Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

China, Christianity and Capitalism

Sep 15, 2011

A long time ago, when I converted to Christianity and left my wild hippy ways and counter-culture days, I became very interested in reading biographies and autobiographies of great men and women of God. As a new Christian I devoured everything I could find on mighty missionaries, steadfast saints, and courageous Christians.

I recall one such man of God: Hudson Taylor (1832-1905). As a mere 21-year-old he left the comforts of England to reach the lost in China. He spent over a half century evangelising the Chinese. He formed the China Inland Mission and helped bring over many hundreds of missionaries to China.

Thousands were converted under his ministry, and despite all sorts of hardships, deprivations, and persecution, he left an amazing legacy there. One can cite many quotes from this great man. He once wrote: “Perhaps if there were more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire. Sometimes it may be that while we are complaining of the hardness of the hearts of those we are seeking to benefit, the hardness of our own hearts and our feeble apprehension of the solemn reality of eternal things may be the true cause of our want of success.”

I believe the volume I first read about him was an older volume, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, written by his son. It is still available today. Of course plenty of other books can be mentioned, but this one offered great insight into the man and his work.

Christianity continued to grow in the first half of the 20th century, but it received a horrendous blow with the rise of Mao and the Communists. Persecution and repression became the norm, and was especially fierce during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The church was driven underground, and martyrdom was commonplace.

Of course now there has been a bit of a thaw, especially in terms of the Chinese economy. As it races to become a global superpower, various restrictions have been lifted, and the current government is of two-minds about Christianity. On the one hand, many believe it is the key to continued growth and success, but on the other hand it is still viewed with suspicion and distrust.

An interesting BBC article appeared just recently which looks at this tension, and the current state of Christianity. It makes for interesting reading. Perhaps the stand-out line is this: “More people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe.”

Indeed, many observers have noted that the centre of gravity for global Christianity is no longer Europe and/or the West, but the developing world: Asia, Africa and Latin America. This is where the real church growth is taking place, while spiritual decay, if not death, is spreading throughout the West.

The article continues: “Many of China’s churches are overflowing, as the number of Christians in the country multiplies. In the past, repression drove people to convert – is the cause now rampant capitalism? It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding. The government says 25 million, 18 million Protestants and six million Catholics. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 60 million.”

While a hundred million may in fact be a more accurate figure, there is no doubt that things are changing in China. But as mentioned, one can ask why this is. One expert who has especially focused on this twin rise of capitalism and Christianity in China is American academic Dr. William Jeynes.

He gave an important speech back in May of this year in which he looked at recent changes in China. In a talk to the Family Research Council in Washington entitled, “God, China, & Capitalism: Is Christianity in China the Key Ingredient for Economic Success?” he made a number of interesting observations.

The FRC summarised his speech this way: “This talk will examine the rise of Christianity in China and how a growing number of China’s leaders view Christianity as the key to China’s future economic prosperity. A British survey estimates that China now has over 100 million Christians and that this figure is growing by 6-7 million per year. At this rate China will likely replace the United States as the nation with the most Christians. Why do so many among the Chinese elite view Christianity as the key ingredient to that nation’s success? Why is it that for many years social scientists, led by Max Weber, have asserted that the rise of Christianity is often followed by economic prosperity? Is this perspective justified? If so, what does this mean for the future of American public policy and the 2012 election?”

One write-up of his talk says this: “China believes that Christianity is responsible for much of the historic success of Western Europe and the United States, said Dr. William Jeynes, senior fellow of The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., during a presentation at the Family Research Council on Tuesday.

“But while the Chinese government is open to Christianity, it also ‘wants to control Christianity.’ Those in authority are very much aware of the Church’s role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and advancing democracy in the Soviet bloc. ‘They view Christianity as a belief system that if not controlled will potentially overthrow the government. But on the other [hand], they see that if you try to oppress Christians that it could lead to this explosion as it did in Eastern Europe and [they could] lose control that way. So they want Christianity for the benefits but they want to control it, and that is the balance they are currently trying to achieve.’

“The scholar, who has multiple degrees in different disciplines and graduated first in his class at Harvard University, recalled an incident that confirms that China believes Christianity is responsible for the economic prosperity in the U.S. At a Harvard Business Conference years ago, Jeynes recalled top Chinese CEOs one after another asking Harvard scholars not about their talking points but about the relationship between Christianity and economic prosperity in the United States. The Harvard scholars, Jeynes noted, were baffled and did not know how to respond.”

Baffled indeed. The simple truth is, the Judeo-Christian worldview was one of the main engines driving not only Western civilisation but the rise of capitalism, progress and material wellbeing. Other experts have spoken to this of course.


Not just older scholars like Weber and Tawney, but more recent experts such as Rodney Stark have written much on this. In his very important 2005 volume, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House) he deals carefully with this topic.

Says Stark: “Christianity created Western Civilization.” He devotes a number of meaty chapters to how the Christian faith led to the rise of capitalism and progress. But the last paragraph of his book is especially germane to our discussion. He cites one of China’s leading scholars:

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

Says Stark, “Neither do I.” This is extremely interesting. All over the Western world leaders and governments are jettisoning and repudiating the very thing that made the West great: Christianity. And at the same time all over the West we see crisis, turmoil, decline and despair.

But China is looking at Christianity intently. No wonder the West is dying, while China is thriving. There is a very real connection between Christianity and the success of a nation. It seems China has learned this, while the West has forgotten it.

[1394 words]

23 Responses to China, Christianity and Capitalism

  • Wow Bill, great article, I really enjoyed it.

    It blows me away that here in Australia (and the rest of the West) everyone seems to think Christianity leads only to bad things, but China is starting see things how they really are – and recognising Biblical principals too, whether they realise it or not!

