During my visit to Beijing last week, a Christian professor at one of the universities I visited pointed out a sign posted on a little square near the campus. The sign had a small list of prohibited activities, the most prominent of which was “no religious activities permitted.” When I asked the professor if he found this public reminder of the government’s discomfort with Christianity discouraging, his reaction surprised me. He said the sign had exactly the opposite effect for him: it reminded him that there must have been vibrant religious activities on the square in the past and could well be again in the future; otherwise no one would have felt the need to exclude them.
The following day another Christian scholar told me that the recent trend of “derecognizing” Christian ministries on American college campuses—most prominently, at the California State colleges and universities—has emboldened the Chinese government in its restriction of religious freedom. If the United States restricts religious expression, the reasoning seems to be, there is less basis for criticizing China’s limits on religious expression. The campus access debate in the U.S. obviously has almost nothing in common with China’s restrictions on religion. But the suggestion that the campus access controversy may have implications in China underscores just how great the stakes are in our growing debate over whether to protect pluralism in the United States.