesus have been linked to American evangelical organizations that spread their vitriol in their home country as well as abroad. The International House of Prayer, a recent but prominent arrival to Taiwan’s religious landscape, is linked to attempts to criminalize homosexuality in Uganda. Claims made by their leaders and by protesters during gatherings in November 2013 and March 2014 are a threat to public health and damage scientific integrity. In Taiwan, fundamentalists have claimed that HIV/AIDS is a “gay” disease and that homosexuals are dangerous to the moral fabric of society. This is exactly the same fear-mongering rhetoric that led to the unchecked spread of AIDS in 1980s America [2]. Authors of “studies” that purportedly prove poor outcomes for children of homosexual parents have been rejected by their own academic institutions and their findings dismissed by myriad court rulings. In reality, there are no credible scientific studies demonstrating any such effect. The “pray-the-gay-away” tactics seen at recent rallies are tantamount to harassment, and we have seen their contribution to the increased risk of mental illness and suicide among LGBTQ+ youth in the U.S.

Regardless of one’s views, groups that repress others’ rights and spread toxic misinformation cannot be allowed to infringe on the safety and civil rights of others. Christians in Taiwan must not mindlessly affiliate themselves with these harmful movements, many of which have pervaded historically moderate (mainline) denominations in Taiwan. They must not support hate speech and fearmongering under the guise of some shared goal. Nothing could be further from the moral thing to do.

 

Gloria Hu is a Taiwanese-Canadian living in the greater NYC area. She has a B.Sc. in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University, and her interests include historical theology, democracies in transition, and population health.

 

[1] Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Politics in Africa. See more at: http://www.politicalresearch.org/resources/reports/full-reports/colonizing-african-values/#sthash.Sb28pGv6.dpuf

[2] Herek, Gregory M., and John P. Capitanio, “AIDS stigma and sexual prejudice,” American Behavioral Scientist 42.7 (1999): 1130-1147.

6 Responses to “Where is the Christian Left in Taiwan?”

March 23, 2016 at 11:01 am, Mike Fagan said:

“Regardless of one’s views, groups that repress others’ rights and spread toxic misinformation cannot be allowed to infringe on the safety and civil rights of others.”

Denounce them all you want, but when you say they “cannot be allowed to infringe” that looks like you are trying to say there should be hate speech laws in Taiwan and that these people should be arrested for expressing their views. Which would make you an enemy of freedom of speech, however much you may be right about these bigoted Christian groups.

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March 23, 2016 at 11:51 am, Boris Voyer said:

This is a very courageous contribution, Gloria. I could add to it many of my own experiences in dealing with the vicious competition between church denominations when it comes to Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan, such as when I organized in Taiwan an empowerment workshop with the leaders of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (one of which now sits on a top position at the UN relating to Indigenous Peoples rights) in a certain location location in Taiwan. Because (for lack of other choices) we were there hosted and were supported by the Presbyterian Church in that tribe (for the facilities, meals, sleeping accommodations, and yes, some prop up work because the DP HQ, where I was working, did not want to put money into Indigenous Peoples affairs), the two other Christian church denominations who strived to dominate the Atayal culture in question there, decided to boycott the event, which in the end was a complete failure for lack of attendees. The Taipei Women`s Rescue Foundation, which made the event possible as the main sponsor (though my offices, because of the lack of DPP support) was shocked. During the first night of the event, which was just a talk of town on issues as land rights, land mapping, economic self empowerment, etc), a couple of elders from different church denominations showed up to set up the tone of the two-day workshop that was to start the next day. It so happens that we got a few elders from different denominations to attend that meeting on that night because of the hard work of Rev. Omi, from the Presbyterian Church, who happened to have been banned from performing mass duties by that church precisely because he had for a while been trying to get his people to cross-over church lines…

But when the workshop started, well, nobody showed up except for a few of the Presbyterian Church. There were more members of the Taipei Women`s Rescue Foundation in attendance than Indigenous Peoples…

Don`t want to entirely blame the PC church here. We had organised the exact same meeting in Hualien at their Indigenous Peoples College just a few days earlier, with close to a hundred participants, most of whom remember me all too well, Sakinu included.

My point, Gloria, is that there are other aspects of the mea culpa churches have to do in Taiwan, apart from the wake-up call on the left.

M. Fagan: Gloria`s piece is not about free speech, but about the association (identification) of your free speech with the freedom of speech of those you associate with and the free speech of clans they represent. Trump does the same.

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March 23, 2016 at 12:43 pm, David L Chen said:

How about choosing against a church that disrespects Taiwanese identity and calls everyone Chinese? Regardless of convenience of Mandarin spoken, and written Chinese characters, some of us won’t send kids there to assimilate to Chinese American when they are in fact Taiwanese American.

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March 23, 2016 at 12:59 pm, Mike Fagan said:

If you are implying that I associate with anti-homosexual religious bigots, then you’re mistaken. Defending freedom of speech requires me to defend people I wouldn’t normally associate with because in defending their right to say what they want (however “toxic” or “hurtful”) I am also defending my own right to free expression. And yours too.

As for the writer, I’m sure she’s quite capable of clarifying the point herself; either she supports “hate speech” laws and is therefore an anti-liberal, progressive authoritarian, or she doesn’t support “hate speech” laws.

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March 24, 2016 at 8:55 pm, Mike Fagan said:

There is another key passage from this article which seems to indicate the author’s inability to understand the right to freedom of expression:

“The Christian left, in any denomination, has a responsibility to ensure that evangelicalism and social conservatism are not perceived as the only legitimate expressions of the Christian faith. It must also enforce the notion that the expression of one’s views must respect basic human rights.”

Another way of putting that is to say that free speech is fine until you call into question the basic human rights of the alphabet soup people. Still another way of putting it is to say that free speech is fine unless you say things we don’t approve of. Yet another way of saying it is: “free speech for me, but not for thee.”

This is the emblematic problem with leftists par excellence: claiming to support freedom of speech, whilst actually being opposed to it.

But there is another worthwhile point making in response to this article. Gloria Hu writes:

“The “pray-the-gay-away” tactics seen at recent rallies are tantamount to harassment, and we have seen their contribution to the increased risk of mental illness and suicide among LGBTQ+ youth in the U.S.”

Surely the rational solution to that particular cognitive dissonance problem is for the alphabet soupers to pay no mind and reject this nonsense altogether. After all, it’s only religion; it’s only the ridiculous belief in sky fairies with a load of “moral” rationalizations tacked on to make it seem more respectable. There’s nothing more to it than that. I figured this out at the age of six or seven when I pretended to be ill just so I could get out of the gruesome bore of Sunday School and go climbing trees in the open air and sunshine.

There is no good reason why the alphabet soupers should have to suffer this nonsense about “salvation”.

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