    It’s both scary and awesome: awesome about China, scary about the the hate for Christianity that’s rampant in the western world.

    Kathy Scott

  • Thanks Kathy

    Yes quite right. The good news is God is always building his church, and if some people and nations let him down, he will keep building elsewhere. The bad news is, things may well have to get a lot worse in the West before they can get better again. And that is just as true of the Western church as well, unfortunately.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • That is a great article Bill.
    Tas Walker

  • I note that Dr Jeynes said ““But on the other [hand], they see that if you try to oppress Christians that it could lead to this explosion as it did in Eastern Europe and [they could] lose control that way.”

    This seems an interesting comment in the light of the incredible persecution that the Christians in China have already suffered. Hasn’t China already tried to oppress Christianity? One of my favorite, and most challenging books I’ve read is Brother Yun: the Heavenly Man.”

    Peter Baade

  • What makes your article so good is that it’s a foreign nation that recognises the role of Christianity in shaping the west. It’s politically incorrect and generally ignored when we westerners talk about Christianity’s positive influences. Another great read that confirms your article is by the Indian Visual Mangalwadi. His book is “The book that made your world. How the Bible shaped Western Nations.”
    Cheers, Martyn Mettam

  • This reminds me of the many biblical accounts of repentance. When people turned back to God, he not only healed their hearts – but also healed the land.
    Matt Lister

  • Yes quite right Matt.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, great article.
    Stan Fishley

  • Thanks for that Servaas.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill,

    This was a touching article which made my day (!!) (as the Western political Left is chasing out Christianity of society).

    The only thing I would like to point out is just that one should be careful not to fall into the fallacy of mono causality. I have no doubt in my mind that all the things you say are true. One should just point out in such an article that Christianity may not be the only cause, but a huge contributing factor, or if you feel justified, the biggest contributing factor. This is simply because critics from various corners would immediately try to point out other contributing factors to some of China’s recent economical success, in order to downplay the implications. Of course, it is possible that I missed a point here and there 🙂

    All the same, I am passing this on to a non-hostile atheist friend.

    Kindest Regards
    E. van Niekerk
    South Africa

  • Thanks El
    Yes I am with you, and I don’t think I anywhere said in my article that Christianity was the only cause of this. There would be various factors, but as the Chinese experts themselves stated, they see Christianity as the most important source of Western success, and they want that as well.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The demise of the welfare West is inescapable – with debt levels beginning to snowball. But just to make sure, we have the “leaders we deserve” busy in their anti-Christian, anti-Israel, anti-family, debt building orgies.
    Well, that was the rise and fall of the Western World.
    The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. Prov 22:7
    But, collapse of a civilisation is never pretty. Pray that our new rulers will not be too bloodthirsty.
    China has some serious issues – like being the forced abortion capital of the world for instance…
    Tim Lovett

  • Another great piece. I never appreciated until a few years ago the Christian influence on our culture until I read books like “What’s So Great About Christianity” by Dinesh D’Souza, “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” by Thomas E. Woods and of course the book you used in your article “The Victory of Reason” By Rodney Stark. I hope and pray that the world will see the good Christianity that has not only brought into our culture, but to our lives. Always, first and foremost we want people to come to Christ. I have to agree with you though; it will get worse before it gets better. It is encouraging that The Gospel is being accepted in other areas of the world. It is sad that Christianity in the West is being eschewed, to its detriment.
    Carl Strehlow

  • I am sure that last year at the brother Huen meetings in Canberra, the figure was put at 150,000,000 Christians in China.
    Amazing to think that the blessing of God would even follow those who for pragmatic reasons choose to favour Christianity? How great is our God in His patience and grace!
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • I know there’s nothing wrong with prosperity – God gave great wealth to some of His chosen people – but I’d hesitate to link Christianity and prosperity in a cause and effect relationship. I see the prosperity “Gospel” as heresy and I know you’ve given clear teaching on this in the past Bill. I see God’s blessing on a nation expressed as peace, bountiful harvests, righteous government, strong families with children as “olive shoots” a strong work ethic and care for those who really need it. We can have too much “prosperity” and too much “progress”.
    I’m not a luddite but I suspect God is not interested in a laptop for every student or two plasma televisions in people’s homes – or any of the demented consumerism that afflicts modern societies! I think increasing social inequity is evident in China as they develop their own brand of capitalism and the government there is sadly mistaken if they think they can manipulate the Gospel purely for economic success.
    Anna Cook

  • Bill, While not a great fan of our current PM, was it not she who payed tribute to the part Christianity has played in the rise of Australia? How sad and grievous that she does not follow her own words and return us to such a path again.
    Greg Brieng

  • Thanks Greg

    Yes I am with you in your last sentence. But I am a bit puzzled by your first. Maybe I missed something along the way, but when and where did she acknowledge the role of Christianity in our heritage?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I have submitted a question for #QandA tonight on this topic. Hopefully they use it. Competition is always stiff!

    Alister Cameron

  • Well done Alistair. With one Christian on tonight, it just might get a hearing.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hmmm,

    Maybe I’ll emigrate to China. Does anyone know what I would have to do to gain citizenship?

    Kidding. We’ve a fight here and I won’t run.

    Graeme Cumming

  • Thanks Graeme

    Yes soon enough China may be a better place for Christians to live than the West. There may soon be more religious freedom there, along with more growth and prosperity.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I found this very interesting. China has suffered the most internal conflict out of all the countries in the world, since the Qin Rule. The Chinese are slowly learning that government can’t give them everything after the Great Leap Backwards. Many mainland Chinese who I know, wholeheartedly believe Mao messed up the country and do not worship the government as some kind of a divine being.
    Janice Tooh

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