- Religious Diversity and Public Religion in China
Zhibin Xie takes a philosopher's approach to the potential role of religion in public life in China, and we have very little else like it so far. The first half of his brief book examines Western (mostly American) arguments in political philosophy about the appropriate role of religion in the public sphere of a liberal democracy. He places philosophers like John Rawls on one side of the issue, with the argument that religion should have only a very restrained role in public political debate. In Rawls' case, this position comes from a commitment to avoid any "comprehensive doctrine," that is, any overpowering ideology that would wipe out liberal debate. On the other side, Xie places "communitarian" philosophers—many arguing from an explicitly Christian viewpoint—who see an appropriate and direct role for religion in the public sphere. These include a few thinkers like Michael J. Perry, whose argument for agape as a basis for the public sphere seems so rooted in Christianity that it appears difficult to apply to a place like China. Others, like Nicholas Wolterstorff, however, have an interesting viewpoint that moves away from the classic liberal position of equal and autonomous individuals whose differences are privatized, to explore how quite different groups can manage to live together in peace (pp. 51–54).
While Xie himself leans toward the communitarian side of the debate, he also realizes that some revision will be necessary to make the move from North America to China. The second half of the book reworks the initial philosophical debate into a compromise version to account for China's differences, especially its enormous historical diversity of religions. Specialists on Chinese religions will find little new empirical information here on either religious diversity or public religion, but this is not really Xie's goal. He is not trying to deepen our understanding of the religions so much as to make a normative argument about how religion should be positioned in China, especially in a future democratic China.
The key difference for him is the diversity of religion in China compared to the West. The philosophical problem is thus how to give religion a public voice for morality without letting any one religion dominate. This issue is especially important because some religions have more organizational resources than others, and it seems important to avoid the possibility of an alliance between the state and any one tradition. Xie ends up with a compromise between the two Western alternatives, which he calls "liberal-constrained public religion." He is closer overall to the communitarians in arguing that religion is an important voice in public morality, and thus indirectly in politics, but like the "liberal restraint" camp, he wants guarantees that no one view can silence the others. His broadest argument [End Page 599] —that religion can make positive moral contributions and can contribute to the public sphere—is certainly important in light of current government policy that sees almost nothing positive about religion.
Xie's effort to identify differences between the Chinese and North American religious situations is well placed, and he is right to point to both the relative diversity and the different forms of institutionalization in China. In spite of focusing on these points, however, his argument really develops only the Christian case in China, the one that is least different from North America. While the discussion of other traditions draws a bit on more recent sources, Xie relies very heavily on C. K. Yang's analysis that is now fifty years old. While Yang's Religion in Chinese Society has stood the test of time well, more recent research has dated some aspects of his argument on which Xie relies. For example, Xie's claim (taken from Yang) about the "weak structural position" of Daoism (p. 75) was not at all true locally, as many more recent studies have shown. Similarly, Xie's apparent worry that the polytheistic and mixed nature of popular worship limits the "formation and growth of...